Where There's a Will by John Mortimer

Thoughts of everything, and nothing

Sir John Mortimer, now 80, has placed himself beyond criticism. I do not mean that he is so flawless a writer that no criticism of his works can legitimately be entertained. He has done better that that: he has become an institution, a favourite uncle so familiar, so taken for granted, so part of the national psyche, that any normal critical standards no longer apply.

If Where There's a Will was written by anyone else, it would have been dismissed by reviewers - including me - as slight, self-indulgent and unnecessary. But, written by John Mortimer, it turns out to be wise, endearing, quixotic and delightfully entertaining.

Insofar as there is a theme to this book, Where There's a Will purports to be Mortimer, full of his years and vast experience, bequeathing valuable advice to his descendants. But, as he immediately admits to supporting his father's assertion that "all advice is useless" (except never to lock yourself into a lavatory), that device quickly falls away. We are left with a jumble of the great man's assorted thoughts on everything and nothing, assembled in 32 short chapters.

These are some of the things he approves of: making a fuss (about social issues, but not in restaurants), the companionship of women, vulgarity, giving money to beggars, making fires, sex out of doors, the National Gallery of Scotland, being a good listener, causing offence, the expensive hotel in Morocco where the Mortimers holiday, the freedom to hunt foxes, a glass of champagne at six o'clock in the morning ("are you having counselling for that?" he has been asked earnestly), and tactical lying. When an accused man was advised by his barrister to tell the truth, he responded: "Last time I took your advice, Sir Patrick, I got four years."

These are a few of the things that Mortimer doesn't like: restaurants that offer too much choice, writing treatments for film producers, T-shirts on the elderly, nouns like access, source and task being used as verbs, political correctness, Utopia, children forced to do too many exams, and mobile phones. He's especially virulent about the Blair Government, on the gamut of its attitudes and policies. And then there are the pure chunks of rambling and reminiscence: sexual misunderstandings, memories of childhood, legal anecdotes and touching family occasions. He ponders death and justice, he praises Montaigne, Shakespeare's minor characters and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Mozart's greatest operas.

Mortimer emerges as a contented soul who has managed to have two brilliant careers, a wholesome and only occasionally troubled family life, and an extraordinary range of friends and cultural interests. It's tempting to regard him as too good to be true; but the evidence is that he really does deserve his iconic status.

Does Where There's a Will amount to any kind of coherent philosophy of life? Of course not; nor should it. Treat it as a haphazard collection of random musings, written with wit and elegance, and it will provide an hour or two of pleasant discourse. Hoping for anything more profound from it will lead to disappointment.

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