With a deceptively informal, tell-it-all style, John Mortimer has woven a complicated tapestry whose artistry combines private, professional, moral, and philosophical dimensions and transmutes autobiographical fact into creative fiction. He had already turned himself, his barrister-father, and his father’s contemporary, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, into what would become several novels (and a television series) about the fictive Rumpole of the Bailey. Critics reviewed his autobiography as a work of art. A masterpiece of “allusive compactness”—the phrase coined by one reviewer to describe Mortimer’s style—the book comprises a succession of descriptive-narrative personal anecdotes that acquire stature beyond themselves as Mortimer endows them with vivid details in farcical language that creates a near-Rabelaisian, larger-than-life quality.
His father looms as a colossus to the boy, as he thunders to his wife instructions about the garden and then demands that she report to him the progress of the impressive collection of plants, many of them rare. Unforgettable also is the boy’s mother, whose own life after her marriage had gone underground. Titans, the parents take their son to restaurants, followed by attendance at the theater, where the blind father requires deafening whispers describing the play’s action. Passively, Mortimer’s reticent mother joined her husband in refusing to speak of personal feelings or, for that matter, of her husband’s blindness. It was only by witnessing his mother helping his father with a toothbrush in the bathroom that young Mortimer discovered that his father was blind. Not until after his mother’s death did he discover that she had secretly written short stories.
English reserve was exhibited also in regard to sexual matters.Sex, like love, my father thought, had been greatly overestimated by the poets. He would often pause at tea-time, his biscuit half-way to his mouth, to announce, “I have never had many mistresses with thighs like white marble.” And I was at a loss to tell whether he meant that he had not had lady friends with particularly marmoreal thighs, or that he had few mistresses of any sort.
During his years at Harrow and Oxford (and in earlier schooldays as well), Mortimer could not develop school spirit. To do so, he believed, would be hypocritical, since education was something his parents paid for, a commercial product, and thus did not merit his loyalty. Following his years at Oxford, he avoided military service during World War II by obtaining a job with the Ministry of Information (with the help of a friend), writing for the Crown...
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Mortimer’s autobiography covers his writing career to 1970, when he had a reputation more as a barrister than as a writer, even though he had written a substantial number of novels, stage dramas, and scripts for television and films. It was in 1970 that A Voyage Round My Father, his first play since the short The Dock Brief (1957) to draw strongly favorable reviews, was produced. In 1975, a single Rumpole episode on television proved successful enough that six series of Rumpole stories were eventually televised and published in the 1980’s. It was in the 1970’s and 1980’s as well that Mortimer’s impressive television adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959), Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), and his own A Voyage Round My Father received high critical acclaim. Clinging to the Wreckage serves as Mortimer’s assertion that in 1970, his career as writer is replacing that of jurist.
Clinging to the Wreckage is important because it clarifies the autobiographical sources of much of Mortimer’s other work. Furthermore, it sheds light, with a Dickensian sharpness of detail, on a life, a time, and the ultimately absurd condition of man.