Sir John Mortimer

“I was always a writer first, and a barrister on the side”

He used to get up at four each morning, write, then go out to work as a divorce lawyer.

“I think if you can write you have to write – don’t you?”

I met Sir John Mortimer in 2006 when I was invited to interview him at his home. He wasn’t in the best of health then, but interviewing him was like playing a game of chess as he countered unwelcome questions with little snippets of alternative information to make me change my course. I could see why he’d been such a charmer in his youth, he certainly had charisma even in his 80s. He died in January 2009.

His body and eyesight may be failing him, but Sir John Mortimer’s wit and wisdom are stiletto-sharp and he’s as much in demand as ever he was. Sandra Fraser caught up with the prolific playwright, novelist and former barrister. Main photograph by Simon Greetham.

Sir John Mortimer is feeling a little dry, but instead of calling for a morning glass of champagne, as I expect, he’s asking for a beer. Famously, this great author, screenwriter, playwright, raconteur and celebrated bon viveur starts each day with bubbly and sure enough, where you might expect to find a carton of milk, there’s a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the fridge door. But though Sir John is a supporter of Old Labour, with one daughter who runs an art gallery, one who runs a charity and one who is a famous film star, a son who works for the BBC and another, recently discovered, who works in television production, he doesn’t fit the category of champagne socialist.

His wife, Penny (The Second, as she’s known, more of which later) is tripping off to London in scuffed high heels to meet friends, twin sisters who are married to members of the rock band Deep Purple – but she’s happy to make me a (tepid) cup of coffee before she catches the Oxford Tube into London.

The house is alive with dogs and flies and people drifting in and out of doors and the garden. Bohemian doesn’t begin to describe it. The dogs claim the faded squashy cushions on the chairs and the kitchen is littered with the clutter of everyday life – unwashed blue duck eggs on an antique porcelain stand, packets of breakfast cereal, a duty-free-sized multi-pack of Silk Cut cigarettes, any number of the day’s newspapers and a full-to-overflowing handbag. There’s a charity request for an autographed copy of one of Sir John’s books prominently stuck to a cupboard door along with countless letters, notes – one a date for the delivery of piglets – photographs and postcards.

Over all the effect is of people too busy to tidy up, but also of great warmth and welcome. This is a family home and Penny has a 100-megawatt smile and plenty of friendly chat for me while I wait for the great man to finish his morning toilette with the aid of Binni, his nurse and assistant.

Settled in his office, which is notably tidier than the kitchen, in an annexe to his home in the Chiltern Hills, just outside Henley, Sir John Mortimer still has the brain of a practising QC, though his body betrays his 83 years. He’s not giving anything way as he peers through rheumy eyes and trademark owlish oversized glasses, parrying questions he has no wish to answer and steering the interview just where he wants it to go.

He’s vociferous in his condemnation of the current Labour Government, despite his political persuasions, and keeps up-to-date with news and current world and home affairs by listening to BBC Radio Four and the World Service. He has recently protested against the fox-hunting ban, has written about judges’ discretion to give life sentences and been vocal on the erosion of civil liberties and the loss of the legal presumption of innocence. Today he’s threatening to tackle Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which he describes as an outrage against the legal system. More fuel for Rumpole he believes.

Though his highly successful Rumpole series has been going since the Seventies Sir John has no plans to kill off the character, and there’s a new book which has recently been published – Rumpole and the Reign of Terror. And with a mind still so sharp, Sir John sees no reason to stop writing, provided inspiration continues to come ‘out of the sky’.

“Rumpole’s brave and he stands for all the things I think are right. And he can say the things which I believe and which, if I say, sound rather liberal and left-wing but if he says them they sound rather crusty and conservative,” he says.

Sir John’s desk is remarkably clear, with a few well-chosen ornaments on it, pots of pens and chinagraph red pencils, a well-worn brown leather diary and a paperback edition of his latest book, ‘Quite Honestly’ butterflied, spine-up alongside a file of marked with a title.

He doesn’t use a laptop or computer, believing that it’s better to see a writer’s workings. There are also three tins of Winterman’s Café Crème cigars, which are surreptitiously cleared away at some point in our conversation.

