- Clinging to the Wreckage by John Mortimer
Weidenfeld, 200 pp, £8.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78010 7
John Mortimer’s book has a thoroughly misleading title. It is designed to enlist a little pathetic sympathy for someone carried along like a piece of flotsam without the courage or determination to strike out for the shore. It would be difficult – judging from the book itself – to find anyone less shipwrecked than John Mortimer and less likely to pursue this policy if shipwrecked. At every stage Mr Mortimer demonstrates a firmness of intention which makes the title slightly fraudulent.
In the Wild West idiom, ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta to do’: but when and where a man has ‘gotta’ write an autobiography is a matter for debate. The interesting question is why Mr Mortimer chose this moment of his life to write this book. One senses a motivation more pressing than the importunities of hopeful publishers. There is hardly a publisher in London who doesn’t solicit a known name to write a book on the specious ground that everyone has a book inside him. The accumulation of unreadable books proves the contrary – as does the bankruptcy of various publishers – but there can be no doubt that Mr Mortimer had a book, and an interesting book, inside him. It is unnecessary to say that his autobiography is immensely readable. He is a distinguished, if not a great dramatist; he has evolved an imaginative and immensely popular television series; he is first-class in discussion programmes on television and, presumably, radio, and is careful not to be over-exposed; and he has recently developed into one of the best newspaper interviewers in the country. He writes book reviews which are usually more entertaining than the books he is reviewing. It follows that what he has to say about his life must be of interest. The book has received, in almost all quarters, unqualified and well-deserved praise for its readability. But I must confess it leaves me dissatisfied.
I can claim to be a friend of John Mortimer, although not a close friend. I have never mixed in his circles. But I know and have seen enough of him to doubt whether the book presents a full picture. Since he is an honest man, it certainly presents a true picture so far as it goes, and I am not even sure that the author is conscious of what he has left out. John Mortimer is an interesting and exciting original – a rare commodity in this country today. He is amiable (the word ‘Pickwickian’ struggles to emerge but he is worthy of a less cloying adjective), witty, warm-hearted, generous and humane. It is sad to say that these qualities do not emerge from the book with any great clarity. The book presents, and was clearly intended to present, the picture of a cool, dispassionate and largely uncommitted observer. Mr Mortimer may see himself in this light, but few other people will so see him. For someone like him, it would have taken quite a feat of dissembling to achieve this result.
A new party game could be played to determine which literary figures, living and past, could be regarded as ‘conventional’. No one could describe Francois Villon or Marlowe or Chatterton or Baudelaire or D.H. Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway as conventional, but what about Thomas Hardy or Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or John Galsworthy? And, in particular, what about John Mortimer? He would, I think, indignantly deny the suggestion, but although he espouses unconventional causes he represents the essential upper-middle-class Englishman, pursuing some erratic notions.
Except for one crucial fact – that his father became blind in adult life – his upbringing and home life were wholly conventional. His father was a successful junior barrister who never took Silk – a man of great intellectual powers, with a passion for gardens and gardening, a love for the more orthodox poets and an affection for the theatre, but otherwise of limited interests. John went to an orthodox prep school and on to Harrow, and although he has some amusing anecdotes about his schooldays, there is no significant criticism of these institutions – indeed, the absence of social criticism throughout the book is worthy of comment. He developed an interest in writing and the theatre and planned to become a writer. Like James Boswell, he was persuaded by his father to practise the Law but, unlike Boswell, he became a successful lawyer, initially specialising in divorce but later emerging as the champion of any literary activity threatened by censorship. The resemblance to Boswell recurs elsewhere, but by no means everywhere, in the book. He enjoys describing his love affairs, but compared with Boswell’s activities these show great self-restraint. He did not have a Dr Johnson to provide sagacious advice about freeing himself from paternal influence. In fact, as those who have seen A Voyage Round My Father on television will realise, this would have been an impossibility, since it is clear that his father was the dominant influence in his life, and that the memory remains so after his father’s death.
The book is episodic and was obviously written at some speed. The great autobiographies of the world depend, I think, on the attention to detail with which they are written: this book is self-indulgent in that there is detail only of those matters which have retained his interest. We gather that he was – but is probably no longer – a supporter of the Labour party. Politics are clearly not for him, although he would seem to be natural material for the SDP. The book is marred by a certain calculated crudity in some of his descriptions of his emotional life and by one absolutely nauseating jest. This does not imply any genuine coarseness of character so much as the determination to maintain an emotional nonchalance lest the reader should suspect that events have made a deeper and sharper impact than the author likes to admit.
It is in relation to his legal career that the book is most disappointing, and for two disparate reasons. Legal memoirs are in special need of detailed recollection. What the Judge actually said to the impertinent advocate and what exactly was the response; how the late F.E. Smith insulted the Judge with sufficient forensic skill to avoid evil consequences; how Marshal Hall demonstrated the pistol and how his clerk brought in an air cushion for him to sit on. It is details such as these which grip the interest, and in such details the book is notably lacking. The two main interests in his life I share. The theatre, to which he has made such a distinguished contribution, has been a love of mine, incredibly enough, for sixty years or more since I made a first theatrical visit at the age of eight to see either Mr Wu or The Garden of Allah. So far as the law is concerned, I have viewed it with impatient affection now for over fifty years. John Mortimer adds little of novelty in his account of his theatrical life. We do not smell grease-paint from the pages and the occasional reference to a distinguished theatrical figure is insufficient to make the book a significant one about the stage. His prominence in the law arises through his participation in a number of cases to defend the ‘book’ and the ‘writer’ against intolerable outside interference. Here he has justifiably acquired a reputation as a freedom fighter, but this, alas, does not make him a legal progressive.
Some years ago, there was an eminent Lord Chancellor who abominated the idea of capital punishment. Because amongst senior Judges this was a marked departure from routine, he, too, acquired a reputation as a progressive. In fact, on everything except the question of hanging, he was orthodox to a point which would have put a Brahmin priest to shame as a heretic. There is no evidence of any unorthodoxy in relation to the law on Mortimer’s part except – and it is a glorious exception – for his very genuine feeling about the trammels of censorship: but, here again, one does not feel that the description of his battles gives him any special pleasure. He achieved notable success in persuading a Court of Appeal to reverse the jury conviction of Last Exit to Brooklyn and the argument he used was novel and typical of him. It was that the work was so disgusting that, so far from having any concupiscent effect, people would be totally repelled. This has become known as the aversion theory. It was an ingenious presentation which required a slightly unworldly Court to accept it, and it must now, presumably, have the effect of encouraging authors to the most horrible coprological detail, if they wish to avoid conviction. Simple titillation will put them behind bars. But in other matters about which reforming lawyers are concerned – the organisation of the legal profession, the prohibitive cost of the law, an absurd system of precedent, and a dozen more – John Mortimer expresses no interest. Lawyers do not take law reform seriously – there is no reason why they should. They think the law exists as the atmosphere exists, and the notion that it could be improved is too startling to entertain. But John Mortimer has at least blazed a trail in one significant direction, and on that account deserves high praise. I enjoyed reading his book and recommend it warmly to those who want something to wile away the odd hour, but I have a feeling that we will one day get a more profound account of his life from this very remarkable man. That book may be less readable and sell fewer copies, but it will tell us more about the author than he is at present prepared to divulge.