The celebrated author of Rumpole of the Bailey has died at the age of 85, after packing more into one life than most men would manage in threeby Colin Murphy / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
“I’ve got a bouncy Jesus somewhere,” said John Mortimer. He sat at a writing desk cluttered with little plastic figurines: Shakespeare, Freud, and numerous Jesuses. His eyes sparkled behind inch-thick glasses, and he slumped a little in his chair.
It was the early summer of 2005, and I had travelled from Dublin to interview him at his home in the Chilterns. It had been an early flight: his “best times” were in the morning, he later explained, when he would sit at his desk and write, a thousand words a day. In the afternoons, he would get melancholy, and in the evenings, “a little drunk.”
“Someone said, ‘life is short, but the afternoon is long’,” he reflected.
John Mortimer died last week, aged 85. He was the author of a dozen collections of the Rumpole of the Bailey stories, more than 30 novels, film and television scripts (including Brideshead Revisited) and three volumes of autobiography. But his most famous character was perhaps himself: a renowned raconteur; an irrepressible, though old-school, gadfly; a “Bollinger Bolshevik,” as he called himself.
There were some standard tropes of any interview with Mortimer. The visitor would be invited to share a glass of champagne early in the morning; and there would be stories of past (virile) exploits with fellow thespians.
Accordingly, a few minutes into our interview, a young woman entered the study and asked if we’d like something to drink. “I’m going to have a little white wine,” he said, and I sensed a dare. It was ten am.
Yet the wine sat on his desk, barely sipped, while we talked. Beside it was an almost-empty glass of a syrupy, chocolate-looking drink. “I find it difficult to eat nowadays,” he said.
He talked about his health in a vague way (“My legs aren’t very good… my eyes aren’t very good…”), chuckling as if amused at his own precariousness. His voice was so gentle it was sometimes barely audible, and his answers to questions repeatedly tailed-off midway, into a chuckle, or an almost inaudible sigh. He speech was clear, but slow, as if he were not certain sometimes whether what he had to say were still interesting. How old was he, I inquired. “I think I’m 82,” he said.
Despite the pastiche devotion, he was not a man of faith. “In a way, you quite envy those writers with God, because God’s such a…