Two phones and a fax machine sit on another table within arm’s reach and behind Sir John is a tray with a selection of alcohol, while writer’s awards are lined up on the windowsill. Children’s artwork lines the shelves, walls and doors, along with more photographs and postcards. There’s a sculpted head of Sir John on another table and a multi-coloured portrait by Feliks Topolski behind it.

Sir John has a face that may never have been called handsome, that these days shows the ravages of old age and good living, but he is still an excellent subject for portraiture. He looks smaller and older than recent pictures allow, but what remains unchanged is the animation in his face. He has twinkling eyes behind the glasses and a huge cameo on his wedding ring finger. Today he’s also sporting some rather snazzy braces that he’s still doing up as I enter the room.

As an only child, son of a barrister specialising in divorce, and an actress, Kathleen, John Clifford Mortimer was born in Hampstead Heath in April 1923 and spent his school holidays in a basic woodsman’s cottage just down the road from his current address. His father used to pay 10 shillings (that’s 50p in decimal money) a week for the privilege. Back then, woodsmen, or bodgers, could scrape a living turning chair legs. That way of life has all gone and the holiday cottage has just come up on the market for a cool £2 million, to Sir John’s obvious dismay.

Instead of the artisan neighbours of his childhood, he has such luminaries as Jeremy Paxman, Jeremy Irons and Sir Melvyn Bragg living nearby. Around his house, which was built by his father and lived in by his mother until her death in the 1970s, he 45 acres of land, most of which is given over to woodland and uncultivated meadow, a haven for butterflies, bluebells and orchids.

Though Sir John reportedly had an unhappy childhood, he emphasises only the positive. True, his father, whom he remembers as extraordinary, forced him to learn vast tracts of Shakespeare, and he had to play all the parts before his critical audience of one, (“I had to perform and double as Hamlet and Ophelia”) but he points out that it shaped his life. By the age of eight he could recite great speeches from various plays and he retains a love of Shakespeare to this day.

Beating a fellow student at the Dragon School in Oxford to the part of Richard II, he revelled in the role.

“My life has never had such a triumph – I got a notice in the Oxford Times,” he chortles. Decades later he discovered his rival (“let’s call him Harry”) suffered long and bitter disappointment through Mortimer’s success.

“I ruined his life at the age of 12,” he says, somewhat contrite.

On asking more about his childhood I’m urged to go and see his play, ‘A Voyage Around My Father’ on stage at the Donmar Warehouse and starring Derek Jacobi. In fact, our conversation is littered with invitations to read a book, see a play or watch and episode of whichever Mortimer production is appropriate to a question. He has written more than 50 books, plays and scripts and received his knighthood in 1998 for services to the arts. He continues to write articles and attend literary engagements even now that walking is difficult and his voice has subdued to a husky whisper.

So was his venture into law a mistake?

“What I wanted to be was an actor,” says Sir John, adding on going to Harrow that ambition changed. Instead, he tried his hand at writing and sold a story to the Evening News for 10 shillings. He was still in school when the war started and at the age of 19 joined the Crown Film Unit making documentaries, taking over as a scriptwriter from Laurie Lee of  “Cider with Rosie’ fame.

“Someone said, would I like to be a writer, but I thought that I had to be a barrister as my father had grown blind,” he says.

What may also have been echoing in the young Mortimer’s ears was his father’s assertion that writers made rotten husbands, hanging around making tea while their wives tried to get on with their day.

“‘You want a job that gets you out of the house’, he said,” recalls Sir John. “That’s what I did,” he says, “but I was always a writer first, and a barrister on the side.”

I think if you can write you have to write – don’t you?

After graduating with a law degree from Brasenose College, Oxford, he married the writer Penelope Fletcher (or Penelope the First, as he calls her), several years his senior, who already had four children. Young and struggling, John found he had very little time for his own writing. his solution was to get up at four each morning, write, then go out to work as a divorce lawyer in his father’s practice, though in later years it was freedom of speech cases that made his name in legal circles.

So was he driven to write?

“It was a necessity. I think if you can write you have to write – don’t you? I also had to make money,” he says.

Two children of his own followed, Sally, who looks after an education charity, and Jeremy, who works for the BBC and is “big in radio drama.”

