Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078
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 Film Unit. In his return to civilian life, he read for the law, was admitted to the bar, and eventually was made a QC (Queen’s Counsel).
Mortimer’s sense of absurdity, communicated in the images of his youthful experience, gains intensity in his accounts of memories of the Old Bailey. He notes the similarity between bar and stage: “And if there has never been a more authoritative-looking judge than the actor, Felix Aylmer, there has never been a greater performer on his day and in the right part than the criminal defender, Sir Edward Marshall Hall.” Hall’s grand entrances to the courtroom were heralded by the arrival of a clerk who entered carrying the brief and a pile of white linen handkerchiefs. A second clerk followed, carrying a water carafe and an air cushion. Finally Hall entered and was “installed in his place by a flurry of solicitors and learned juniors.” If things looked black for his client, Hall would “slowly unfold the top handkerchief and blow, a clarion call to battle.” Many of the courtroom scenes in Clinging to the Wreckage have been incorporated into the Rumpole stories.
Although he touches only lightly on his first marriage, Mortimer does describe a memorable scene in which he and his future wife (who was still married to another at that time) were visited by a Mr. Gilpin, a respectable-looking person in a bowler hat, who was delighted to find telltale male and female clothing scattered about the room. Thanks to Mr. Gilpin’s testimony, Penelope’s divorce was finally granted, and Mortimer fled the loneliness of his childhood into a large and welcoming family. Penelope Dimont, a novelist in her own right, brought four children to the marriage. The ending of his first marriage had as ironic a note as did its beginning. After Penelope departed abruptly from their meeting at a restaurant in Regent’s Park, Mortimer “felt a slight pull on a gum” and realized that he had lost a cap; his “exotic dentist had been too distracted by the mini-skirts or the subliminal Vivaldi to fix the broken section of the cap on properly.” Before he left the restaurant, he received a call from Penelope inquiring about a tooth which she had left in the same sparerib into which Mortimer had bitten, a rib which “had captured fragments of dentistry from each of us and which held them tightly and remorselessly together.”
Throughout, Mortimer refers to the garden in which his parents took special pride. Every day, they had “walked down to the West Field to admire the wonderful show of crab-apple blossoms” or other showy successes. At the end of the book, as Mortimer takes possession of his father’s house on a wintry day, “so much of the garden had vanished into the icy and tangled undergrowth that I didn’t know how it could be managed.” He thinks “of how it might be put back in time to the day when I planted a tree and met Penelope.” The garden has become a metaphor for “the things that stayed with me for a while, before they left to go into a book.”
Mortimer’s farcical depictions imply criticisms of English codes of behavior and of injustices brought about by overly zealous adherence to court procedures, but these criticisms do not degenerate into invective. Rather, they evoke sympathetic, if ironic, laughter. If existential absurdity characterizes Mortimer’s experience, it is the common lot of man, and so the irony is cosmic. Yet Mortimer’s criticism of legal hypocrisy and cant retains, at bottom, a strong admiration for the ideal of justice.
To recast Mortimer’s quotation from Camus, everything ends as well as begins with lucid indifference. To extend the metaphor of Mortimer’s title, he may no longer need to cling to the wreckage of the first fifty years of his life since it has now lodged itself in his book.
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