Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Famous as a defense barrister at London’s Old Bailey and for his popular mystery novels and teleplays built around the character Rumpole, John Mortimer takes the same approach in writing his apologia pro vita sua that he took in conducting his defenses of unpopular figures and in relating the adventures of his fictional character. That approach, neither sympathetic nor hostile, is epitomized in Mortimer’s quotation from Albert Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955) in the front matter of the book: “For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. Everything begins with lucid indifference.”

Encompassing twenty-six short chapters, each from four to nine pages long, Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of a Life includes photographs documenting various phases in Mortimer’s life, from his student days in a Sloane Square public school to his life during early middle age with his second wife and a young daughter. The autobiography covers the period up to the sensational six-weeks-long Oz trial in 1971, in which Mortimer defended a young Australian, Richard Neville, who had published a pornographic schoolboy version of Oz magazine.

Mortimer finds that memories of his childhood—“acting my solo version of Hamlet before the blind eyes of my father,” for example, or, in his schoolboy days, the fear he felt as he grunted and feinted “with huge balloons of boxing gloves lashed to the end of white, matchstick arms”—are for him as clear as yesterday. Events of the more recent past, however, are “lost in the mists of a vanishing memory.”

Unlike most memoirists, Mortimer eschews use of dates and other conventional autobiographical facts, choosing to frame experiences within general times, such as his Harrow days and his years at the University of Oxford. His chapters have no titles and are merely numbered.

Anecdotal in style, each chapter reads like an entertaining collection of episodes seemingly unrelated to one another, yet subtly creating a progression of theme which concludes with an elegiac note for a time that is gone. This underlying unity results largely from a focus on the strong personalities of Mortimer’s father and mother, especially the former, who not only influenced but even determined the course of his son’s life. At times, Mortimer himself seems to retreat into their shadows. At the end, the father’s strong influence can be seen in Mortimer’s choosing to return to Turville Heath to live in the home that his father had built, just as earlier he had followed his father in a career at the Old Bailey.

Like his father, who had written a primer on probate law, Mortimer edited a volume of accounts of...

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Clinging to the Wreckage

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

John Mortimer has been a successful writer in England for thirty-five years, turning out novels, plays, radio and television scripts, and screenplays for such films as Carol Reed’s The Running Man (1963) and Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). He is perhaps best known in America as the creator of the television series “Rumpole of The Bailey” and as the adapter for television of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). His productivity as a writer is all the more remarkable when one considers that he has maintained a law practice at the same time. Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life is his account of his dual careers and all that has influenced them. It is a witty, no-nonsense sort of memoir that Horace Rumpole himself might have written.

Mortimer writes in his opening paragraph that the distant past seems clearer to him than the events of ten years ago, and he presents the details of his childhood and adolescence more specifically and more movingly than those of his later years. He depicts his past with little nostalgia but with genuine affection for the boy he was; growing up in Henley, England, he was an only child who was not close to this parents and who had few friends.

As a child, Mortimer was taken to West End plays by his parents, and he became enthralled by the magic of the theater. He decided he wanted to be a musical comedy star who sported a silver-topped ebony cane and a monocle. With his young friend Bill Mann, who later became a music critic for The Times, he wrote and performed reviews and plays in his home. The most exciting event in his early years was his election by his classmates to play the leading role in his school’s production of William Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595-1596).

About the same time, Mortimer’s father, a prominent probate and divorce barrister, went totally blind. This tragedy brought father and son closer together; the two took long walks, during which Mortimer’s father told him Sherlock Holmes stories and other stories he had read as a boy. The barrister continued his work, relying on his wife to lead him to court, write his petitions, and read him his briefs.

Mortimer went from preparatory school to Harrow, where he felt like a “long-term, good conduct prisoner.” There, he developed enthusiasms for Lord Byron and William Wordsworth and wrote a novel about the school in the style of Aldous Huxley. When he informed his father of his ambition to become a writer, he was told that he would be better off in the law. For years, Mortimer’s father continued to discourage his son’s writing.

After Mortimer left Harrow, he was informed suddenly by his father that he would be going to Oxford and reading law. His father considered the law as enjoyable as doing The Times crossword puzzle or budding roses in his beloved garden. He assumed that his son would naturally share this passion for the law. Mortimer was not a serious student at Oxford and benefited from the school primarily because of the friends he made, especially Henry Winter, a pacifist who introduced him to classical music. With the “extraordinarily gentle firmness of his moral stance,” Winter had a profound influence on his friend. As an adult, Mortimer felt “somehow guilty and corrupt” compared to Winter, who became a country doctor.

After leaving Oxford and...

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Clinging to the Wreckage Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Carey, John. “The Case of the Levitating Lawyer,” in The Sunday Times. March 28, 1982, p. 40.

Davie, Michael. “Predestined to Serve,” in The Times Literary Supplement. April 16, 1982, p. 431.

Lahr, John. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (October 17, 1982), p. 12.

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1653.

Listener. CVII, March 25, 1982, p. 23.

New Statesman. CIII, April 2, 1982, p. 20.

The New Yorker. LVIII, October 26, 1982, p. 166.

Pritchett, V. S. Review in The New Yorker. LVIII (October 25, 1982), p. 166.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 30, 1982, p. 67.

Ratcliffe, Michael. “Absurd Man,” in The Times (London). April 1, 1982, p. 8.

Taylor, John Russell. Anger and After, 1961.

The Wall Street Journal. October 11, 1982, p. 20.