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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 trials, Famous Cases (1984). Indeed, in reviewing Clinging to the Wreckage, Michael Davie suggested that Mortimer “consider stretching his considerable talents by writing the book he certainly has in him about the legal system and its practitioners, without worrying too much about whether it is entertaining or not.”

Although memories of his mother are strong, particularly of her traditional English reticence, they pale in the light of those of the father, whose refusal to acknowledge his blindness eventually drew his wife and son into an existence of near-total dedication to supporting his work as a divorce and probate advocate at the Old Bailey. Clinging to the Wreckage evokes images of a wife riding to London by train, reading in loud tones to a hard-of-hearing husband the lurid details of the case in which he would be involved that day, much to the amusement of fellow travelers. The images include those of a youth spending hours reading to his blind father.I read to find new characters to adopt on lonely runs round the periphery of football pitches. I read aloud to entertain my father and when we had got through Shakespeare’s sonnets, Browning and The Shropshire Lad, we went on to Fragments of an Agon and Sweeney Among the Nightingales.

Another important theme, perhaps a secondary one, is the process by which the English court system dispenses justice. In a love-hate relationship with it, as both barrister and writer, Mortimer describes his father’s cases of divorce and probate, farcically depicting foibles of English life and law. In addition to portraits of his father in the courtroom, Mortimer includes his caricature of Sir Edward Marshall Hall, who became in part the basis for his best-known character, Rumpole.

Mortimer writes about his own advocacy of free speech and press, as he participated in efforts to repeal the stage censorship law that had been in existence for more than two hundred years, efforts that finally realized success in 1968. Despite his dislike of the judicial process, Mortimer, like Rumpole, loves the golden thread of justice—the right of every man to be heard—worn and frayed though it has become.

The autobiographical themes that haunt nearly everything Mortimer has written received exclusive treatment in his stage play A Voyage Round My Father (1970), which was produced during the period with which Clinging to the Wreckage concludes. In form and content, both works reflect the “lucid indifference” of Camus’ absurd man, developed from the experiences that add up to a life. Mortimer recalls a story he was told by a man with a bristling gray beard about the dangers of yachting. The secret of handling that danger, the man concluded, is not to learn to swim, for then one may cling to the wreckage and be rescued by a helicopter. Mortimer adds that it is the very advice he thought he had been taking for most of his life. This advice supplied his autobiography’s title. He developed an absurdist style which enables him to distance himself emotionally from his experiences and to create memorable visual portraits. His self-deprecating humor is at times gently Chekhovian, at other times grotesquely Gogolian or Dickensian. In either case, his sense of the absurd frees Mortimer from the tortuous analysis of psychological motivations and the earnest social criticism in which many of his contemporaries have indulged.

Appropriately, Mortimer concludes his autobiography with brief references to his mother’s death in a hospital, even as an actress was playing her part in A Voyage Round My Father; to Alec Guinness playing Mortimer’s father at the Haymarket; to the court’s setting aside the convictions of the editors of Oz; to his waiting in the corridors of the Old Bailey for the verdict in his latest case; to his taking possession of his parents’ home; and, finally, to memories of reading Sherlock Holmes stories in the garden to his father, who already knew them by heart. These images signal the end of one era and the beginning of another, postlude to the bits of wreckage of his first fifty years and prelude to the safety of his happy second marriage and growing success as a writer.

Clinging to the Wreckage

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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 failing his army physical because of poor eyesight, Mortimer joined the Ministry of Information, where he rose from fourth assistant director of documentaries to scriptwriter, experiencing finally the joy of being a professional writer. He had so much fun making films during the war that he felt guilty because of the sacrifices and suffering of so many of his countrymen during that time.

After the war, Mortimer published his first novel, Charade (1947), inspired by his film experiences. In 1949, he married his first wife, also a novelist, who brought with her four young daughters from a previous marriage. His father became even friendlier with these little girls than he had been with his own son. Mortimer is very reticent about the details of his marriage, neither attempting to re-create the period of love with which it must have begun nor describing how he and his wife got along during their twenty-three years together, which produced two more children. He is satisfied in saying that the marriage gradually disintegrated.

A year before he married, Mortimer was called to the bar, and he spent the next several years distressed by the conflict of his two professions. He looks back with amusement at himself during this time: “That serious, prematurely middle-aged figure in the wig and gown, or the bowler-hat and pinstripes.” He believes that he became exactly “what my father had in mind, the ambitious barrister of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, the professional product of an English education.” He is less amused by what his years as a divorce specialist taught him about the agonies of marriage, divorce, and loneliness; and he writes sadly of the barrister who could dissect other people’s marriages but not his own.

Several important events changed Mortimer’s life after he thought he had settled down as lawyer, novelist, husband, and father. The first was that, quite by accident, he abandoned fiction for drama and found his true writing voice. Plays such as The Dock Brief (1958), about an aging, unsuccessful barrister, were considerably more popular than his six novels had been.

Success as a playwright, money from writing scripts for both British and American films, and the accumulated depression from handling hundreds of divorces caused Mortimer to consider leaving the law. He changed his mind, however, when he went to Africa for Amnesty International and successfully defended the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka against criminal charges brought about because of a political protest. Seeing how the Africans had adopted British legal practices, Mortimer “had the unoriginal thought that British law might, together with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Lord Byron and the herbaceous border, be one of [Britain’s] great contributions to the world. [He] decided not to abandon the law, but to try and practice it more interestingly.” He did so by changing from divorce and probate to criminal law, frequently handling such censorship cases as the defense in 1967 of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).

During this period, the tragic death of Henry Winter occurred. This kind, peaceful man shocked his longtime friend by murdering his mistress and then committing suicide. Mortimer was also deeply affected by his father’s death, although he succeeded in understanding and appreciating their relationship while writing Voyage Round My Father (1970), one of his best plays. In creating this drama, he had difficulty distinguishing between the father he had known and the one he was inventing: “In giving him to other people I came, after a time, to lose him for myself.” Gradually, shortly before her death, he developed a closer relationship with his mother, whom he had resented for the many sacrifices she had made for his father.

Mortimer writes affectingly and entertainingly about his parents, about his friend, Henry Winter, and about the celebrities he has known. He paints a sad portrait of actor Peter Sellers and a much brighter one of author Kenneth Tynan. Yet Clinging to the Wreckage is handicapped by his reluctance to reveal much about anyone still living. He is not very specific about the details of his offstage, out-of-court life. Much of the second half of the book consists of ruminations about matters such as the death penalty, the nature of French farce, and the decline of England since World War II.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is its store of amusing anecdotes about minor characters in Mortimer’s life: the woman who claimed to have been taught by Havelock Ellis to urinate standing up; the cook who had been engaged for thirty years while waiting for her fiancé’s younger brother to die; Mortimer’s Lesbian friends who rudely interrupted him while he was trying to lose his virginity; the client accused of attempted murder who said, “Your Mr. Rumpole could’ve got me out of this, so why the hell can’t you?” Mortimer’s attention to the details of other people’s lives yields passages more interesting than most of his sparing self-revelations.


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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.


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