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...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)