John Mortimer's Rumpole stories are a familiar English delightby Sam Leith / April 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
“Being Horace Rumpole in his sixties, still slogging round the Old Bailey with sore feet, a modest daily hangover and an aching back was certainly no great shakes, but who else could I be?.”
Such is the situation of John Mortimer’s greatest creation. Who else could Rumpole be, but a hungover Old Bailey Hack in his sixties? His own account tells us he was born some time around 1910, but he actually drew his first breath, already in his sixties and, as it were, pre-crumpled, in December 1975, when “Rumpole of the Bailey” went out on the BBC’s long-running TV series Play For Today.
Rumpole, then, had his first incarnation on the small screen. In fittingly Rumpolian fashion, he got the second choice of name and third choice of actor. Originally, he was to have been called “Rumbold” (a decision hastily modified after the discovery that there already existed, in Guildford, a barrister called Horace Rumbold). And though he was brought brilliantly to life by Leo McKern, his creator had originally eyed Michael Hordern (too busy) and Alastair Sim (too dead) for the part.
The many prose stories that Mortimer went on to write are more than just TV spin-offs, however. They have an independent, and enduring, life. McKern’s stentorian Rumpole on the small screen may have defined the character in the public mind, but what we find in the stories is a subtly different creature: camper, more feline, more Mortimeresque.
Rumpole, on the page, is quite a cocktail: there’s a very generous slosh of PG Wodehouse, a dash of Falstaff at his more benign, a tincture of Tony Hancock and a faint but discernible backnote of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. His readiness with a quotation from the Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch original, be it noted: not Dame Helen Gardner’s 1972 reboot) and fondness for the Times crossword even seem to anticipate Inspector Morse.
Rumpole takes his place among these figures without apology. He is an enduring comic character with the potential to live in any number of stories: a creation, as John Mortimer put it, “to keep me in my old age.” He is the one character Mortimer created who outlived him.
One of the great joys of the stories in The Collected Stories of Rumpole (Penguin, £14.99)—like Wodehouse’s, setting a time and place in aspic—is the deep consolatory joy of familiarity. You settle into Rumpole’s world with the same easeful sigh you imagine Rumpole emitting as he settles into his place at Pommeroy’s. Each story is different, but each story is also, deep down, the same. Each twists in an eminently satisfactory way.
The geography of the world in which these stories are set is bounded by the mansion flat in Froxbury Court, from which Rumpole leaves each morning on the 8.45 tube; his Chambers at Equity Court, where every morning he searches his corner of the mantelpiece for a brief, and steps politely over one of “Uncle Tom’s” putts across the rug; the Old Bailey, where the struggle against the irascible Judge Bullingham continues; and Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, where our hero repairs to refuel, reflect and cash cheques. He seldom ventures outside this ambit, though necessity, from time to time, forces him into a branch of the “Caring Bank”—resented custodians of the Rumpole overdraft. Crime, as Rumpole is fond of reminding us, does not pay.
Familiar, too, is the cast of characters, known—as if Rumpole’s world really were the minor public school it resembles—by their affectionately deflating nicknames: the loathsome “Hearthrug” and the pious “Bollard,” the amiably superannuated “Uncle Tom,” the foxy “Portia,” the formidable “Mad Bull,” the silkily capable private investigator FIG—“Fig”—Newton, and the innumerable scions of that irredeemably villainous family, the Timsons—locked like Montagues and Capulets in their immemorial rivalry with the Molloys.
Also, of course—known by an epithet that has left Mortimer’s stories and passed into the wider culture—there is She Who Must Be Obeyed: Rumpole’s wife Hilda, the daughter of his old pupil master, CH Wystan. John Mortimer’s biographer, Valerie Grove, describes Hilda Rumpole as “dreadful,” but there’s no great evidence of nastiness. If anything, Hilda is long suffering and occasionally ill used, forced as she is to pester Rumpole (she always calls her husband by his second name) for the wherewithal to buy Vim—her enthusiasm for which baffles her husband to the extent that he at one point asks: “Do we eat Vim?”
Rumpole makes a great performance of being in terror of her, but he always does exactly what he wants. Theirs is recognisably the companionable, undersexed, affectionate and somewhat separate partnership of a married couple in it for the long haul. Exasperation rather than hostility marks the temper of their relationship—and Hilda’s triumph over the wretched Perivale Blythe in “Rumpole and the Last Resort” is token of a closer and shrewder co-operation than appearances suggest.
Like all the immortals, Rumpole comes with his identifying paraphernalia. St Sebastian has his arrows and his palm frond; Sherlock Holmes his pipe and his violin. Rumpole has his egg-stains, his waistcoat marked too with the ash from a “small cigar,” his shabby wig, acquired “from an ex-Attorney General of Tonga in 1932,” and his glass of Pommeroy’s Very Ordinary Claret—aka “Château Fleet Street” or “Château Thames Embankment.”