Somewhere along the line, in the course of the Swinging Sixties, when by his own admission he took on board all the pleasures open to a young and successful writer, he unknowingly fathered another child, Ross, during an affair with actress Wendy Craig. It’s  fact that only came to light two years ago when Ross was 42. Sir John has embraced his new-found offspring, though Craig has remained tight-lipped about the episode. Sir John talks eagerly about the latest additions to the Mortimer family, how much like his own father Ross looks and how he’s looking forward to another grandchild’s impending arrival, courtesy of Ross.

The rising star John and Penelope the First divorced in 1971, and he married Penelope Gollop the following year. Two more children, Emily, 34, a much-in-demand actress, and Rosie, 22, followed and it’s clear that family is important to this prolific man.

There’s excitement in his voice as he tells me that Emily, who lives in Los Angeles, is coming home for a party at Rosie’s gallery in Portobello Road, London, which Sir John is also going to attend. He is also thrilled that Lord Chief Justice Phillips is allowing his American fan club to use one of the courtrooms in the Royal Courts of Justice to stage a meeting with Sir John. There’s a note of disbelief in his voice as he recounts that the rule of law will have to wait for the product of his writing, but it’s a measure of just how much of an impact the man and his books have had, both here and in the USA.

On his legacy to the world he’s modest. perhaps in the light of recent controversy over how much of his original script was left unchanged he says only that he was “involved” in the 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the classic Evelyn Waugh novel depicting the golden age of the University of Oxford. In fact, his name was on the credits of what is considered a television classic. His books and plays speak for themselves, but he lets slip, obviously relishing the affirmation by a fellow playwright, that Tom Stoppard has been to see the latest production of “A Voyage Around My Father” and has written to say how much he enjoyed it.

“I’d like to do another play, if I could. It’s the most difficult thing to do, a play. You have to grip the audience’s attention for two hours,” says Sir John.

But for all the plaudits he’s at his most animated when talking of his family, stating the way to achieve immortality is through one’s children.

He loves his house on the Buckinghamshire-Oxfordshire border, which is as colourful as John Mortimer himself, bright yellow on white clapboard, topped off by a verdigris roof, It’s obviously central to family life and the clan gathers there whenever possible. Getting out into the garden Sir John is keen to point out the flowerbeds, chickens and the place where those piglets will be living.

Whizzing across the lawns on his motorised scooter, he insists on a trip through the kitchen garden, despite the uneven ground threatening to tip him over. These days, he may need assistance, but it’s clear John Mortimer is not yet ready to be put out to grass.

Why not stop being a writer?

I’ve just put the phone down to a charity fundraiser asking me to increase to my monthly direct debit donation. Couched in cautious terms, the invitation to put my hand a little more deeply into my pocket was polite enough and he emphasised that he would also be trying to recruit new donors. Slightly sickened by my reluctant self, I felt I had to say no. I didn’t want to explain further or try to justify my refusal, but it’s not the only charity I make a monthly donation to and I further support this particular cause by buying most of my Christmas presents through a gift scheme, by giving its shops unwanted presents and unused household items and by putting the odd fiver into a rattled (yes, I know they’re not supposed to be) collecting tin. I also have my seasonal favourites – October is Breast Cancer month, for example and a Red Nose Day doesn’t pass without more money leaving my bank account.

If I’m writing about this to salve my conscience, I can also think of a hundred reasons why I should have said yes, rather than no, to the request. I could stop some of my other outgoings, I’m not starving, nor do I live in a garret, but the truth is, since being made redundant last year, I’ve not exactly been rolling in cash either. I feel a curmudgeon for not ticking the metaphorical yes box, but the telephone call came immediately after I’d e-mailed a features editor asking if she had any freelance work going. I still get delicious commissions out of the blue from those who know and like my work, but also get editors offering to “pay my expenses” rather than pay me a fee. If only we could live on air and my children didn’t need shoes I could write for nowt but the love of putting words on screen and seeing them in print. I could give it all up and go out to clean other people’s houses, or get a job in a supermarket, I suppose; I could make a career change and retrain for something more lucrative, like teaching perhaps, but writing is what I do, it’s how I’ve earned a living, in between and around having children, for 25 years; it’s what I love and what I know, it’s just there’s not much money in the job at the moment.

