Alexander Waugh: Tips for Mortimer Jr's voyage round his (new) father

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The Independent Online

The most riveting gossip of last week was the flash announcement that the distinguished author of the Rumpole books, Sir John Mortimer, had a love child in the 1960s with a sitcom actress called Wendy Craig. Sir John - or Rumpy-Pumpole, as the popular press now calls him - told journalists that he had no idea he was the father of screenwriter Ross Bentley, until sometime last year when Ms Craig unexpectedly saw fit to inform him. In statements, he has said that he is delighted to add Ross's name to his publicly acknowledged list of progeny which already includes the glamorous film star Emily Mortimer and three others. Mr Bentley, a 42-year-old screenwriter from London, is likewise said to be "very happy" to be able to include Sir John, whom he only met for the first time this year, on his list of fathers. But I wonder if this is true.

The most riveting gossip of last week was the flash announcement that the distinguished author of the Rumpole books, Sir John Mortimer, had a love child in the 1960s with a sitcom actress called Wendy Craig. Sir John - or Rumpy-Pumpole, as the popular press now calls him - told journalists that he had no idea he was the father of screenwriter Ross Bentley, until sometime last year when Ms Craig unexpectedly saw fit to inform him. In statements, he has said that he is delighted to add Ross's name to his publicly acknowledged list of progeny which already includes the glamorous film star Emily Mortimer and three others. Mr Bentley, a 42-year-old screenwriter from London, is likewise said to be "very happy" to be able to include Sir John, whom he only met for the first time this year, on his list of fathers. But I wonder if this is true.

If I were Ross I would be devastated. The father-son relationship is never easy, and this is a very uncomfortable situation. Sir John is 81 and bound for most of his day to a wheelchair. I doubt that he and Ross will have a great deal of time in which to get to know one another. What should they do?

As a man of a similar age to Ross, whose father was also a distinguished writer with round spectacles and a bald head, and having spent the last two years researching the intimate history of the father-son relationships in my own family, I suppose it falls to me to offer the poor fellow some advice. So, dear Ross, I shoulder my responsibilities with fortitude and offer you, free of charge, the following 10 useful tips on how to cope with your sudden and unexpected new situation:

1. Name. Now that Jack Bentley - the man you once presumed to be your father - is dead, you may wish to change your name. Ross Mortimer? Sounds OK but I don't like the Ross bit. Have you considered Rossiter FitzRumpole?

2. Arms. If you want to bear the arms of Mortimer you will need to apply for a grant from the College of Heralds. They may insist on a bend sinister (a diagonal line crossing the shield from left to right) to indicate that you are a bastard. This is not as shameful as it sounds and the Mortimer crest - a stag's head caboshed proper - might look nice on your dinner plates.

3. Inheritance. I've got this horrible feeling that Sir Pumpy intends to leave you nothing in his will; and, unless he dies intestate, you will have no claim whatever on his estate. If I were you, I would demand from him a crate of good champagne and a few signed first editions while he is still alive. That is about as much as you can expect.

4. Terms of endearment. Too late, I think, for Dad, Pop or Papa. May I suggest "Pater" instead? Each time you say it use your lightest and most ironic tone, and try to inject a little hint of rebuke.

5. Nakedness. In the Bible, God punished Ham for staring at his father's naked body, but things have moved on since then and there is a school of thought that strongly holds it to be beneficial for a son to see his father's bare parts. My grandfather, Evelyn Waugh, regretted that he never allowed his children to gawp at him in the bath. I never saw my own father naked and would advise against it - but, if you are determined, I suppose there would be no harm at all in asking Sir John to take his clothes off for you.

6. Recreation. You have missed your chance for camping holidays, frisbee on the beach, trips to Wembley, tree-house maintenance and all those quaint, sentimental things that good fathers are supposed to do with their sons, but perhaps it is not too late to get him to read you a bedtime story. The bits in his autobiography about his relationship with his father (your grandfather) are very good and, I am sure, would sound superb in Sir John's soothing lullaby voice.

7. Love. I wouldn't tell him you love him; nor would I expect him to reveal his love for you. English fathers and sons don't say those sorts of things to each other, even if they feel them. I'm sure your mother told you that. "Love is like a butterfly." Let's leave it at that.

8. Intercourse. Don't dwell on your conception. I once told my parents that I wished I had been a fly on the wall at my own and was severely reprimanded. Whatever happened between your mother and Pumpole was, I am sure, a beautiful thing but it will not do you any good to ponder it.

9. Services. Do you have any children? If so, ask him to baby-sit. That is one thing that grandparents are really useful for.

10. Christmases and birthdays. What to give your father is always tricky. I gave mine a pot of Gentleman's Relish for every Christmas and every birthday I can remember. He piled them in the larder and never ate them. They are mouldering there to this day. I know Sir John likes potted plants and opera CDs. Give him those, and from him try to extract something nice and expensive. A house, maybe?

Well, Ross, that's all for now, but if you need any more advice at this difficult point in your life may I urge you to read my book? All is properly explained therein.

'Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family' by Alexander Waugh is published by Headline

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