These, then, in their form and in their style, are deeply conservative stories. The encroachment of modernity is registered—Space Invaders machines appear in pubs; flashy computerised systems do their owners precious little good; smarmy modernisers infiltrate the Chambers and have to be seen off—and it is resisted. Rumpole himself is always looking backwards. The conceit is that our hero is writing his memoirs, and their guiding star is a past glory: successfully defending in the case of the Penge Bungalow Murders as a junior barrister “alone and without a leader.”
To the despair of Hilda, Rumpole positively resists forward movement. He finds ways of avoiding being promoted—having no ambition to take silk, mustering only a half-hearted enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming Head of Chambers, and treating the idea of being a “Deputy Circus Judge” with bemused contempt.
So the stories are conservative. But there is more to them than that. At the core of Rumpole’s conservatism is his regard for the law: a time-hallowed institution through which the presumption of innocence, as he often reminds us, runs like a golden thread. But Rumpole—defender of the underdog, upsetter of judicial applecarts—is resolutely anti-authoritarian.
He is proud to identify himself as “an Old Bailey Hack,” and evinces positive affection for the criminals who provide his living. He shows no interest in the more “respectable” areas of law. Crime, he explains in “Rumpole and the Man of God,” “not only pays moderately well, but [. . .] is also by far the greatest fun. Give me a murder on a spring morning with a decent run and a tolerably sympathetic jury, and Rumpole’s happiness is complete.”
One account of his origin—and a telling one as to Rumpole’s moral make-up—is that he was modelled on the real-life QC James Burge, a bon vivant and self-declared anarchist, whom Mortimer once heard refer to “my old darling Prince Peter Kropotkin.” “Burge referred to everyone as an ‘old darling,’” Mortimer recalled, “except his wife, [. . .] and there I had Rumpole.”
Rumpole is a classic Establishment rebel. As he puts it in “Rumpole and the Blind Tasting” (responding to his pupil Mizz Probert’s earnest sociological account of criminality): “I was brought up in appalling conditions, in an ice-cold vicarage with no mod cons or central heating. My old father, being a priest of the Church of England, had only the sketchiest notion of morality, and my mother was too occupied with jam-making and the Women’s Institute to notice my existence. Is it any real wonder that I have taken to crime?”
Disambitious and determinedly suburban, Rumpole operates from a very particular place in the English class system, and the stories are coloured with sharp and funny little nuggets of social stereotyping. Hunter’s Hill, for instance, home of the defendant in “Rumpole and the Expert Witness,” is a “delightful little dormitory town in Surrey, where nothing is heard but the whirr of the kitchen mixers running up Provençal specialities from the Sunday supplements and the purr of the hi-fis playing baroque music to go with the Buck’s Fizz.” The criminal patriarch Fred Timson, meanwhile, is “a grey-haired man, his face bronzed by the suns of Marbella, wearing a discreet sports jacket, cavalry-twill trousers and an MCC tie [. . .] flanked by two substantial ladies who had clearly both been for a recent tint and set at the hairdressers [. . .] brightly dressed as though for a wedding or some celebration other than their husbands’ day in Court.” Part of the joke is how little difference there is between the two worlds.
Rumpole is a paladin disguised as a rogue: a trickster hero. He is part barrister, part stage actor; delighting in the courtroom coup de théâtre. His raffishness is a form of generosity, a marker of his wide and perpetually amused tolerance of human folly. Adulterers, pornographers and honest villains don’t disturb him half so much as do prigs, punishment junkies and whited sepulchres, like the odious Hearthrug.
Rumpole makes it a point of principle always to defend. When it’s suggested that he might take up prosecuting, he retorts in the negative, “with the determined air of a man who has to draw the line somewhere”: “I’m not going to use my skills, such as they are, to force some poor devil into a condemned Victorian slum where he can be banged up with a couple of psychopaths and his own chamber pot.”
This, in essence, is the golden thread of seriousness that runs through these stories intended to delight: a recognition of mortal folly, and an effort to spare the fools—as far as possible—the harshest consequences of it. This applies outside the Old Bailey as well as in it. When he spies Phillida Erskine-Brown gearing up for a fling with an unsuitable lover, Rumpole gently sabotages the affair; not from moral censoriousness, but to be kind to her.
It’s a mark of Mortimer’s deftness that, even in the essentially comic and consolatory universe of Rumpole—one in which no real harm ever comes to anybody, and Uncle Tom will forever have a place in the office to play golf—the odd note of melancholy occasionally, like the faint chill in a summer evening, intrudes.
Just look at the lovely temper of the payoff to “Rumpole and the Heavy Brigade”:
I suppose it was a waltz. As I steered Hilda out on to the great open spaces it seemed quite easy to go round and round, vaguely in time to the music. I heard a strange sound, as if from a long way off.
“I’ll have the last waltz with you,/Two sleepy people together . . .” Or words to that effect. I was in fact singing. Singing and dancing to celebrate a great victory in a case I was never meant to win.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is life itself. Let us raise a glass of Château Thames Embankment to it.
This essay is the introduction to The Collected Stories of Rumpole by John Mortimer (Penguin, £14.99)