A Lawyer's Touch

England's John Mortimer became a writer for his soul and a barrister for his pocketbook. Americans know him best for Rumpole of the Bailey, a witty blend of both.

February 17, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

When John Mortimer was just a child, he told his father he wanted to be a writer. Father advised against it, out of kindness for others.

"Be a barrister," said England's most prominent divorce lawyer to his son. "Writer's wives live horrible lives. Writers are always at home, walking around in dreary dressing gowns. Barristers go to an office."

Being an obedient son, Mortimer listened to his father and became a lawyer. He also listened to his own inner need and became a writer. A more felicitous marriage of callings could hardly have been conceived.

The barrister's life gave the writer much to write about. It sparked the creation of one of the richest Dickensian characters in modern popular literature -- if television scripts can be included in that catchall.

The character in question is Horace Rumpole, known to television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic (and, there is reason to believe, the Pacific, too) as Rumpole of the Bailey, assiduous defender of murderers, prostitutes, pornographers, and other denizens of London's underworld, Rumpole, the histrionic habitue of Pomeroy's Wine Bar on Fleet Street (El Vino's in real life), a man with a line of verse for every situation and, finally, the forebearing husband of the socially ambitious Hilda, "she who must be obeyed."

Mortimer is celebrated in this country mainly for the Rumpole series. In England, many think we miss the better parts of him. Maybe they are right; there is much more. His play "A Voyage Round My Father," his two volumes of autobiography: "Clinging to the Wreckage" and "Murderers and Other Friends," and his sequential novels about the maniacally scheming Lord Leslie Titmuss, MP, and other books and film and television treatments are known here, of course, but no doubt to a much smaller coterie of readers.

But that's all right. Rumpole alone can fill out the bill.

Asked why he created Rumpole, Mortimer said he "wanted somebody to keep me company in my old age. Also, somebody to be mistaken for. When I go through the airport in Australia, I hear `Hello, Rumpole.' "

Mortimer is a portly fellow of 75. He has a cane, a prominent lower lip that would make anyone else seem in a pout (a Sidney Greenstreet lip, it is), and white hair that gives the impression it's defeated a thousand combs and brushes. He peers through thick glasses with rims the color of iodine. He is tanned almost to the color of iodine. A friendlier, more forgiving face one could not imagine.

He sits comfortably in his flannel gray trousers and cardigan, in his flannel gray room in the flannel gray Jefferson hotel on 16th Street in Washington. He is waiting to make an appearance in a few hours before a couple hundred Anglophiles at the Hirshhorn Gallery, of the Smithsonian complex, a gathering of true Rumpolites.

His latest book

Mortimer is on a book tour, touting his latest comic novel, "The Sound of Trumpets." It's about Lord Titmuss again, holding out in the still idyllic but relentlessly suburbanizing English countryside. In this latest book, which unfolds on the eve of the Labor Party's political ascendancy, Lord Leslie, acolyte of the reptilian Lady Thatcher, switches political sides to indulge every old man's favorite vice (being incapable of indulging most of the others), revenge.

It's a funny book and wonderfully free of insight on British politics.

Mortimer is not at all sure whether the exaggerated and eccentric characters he creates, like Lord Titmuss, Rumpole himself, the lawyer Guthrie Featherstone, are really exaggerations. Does he write satire? Or does he just report what he sees and hears and then changes the names?

"I'm not sure," he says mildly, his hands in his lap. It may be he puts characters on the page, and the actual personifications pop out of the woodwork as if called forth like hounds by a special whistle only they can hear. "There are a number of fat barristers who hang around El Vino's on Fleet Street," he says. "Each one insists Rumpole is based on them."

Actually, the garrulous one is a literary composite. "He was a lot like my father. He quoted poetry all the time," says Mortimer, who also drew on barristers he would see around the Old Bailey, London's criminal court. "They would always call the judge `Old Darlin' [a Rumpolesque expression] but would never call their wives that."

Which is why Mortimer gave Rumpole such a wife as Hilda. "I wanted to give him as hard a time as I could, so I invented her."

At every interview, it seems, Mortimer is quick to confess that Rumpole's frequent allusion to his wife as She who must be obeyed, is not a creation of the author, but of the late British writer H. Rider Haggard. It refers to the principal character in Haggard's fantastical novel, "She," about a mountain queen who had the power to live eternally, but loses it.

After this confession he sometimes adds: "But I get the money for the `She Who Must Be Obeyed' T-shirts."

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