A Voyage Round John Mortimer, by Valerie Grove

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A patrician of many parts

Biographies of the living are always tricky, because the story can't be rounded off, for fear of giving offence: John Mortimer may seem the soul of affability, famously committed to freedom of speech, but he is both avid for attention and sensitive to slights. He is also an essentially autobiographical writer, plundering his private and professional life for his plays, novels and memoirs; and he has been the victim of a disobliging biography by Graham Lord, which shed light on what led to his meeting with his son by Wendy Craig.

Valerie Grove has surmounted all these obstacles in this enjoyable, if over-long, life. Though fond of Mortimer, she tactfully points out his faults; she is less credulous than Lord, realising that – like so many memoirists – Mortimer will always embellish a good story.

"I've seldom had any real success that hasn't been to do with the law or my father or both," Mortimer once declared: Rumpole of the Bailey is a household name, and his barrister father was immortalised in A Voyage Round My Father. After he went blind, Clifford Mortimer travelled to London from his home in the Chilterns while his wife briefed him on that day's divorce cases – "The first-class carriage would fall silent..." – but he comes across as a less flamboyant figure than his son would have us believe.

"Dad always tells a lie if it makes things more interesting," Emily Mortimer declared: it's sad to learn that, at the outbreak of war, his fellow-Harrovian Sandy Wilson did not, in fact, knit mufflers for the troops. nor was Mortimer's eye-witness account of Churchill clambering onto the podium to sing Harrow school songs true.

"The boy is a good fellow... but he is odd, with Bohemian tendencies and mildly anti-nomian views (he particularly hates all games!)," his housemaster at Brasenose wrote. To please his father, Mortimer read law. "After a year I knew how to manumit a slave and contract a marriage by the ceremony of brass and scales, skills which I have never found of great service in the Uxbridge Magistrates' Court," he recalled. He was sent down for writing over-affectionate but innocuous letters to another undergraduate, and went to work at the Crown Film Unit for the rest of the war.

Literature and women were his two great loves, and they came together in Penelope Dimont, a beautiful divorcée. Both were aspiring novelists when they came together in the late Forties; they married, and he found himself transformed from "an unhappy young scriptwriter and novelist into a middle-aged professional man with an overdraft, a family of four and very little time to wonder if I were happy or not". He became a workaholic, juggling the Bar with writing plays, films, novels and journalism; he was always worried about money.

Relations with Penelope became increasingly embattled. His success in the theatre, she recalled, "demanded and supplied a succession of accessible girlfriends"; in her novel The Pumpkin Eater she described his alter ego and "the personality he wears as a man of the world... His indestructible energy, aggression, cruelty and ambition are well protected."

Life with his second wife, Penny, seems to have been a good deal happier, but too much space is given here to Tuscan holidays and long lunches. By now he had perfected his public persona: "wryly urbane, patrician yet anti-Establishment, gently bombastic, committed to liberal ideas". He had given up law, but the libertarian urges that prompted him to defend Oz and Last Exit to Brooklyn were enlisted on behalf of smokers and hunting.

He'd become an institution who confessed that "all I ever wanted to be was a strolling player". Or, as Francis King put it: "How difficult it is now, to believe that half a century ago this breezy man of the world was once the awkward, sometimes discouraged, often pensive author of innovative novels that made one think he might become another Henry Green."

Jeremy Lewis's 'Penguin Special: the Life and Times of Allen Lane' is published by Penguin

Viking £25 (542pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897