On Twitter today a former colleague rued the end of another journalistic career through burnout, another dream that has ended in frustration. Since giving the charity canvasser the brush-off, I’ve spent the last half-hour pondering the fate of the journo. Our profession has never been particularly liked, but my long-standing retort to those complaining about inaccurate stories and made-up quotes has been to suggest they should switch to a more reliable source of news and information if they want to believe what they read. My friends and colleagues in the business would no more make up copy than they would serve their children a deadly nightshade salad. Our newsroom mantra was “Accuracy Above All” and we worked very hard to maintain integrity and fairness besides every day. We were never allowed to express opinion in our reporting, saving comment for our column, if we were lucky enough to have one. On a well-known local daily newspaper with a readership estimated at 250,000 at the time I was a staffer, serving a community your editor had to live in, reporting untruths and half-truths would have been a sure way of being drummed, unicorn-like, out of the city. My job couldn’t be compared with working on a national tabloid, where slap-dash reporters could get away with phone-tapping and careless editors could hide, ignorant, inside huge office buildings, safe in the knowledge their readers would never meet them, much less could afford to sue them.

What has changed recently is the amount of advertising and copy sales revenue newspapers and magazines generate and the number of feature writers looking for work in a shrinking print market. One side of the scales has dipped, while the other has risen. Besides all the old hacks of my acquaintance ready to turn out polished prose, there are hundreds of youngsters fresh from “Media Studies” courses prepared to work as interns – ie, as free labour. Blogs and online publications abound and every third website I visit seems to flash out the question “Why not be a writer?” to which the answer must surely be – because there are too many of us, earning too little, in an already overcrowded market.

When I worked as a magazine editor I used to have a slush pile, added to daily, teetering with uncommissioned feature offerings. Rarely, I would make time to take a look at these submissions. Occasionally I would find a gem – a gardening writer who, Mary Poppins-like, was practically perfect in every way, but more often than not I would wish I’d made time for another cup of coffee instead. I’ll never forget trying to explain, politely, to an apoplectic interiors writer, (who was married, at the time, to a famous novelist and columnist), why I wouldn’t be commissioning him in the future. His copy took three subbing sessions to knock into readable shape and in an office with few staff, where everyone worked long hours, it wasn’t worth the effort, despite his stellar connections. Instead I started using someone less flashy and more reliable –  a policy I never regretted. I had a “possibles” pile – people I could have used, if my sales staff doubled their advertising revenue on a regular basis or if a supplementary magazine was being launched. Only rarely could I try them out or offer them work – sometimes being picked for publication really is down to timing and luck, not just ability and contacts.

It drives my husband to distraction that some of the commissions I accept undervalue my writing skills to an almost derisory level. I get paid the same amount now as I earned 20 years ago. Why am I a writer? I’ve been asking myself that of late as yet another editor tells me they are having to pay their freelancers from a tiny budget that includes their own salary. In other words, the more they write for their publication themselves, the more money they get to keep. Since they’re already acting as features editor, flat plan editor, commissioning and copy editor as well as sub I can’t help wondering if next they’ll be hand-cranking the presses in a bid to save on printing costs.

All that written, however, I’ve recently re-worded my e-mail signature to include the word “journalist” to show that I am a professional, rather than an amateur, wordsmith. It took three years and a series of exams to gain that professionally recognised “senior” status, so I ought to be proud of the title, I’ve decided. At the same time, besides all the experience I have under my belt, I’m attempting to write a novel and so find myself back in the realms of the wannabe. I hope I can earn enough to survive on, between my factual writing, and any fiction that finally gets published. I don’t expect to generate J.K. Rowling-like returns from my penmanship, though I promise, if I did, I too would donate large amounts to charity, rather than the paltry sums I eke out of my present income.

Why did I become a writer? I write because, besides reading and looking after my children and, occasionally, my husband, that is what I do. It’s what I have done since I was a small child, old enough to scribble in my books and deface the frontispiece. Why not stop being a writer? Oh let me count the reasons…

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

I love the new Ashmolean, that’s to say – the same familiar old Ashmolean, but with a multi-million pound new interior following last year’s 10-month redevelopment. It’s been money well spent, since visitor numbers have soared and even the most recalcitrant 12-year-old was wowed by the exhibits there this summer. And he has opinions he could fill a weekly newspaper column with and turn of phrase to melt off your eyebrows, to boot. Left to his own devices, he was particularly taken by the displays of artefacts from India and made a point of showing off his finds to us before we had lunch in the chic downstairs café. The prices there are not cheap, but as my son commented, entry is free and they have to make some money somewhere.

