Under my byline

John Mortimer rests his case

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 21 January 2009


While he was still practising law and writing plays, Sir John Mortimer was frequently quoted on the pleasures of having “breakfast with a murderer, lunch with a judge and dinner with an actress”. Dining out was a favourite pastime, and in his later years he remained devoted to it, even while he apparently ate next to nothing himself. His time at the table was spent in conversation — and, by all accounts, he was a terrific gossip and raconteur, always ready with an amusing story or an extra, telling detail on a current scandal or celebrity.

John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey (1978)Mortimer was a barrister, but also a playwright, scriptwriter, author, wine connoisseur, skilled gardener, notorious flirt, wit and bon vivant who famously (the adverb is unavoidable) started each day with a glass of champagne at 6 am. This was usually followed by 1,000 words of whatever he was working on, written out by hand. After lunch, he slept. Even in his last, wheelchair-bound years, he was furiously active, turning out books, articles and essays from his desk in his Oxfordshire home, the house in which he grew up. On his desk he kept a number of plastic figurines, of Freud, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Don Quixote, along with several Jesuses — although he was (famously) an atheist. Next to the desk rested a cherished signed photograph of Fred Astaire. One of his obituarists last week, when he died at the ripe age of 85, described him as the “quintessential Englishman”.

As a lawyer, from the 1960s onward, Mortimer was known as a staunch defender of freedom of expression. He handled controversial cases for a number of clients, among them the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn, the gritty New York novel banned in the UK in 1966 (he had the verdict overturned in 1968); Oz magazine in 1971, also for obscenity; a couple of porn films (including one called Deep Throat); and the Sex Pistols in 1977, for their first album, Never Mind the Bollocks.

With his interest always drawn to the underdog, Mortimer defended, never prosecuted. He relished criminal cases, which presumably provided the raw material for Mortimer’s most famous work: his Rumpole books, of which he wrote nearly one a year since 1978.

John Mortimer, Rumpole for the Defence (1982)Horace Rumpole, the “hero”, defended criminals at the Old Bailey in London. Rumpole is a slightly rumpled lawyer, middle-aged and at a middling level in the law offices run by the father of his wife Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”). Despite appearances, and despite his lack of interest in the most obviously lucrative cases, Rumpole is a brilliant and sly courtroom cross-examiner, and is good at getting his clients acquitted, often in the process showing up the police as silly and inept. Revealingly, Mortimer shared his own motto, “Never plead guilty!” with his creation. Outside the courtroom, Rumpole is essentially a loner, withal an observant and drily witty one. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Perry Mason, the lawyer-investigator created by another lawyer-writer, Erle Stanley Gardner.

One imagines, from conversations with Indian lawyers, replete as they are with, if not often witty, at least amusing, revealing or appalling anecdotes from their own daily practice, that a great deal of material exists which is just waiting to be mined for fiction. Lawyers know how to narrate a story, because of all the practice they get in court, but they don’t learn how to write.

“Lawyers have no social life other than lawyers,” a lawyer friend told me, only half joking. “They go home and read books of quotations, so they can quote people in court.” Another confessed, “We tell tons and tons of anecdotes to each other at parties,” but he knew of only one Indian lawyer-writer: Arvind Nayar, author of the forgotten 2005 thriller, Operation Karakoram — not quite John Grisham.

It’s a loss to literature, because lawyers are uniquely placed to observe the lives and motives of fellow citizens of all classes and backgrounds. Instead, Indian English fiction is dominated by moonlighting bureaucrats, diplomats, academics, the occasional senior manager or journalist.

Let a capable Indian lawyer write memorably of life around the trial courts, as Mortimer did, and the result will be more than a good yarn. Law students will find useful tips on cross-examination. Lawyers will gain a more inspiring view of themselves than they otherwise see on page or screen. More important, such writing will help reinject humour into law, where humour really ought to belong. And last, it will show that the law is not abstract after all, it is about life.


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