Oxford as a whole is a city of amazing culture and creativity, but the trouble with being surrounded by the many intellectuals living and working within its boundaries is their way, deliberate or inadvertent, of making you feel you’ve wasted your life if you’ve pursued the less than cerebral. As a journalist I tend to glean a little about a lot of things from those who have made their mark on the world. My job has been to specialise in nothing and to record other people’s stories.

Yesterday James and I attended the preview of  The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy the first major art exhibition at The Ashmolean’s temporary exhibition gallery, one of the nation’s newest and most important.

Monna Vanna, (Belcolore) 1866. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Oil on canvas. ©Tate, Britain

Pondering what I knew about the Pre-Raphaelites as we travelled into Oxford, I came up with the following:

  • They had strong Oxford connections.
  • They painted florid pictures of women in pouty poses.
  • They had over-long and elaborate names.
  • A former volunteer at The Ashmolean left some important paintings (see below) to the museum on her death, though you’d be unwise to believe reports she was ignorant of the significance of her bequest.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Music, 1877. Oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fearing my own ignorance would be glaring in the face of experts, I was relieved by my husband’s assurance at the door (later confirmed by the curator Colin Harrison), that the Pre-Raphaelites had chosen a misleading title for their movement and that perhaps the best-known of their number, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the son of an Italian exile, never visited his fatherland. He also swapped his names around to make himself appear more interesting.

What surprised and pleased me most, however, was the inclusion of so many simple pen and ink drawings in the exhibition.

View of the Palazzo Grimani to the Palazzo Bembo, Venice, 1870. John Ruskin (1819-1900) Pencil and watercolour on paper. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

There are sketches of Italian architectural details, since some of the brotherhood did travel, studies in pencil and half-finished compositions.

Il Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 1867. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Watercolour on paper, laid on panel. ©V&A Images
Florence from Bellosguardo, 1863. John Brett (1831-1902). Oil on canvas. © Tate, London.

There are landscapes in watercolour and portraits in coloured chalks, precise reproductions of mosaics and images to delight the eye and lift the heart. I found my pre-conceptions about The Pre-Raphaelites turned upside-down. There’s so much more on display than the popular portraits that had danced in my head on hearing the title of the exhibition, though for fans, these are on show too.

Viewing Jacob and Rachel, by William Dyce, made me appreciate the skill and dedication of the artists, each brush stroke is visible in minute detail, each hair carefully placed.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, 1857. William Dyce (1806-1864). Oil on canvas. © Private collection

The painstaking accuracy of Frank Randal’s faithful reproductions of Byzantine mosaics is nothing less than extraordinary.

Some of the exhibition works have been lent to the museum by the likes of composer and collector Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, others, not seen by the public for more than 150 years, have been lent by anonymous private collectors, yet more are on loan from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim at the Ravenna Museum of Art earlier in the year, so, as the Ashmolean’s Director, Dr Christopher Brown, pointed out, by being generous to the public, some people have been looking at a bare patch on their wall since February.

Tree of Life, 1888. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. © V&A Images

If you have an hour or so to spare between now and December 5th, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. Entry to the museum itself is free, an exhibition gallery ticket costs £8 (£6 to concessions).

James and I were sorry not to be able to go on the tour of Oxford Colleges, but we had to do the school run. If you get a chance to visit them, there are other Pre-Raphaelite treasures in Oxford, notably the stained glass windows in St Edmund Hall, Christ Church Cathedral and Manchester College Chapel, the tapestries at various other locations and Keble College Chapel’s famous painting by Holman Hunt – The Light on the World. The murals and ceiling in Oxford Union’s Debating Hall are legendary. Watch out too for related events in Oxford, including lectures, talks and tours, music, drawing masterclasses and Italian films.

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford. OX1 2PH.

Please note: The use of images is strictly with prior permission from the Ashmolean Museum Press Office, University of Oxford.

%d bloggers like this: