John Mortimer QC was born in 1923 and educated at Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford.
He was called to the bar in 1948 and participated in several celebrated civil cases such as the Oz trial. His series of novels featuring an amiable defence barrister were adapted for television as Rumpole of the Bailey. His acclaimed autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father (1971) was filmed for television in 1982, winning an Emmy award.
During the war he worked with the Crown Film Unit and published a number of novels, before turning to theatre. He wrote many film scripts, and plays both for radio and television – the Rumpole plays, which won him the British Academy Writer of the Year Award – but his most famous script was perhaps the internationally successful adaptation he wrote of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Mortimer wrote four volumes of autobiography, including Clinging to the Wreckage and Where There’s a Will (2003). His novels include the Leslie Titmuss trilogy, about the rise of an ambitious Tory MP – Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained and The Sound of Trumpets – and the acclaimed comic novel, Quite Honestly (2005). Sir John Mortimer received a knighthood for his services to the arts. He died in 2009, aged eighty-five.
I thoroughly enjoyed our interview which took place in 1993. He was a man of great charm, wit and compassion.
Yours was the sort of childhood that, had you grown up into a complete neurotic or developed almost any other kind of psychosis, it would have been entirely explicable in terms of your early years. How on earth did you turn out to be so normal?
It’s a question whether I am normal at all. In many ways, however, I had a very happy childhood because I had a father and mother who treated me very well and always as though I was a grown up; and I was an only child which has its advantages in that you grow up very quickly. I was treated like a good friend, especially by my father. He flew into terrible rages with other people but never with me, and my mother was long suffering and loving. So although I was very lonely because my father never wanted visitors who would see he was blind and feel sorry for him, I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. I went to ridiculous English schools which I didn’t like, but on the other hand I was able to adjust to them and survive them because I had a very secure relationship with my parents.
Both your parents were adept at not acknowledging reality. Your father did not admit to his blindness and your mother, long after his death, continued to behave as if he had not died. This phenomenon of making light of sorrow and grief, if that’s what it is, is something quintessentially English. Is it something you perpetuate in your own life?
You’re right – it is quintessentially English. There is a wonderful story about Lord Uxbridge whose leg was shot off at the Battle of Waterloo, and when the Duke of Wellington said, ‘By God, Uxbridge, you’ve lost your leg,’ Lord Uxbridge looked down and said, ‘By God, sir, so I have!’ And nothing else was said on the subject. But that isn’t altogether a failure to accept reality; it’s more a stoical attitude to life which I think is quite admirable. Whether it’s stoic courage or whether it’s a refusal to face facts, I’m not quite sure, but that’s how I prefer to live. I can quite easily put unpleasant facts out of my head – I don’t think about death for instance.
Are you confident that you can look back now and remember your father as he really was, or has the act of extensive writing about him to some extent fictionalized him and put him beyond reach?
I find it very difficult to separate fact from fiction. A writer is constantly taking life and turning it into fiction, regurgitating it, and sending it out to the world, altered or not. Certainly when I wrote the play about my father, I wrote many lines for him which he never said in his life, and now it’s quite difficult for me to remember which ones were his and which were mine. He’s become a sort of fictional character and not like other people’s fathers who are contained entirely in themselves and their memories.
Was it partly your intention when you wrote A Voyage Round My Father to lose your father?
Not at all. I wanted to write a play about my father and also to celebrate the peculiarly English middle-class attitude to life of that period. That was my intention, but the effect of it has been perhaps that my father has vanished or turned into a different character from what he really was.
Woody Allen once said of Jesus that he was very well adjusted for an only child. Do you think the same could be said of you?
I don’t know whether I’m very well adjusted. I’ve had a very easy life compared with anyone who has lived in Europe or in other parts of the world, and the period I’ve lived in has been very safe. Only children are fortunate really, in that they very quickly have to learn to live a grown-up life and they have terrific resources within themselves. I led a very strong imaginative life when I was a child, and was able to adjust well to most things in life.
Despite your professed loathing for public schools, you seem not to have been too unhappy at Harrow, or was that an attempt to make the best of a bad experience?
Apart from being very homesick, I had a good experience at my prep school, the Dragon School in Oxford, which was a very good school indeed. I was treated very well, and it was a progressive school for the time and even had a few girls. Instead of having to play games which I hated, I was given a bar of chocolate and sent off to the Oxford Rep Theatre, which was very agreeable. Then I went to Harrow where I was just indescribably bored. It was full of vaguely upper-class people whom I learned to dislike. I wasn’t bullied or beaten – none of those dramatic things; I was just bored and being educated slightly above my station.
Is it the idea of sending a young child away at so early an age which is the basis of your objection?
Yes. It’s a most extraordinary English habit, and I never quite forgave my mother. Strangely enough, I could understand my father wanting to get rid of me, and I sympathized with him, but I couldn’t quite understand why my mother did. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong to be dismissed to some draughty distant building. Not that I haven’t had children at boarding school myself, but that was when I was young and busy and less thoughtful, less considerate perhaps. But the idea of handing over the upbringing of your child to strangers is very weird, and I think people who run English prep schools also tend to be extremely weird. My son went to Bedales, a coeducational boarding school, which I suppose is rather different. He liked it there and met a girl who is now his wife, and they’ve been together ever since. And I myself owe a debt to the public-school system, since it gave me an immense amount to write about it. Making fun of public-school attitudes and English upper- and middle-class attitudes, has been my stock in trade over the years, so if I hadn’t been there I don’t know what I would have to write about.
You have often said that you believe in middle-class virtues. Can you explain to me what these are?
They are really the virtues I saw in my mother and father, those virtues I was trying to celebrate in A Voyage Round My Father. To begin with, it wasn’t anything to do with money, for they felt money was quite ridiculous and certainly not the most important thing. They were both liberal, my mother a sort of Shavian new woman, my father an old-fashioned Lloyd George Liberal. They were professional people, my father especially in the sense that he gave very good service to the clients he was acting for. He didn’t think about it for money, though he liked being paid. In those days barristers often did cases for nothing, and I certainly started that way. There was a kind of tradition of middle-class professionalism, of tolerance, liberalism, all of those things, which I admire. The middle classes have been the source of most of the strength of England, and most writers have come from the middle class. With the exception of Byron and Shelley, the aristocracy hasn’t produced many writers, and working-class traditions have tended to keep people in rather stereotyped conditions of mind. Political change also has come mainly from the middle classes, and all the best revolutionaries have been middle class.
Your books and plays have evoked, often savagely, the moral decline of the middle class. Do you consider yourself to be a part of that decline?
The moral decline in England came really in the Thatcher years, when all of those values I admire were derided. The idea that making money was important and everything had its price and had to be sold at the best price, all of those things marked the decline, in my view. And no, I don’t consider myself any part of that. I consider myself to be an old-fashioned liberal middle-class person.
There is a character in Paradise Postponed who is in favour of the working classes running the country while at the same time doubting if these were the kind of people she would have to tea. Does that perhaps epitomize the dichotomy in your own attitude towards the working class?
In Paradise Postponed I wanted to be as rude about my side as I was about the other side. I was getting at a type of mandarin left-wing person, particularly of that era of the Webbs, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf and those sort of people, who managed to combine the view that the working classes should take over the world, with the feeling that they themselves, being extremely privileged Bloomsbury persons, wouldn’t have them to tea. But I don’t think that that’s my own attitude. I’m as sceptical about liberal left-wing policies as I am about everything else. The radio quarrel with Julie Burchill when she accused me of being a snob made me think very closely about whether I am one, but I honestly don’t think so.
You have sometimes described yourself as a ‘committed leftie’. What does that mean in fact?
A committed leftie is how I would be described by other people, but it’s quite a difficult thing to explain. When I was at the Dragon School the Spanish Civil War was on, and I read – perhaps quite ill-advisedly – a lot of Auden and Spender and T.S. Eliot when I was really quite young, so those attitudes of the 1930s, the republican side of the Civil War, and so on, all of that was very immediate to me. Then when I went to Harrow which was upper class and full of rich people I became a one-boy Communist cell. There was an English public school Communist Party and I used to get messages from King Street but I stopped being interested at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Then I went into something called the Crown Film Unit, making documentary films during the war, and it was there, for the first time in my life, I met the working class, the workers so to speak. I became a member of the union and I felt extremely left-wing, and then came the great Labour victory of 1945. All those events throughout my life have encouraged me to believe in essential equality and in some version of socialism. But there are all sorts of leftie things which I’m not in favour of, like eating muesli or being against fox-hunting. I don’t really accept the entire left ticket, but I would always vote Labour, though with increasing scepticism.
Do you think your views have changed dramatically since the early days of 1945?
No, but perhaps if that government had never existed, then it would have been difficult to remain faithful to the Labour Party. Those memories and those ideals have kept me going.
Isn’t that a very English attitude in the sense that those who vote Conservative do so all their lives, and those who vote Labour continue to follow the Party line? Do you think that’s a good thing?
I think it’s a good thing not to vote Conservative, for whatever reason.
Your fellow barrister Geoffrey Robertson said of you: ‘There is a legal part of John Mortimer’s work which is deeply conservative, deeply rooted in the law.’ Do you think that was the case when you practised?
It is absolutely true to say there is a part of me which is deeply conservative: I want the countryside to be kept as it is, I don’t want the English landscape to change, and I want English country life to be kept as it is. I’m also very conservative about the British Constitution which I think works very well, and about the British system of justice. My whole attitude towards being a barrister is that the law is a kind of disease and you should try and cure your clients of it as quickly as possible. I always regarded the law as something which was getting in the way of a client’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and that my business was to extricate him from the law as mercifully as possible. When I started as a barrister the divorce law was absolutely ridiculous, in that you had to try and establish who was guilty and who was innocent, whereas there’s really no such thing as guilt or innocence in marital breakdown. So what you had to do was to try and solve people’s problems, and get them out of the clutches of the law. That’s how I always regarded my work as a barrister.
When you say you believe in the British Constitution, does that apply to the monarchy?
My theory about the monarchy is that it’s much better to have a head of state who isn’t political. The mistake of America is to have the head of state who is the prime minister, so to speak, which gives an American president a quite undeserved patriotic glow because you can’t really criticize the president without criticizing America. It’s an excellent thing to have a head of state who does not have any political powers and for that reason I’ve always thought the monarchy a good idea, though I’m becoming increasingly unsure about whether it can survive, even though it has good constitutional uses. The ridiculous thing is that people expect the monarchy to mirror decent family life or moral standards, but any hereditary line is going to have people who behave extremely foolishly from time to time. We have to evolve our own moral standards and not look to the monarchy to do it for us.
You married for the first time when you were twenty-six and inherited a ready-made family of four children. After the solitude of your own childhood, did the prospect of a large family attract you, as it might have terrified others?
I think it did. I was really entranced by the idea of a lot of children and since then I’ve never lived without children around. I have children now of all possible ages, from forty-two to eight years old. I think it did have to do with the loneliness of my childhood.
Since your wife had first to secure a divorce before you could be married, you went to considerable lengths to be cited as co-respondent. One imagines that in those days it was a rather sordid business with a great deal of stigma attaching to it…
It was particularly difficult for me because my father was the doyen of the divorce bar, and it was difficult for him too, although his colleagues behaved very well about it. We used to go to endless numbers of hotels and try and make people remember we’d been there. No one ever did, but in the end a private detective called Mr Smith came to the house and found our clothes in the same bedroom, and then I made a confession. Mr Smith later gave evidence in court that we were living together. The following week I was conducting my first case as a barrister and I had to call this same Mr Smith as a witness to the adultery of the people whose case I was handling. For the next thirty years I called Mr Smith to testify about once a week. We sometimes had coffee together but we’d never refer to the time when he came and inspected my bedroom. One day Mr Smith was walking across a pedestrian crossing and a police car came buzzing along and nearly ran him over, so he hit the police car on the roof in a fit of anger, whereupon the policeman arrested him. Mr Smith sued the police for false arrest. As he needed a witness to say he was a thoroughly reliable and decent chap, I went to court and said I’d known Mr Smith for thirty years and he was an absolutely truthful, honest character. He got substantial damages.
Your marriage to the first Penelope was legendary in its tempestuousness. Most people would find perpetual fighting draining and debilitating, yet you continued to work hard and write hard. Did you perhaps find a certain exhilaration or energy in the conflict?
Not really. I had £5 a week from my father, four children to feed, a very large house in Hampstead, and another house somebody gave us in the countryside. So I really had to work. I not only earned money by divorcing people, but I wrote anything – stories for women’s magazines, anything. Two writers married to each other is an impossible situation, because you’re using the same material and using each other’s lives. It was certainly tempestuous, but it gave us both a lot of material, and it wasn’t without moments of happiness. When I look back on it now, however, I can’t think how I survived it, not only because the marriage was at times stormy, but because I was working flat out as a barrister and a writer, and also enjoying myself quite a lot. I must have had enormous stamina. The funny thing about that time is that I would often leave the house in the morning battered after some long argument or angry scene, and then I’d go down to my chambers in the Temple and give advice to elderly company directors on exactly how they should conduct their married lives. Everybody else’s life was absolutely easy to put right.
Your father was much given to angry outbursts. Did you inherit his predisposition to anger?
No. His anger made me very calm, and I have very few angry outbursts. What I have in common with my father is a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. He had a long succession of jokes about his life, which he told very well, and he would laugh until the tears ran down his face. We shared a sense of the absurdity of life, coupled with rather a sentimental attitude to it also. My father would weep in the theatre, yet he would make an attempt to deal stoically with his life, which is what I liked about him. I actually miss him all the time and I’m terribly overshadowed by him. When I came to live in his house I found it difficult to do anything to it, to change anything about it for a long time, and I do find myself with the feeling that I’m repeating his life.
In Clinging to the Wreckage you describe your married life as a feverish round of longing for lucrative divorce briefs to defray ‘the family’s extraordinary demands for Farex, Ribena, Johnson’s Baby Powder and knicker linings’. Were there compensations to offset this heavy load, or do you remember it as unmitigated wretchedness?
Not at all as unmitigated wretchedness. The children were a great pleasure, and it’s very nice that I still see them a lot. And there came a time when the desperation to buy the knicker linings calmed down; Penelope had a contract with the New Yorker, and I was beginning to make money by writing plays and doing bigger divorce cases. So it didn’t go on forever.
One of the things you learned from being a divorce lawyer is that people on the whole don’t rush into divorce as they do into marriage, and that – as you put it – ‘any human relationship, however painful and absurd, can seem better than the uncharted desert of divorce’. Was that the sentiment which kept your own storm marriage going for about twenty-five years?
I think it was the children really, and it certainly wasn’t stormy all the time. What a lot of my clients feared was being alone; they would rather have the quarrels, or they’d even rather live with people they never spoke to, than be alone. I don’t think I thought that. I didn’t think I’d be alone if I was divorced, so it was really the children, and also there was a lot of affection.
Did you see Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater as a sort of revenge?
I honestly didn’t. I thought it was a very good book, and I don’t really feel that I’m like the person in The Pumpkin Eater. You’ve got to write about what’s happened to you; that’s what I do too, and it’s not revenge.
Your play The Wrong Side of the Park contains thinly disguised elements of your first marriage. Did writing that make you feel better about the painful aspects of marital breakdown?
Yes, I think it did, but again I don’t think it should be seen as a deliberate personal act within a relationship. It is an example of the writer’s solitary way of trying to translate his experiences into some form of art.
In much of your writing the distinction between fact and fiction is rather blurred. Are there any dangers in this, do you think?
Of course there are, and it’s a very interesting subject. Nothing is the literal truth, or the whole truth. That goes for journalism, documentaries and novels. In a sense the most truth comes from fiction. Tolstoy is the writer who comes nearest to telling the truth about life; you get much nearer the truth by reading Tolstoy than you do if you see some documentary or read a book which is meant to be a discussion of history. History is all written from somebody’s point of view; it’s a question of choice. Fiction is telling a story to make people want to know what is going to happen next, but it is really the writer’s attempt to make some statement about life. The facts of the story need not be true, but the statement should be true, it should be a statement of the truth.
After the breakdown of your first marriage you had two promiscuous years. Were those the years you should have had before you married perhaps?
Absolutely. I became middle aged quite early on, and then I had to go back to being young again. I didn’t go totally mad, but I was always on the lookout. I think I’m naturally somebody who wants to live with a family and children, and I wouldn’t now like to have to embark at my age on a promiscuous period. I think it would be very exhausting – all that planning and wondering and making telephone calls…
Your father thought that sex, like love, had been greatly overestimated by the poets. Did you have any sympathy with this view?
I disagreed with it at the time. He derived tremendous fun from pricking and preconceived ideas and making them look absurd. For example, he would always say that travel narrowed the mind, and you learned much more by staying at home. So he would dismiss any kind of large idea that sex or love was the greatest thing in the world. Yet he was very much in love with his wife, and she with him.
Are you romantic at heart?
Yes, I would say so. I like romanticism mixed with – not exactly cynicism – but common sense, as in Stendhal, or Byron.
You wrote in your autobiography: ‘The basic morality on which law is founded has always seemed to me inferior to those moral values which everyone must work out for themselves.’ That would seem to suggest that our legal system is very crude and unsophisticated…
Yes, I think that’s right. The legal system is like some sort of public utility: cleaning the drains, washing the streets, stopping people knocking each other on the head, or taking each other’s wallets…but not much else. The subtler points of life will not be decided by law. That’s why, for instance, I’m against all censorship laws, because I don’t think the law should tell people what they should read or what they should not read, or intrude into their private morality. Those are things they must discover for themselves. The law can do simple things, like stopping robberies, and compensating if you’re run over, but when it gets into the intricate realms of morality it makes a fool of itself.
Would you agree that our adversarial system is not necessarily conducive to the truth and that success is often due to powerful rhetoric?
I’m in favour of the adversarial system. An English trial isn’t an exercise to discover the truth, it’s an exercise to discover whether in a criminal trial the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. It’s absolutely right that people should not be sent to prison unless their guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt. That doesn’t mean that at the end of a criminal trial the truth has been discovered; the person might be guilty but there might not be enough evidence to satisfy a jury. That’s a much better system than having a judge as a kind of Hercule Poirot trying to ferret out the truth which he may be wrong about. I have grave doubts about how much rhetoric alters the adversarial system. You can lose cases by making mistakes, but I think it’s quite difficult to win unwinnable cases with rhetoric.
You used to say when you grew up you would decide between being a writer and a barrister. Since you have left the Bar, does that mean you have finally grown up?
A good question. I didn’t decide for years and years to leave the Bar, and I think I left it about ten years too late. The great advantage of old age is that you can behave quite childishly, whereas when you’re young you’re very anxious to appear grown up. I always was a writer who did a bit of barristering, like a girl who wants to be an actress does a bit of waitressing as a day job. But I still don’t know whether I’ve finally grown up…
You claim always to have felt somewhat out of place at the Bar. Why was that?
When I started everybody was frightfully correct and conservative, and called each other by their surnames, as though they were at English prep schools, and generally behaved in a sort of English public-school manner; and there was I, rather left-wing, writing plays, going off at the end of a court to go to rehearsals and take actresses out. So I was slightly out of place, though not completely, because I had of course been a child round the Temple. When I first went to the law courts, the ushers used to call me Master John. It was rather like the young squire taking possession of the house.
You defended some famous cases, including Oz and Gay News. Were you aware at the time the significance they would have for years to come?
No. I got into all that because I was a QC and also a writer. The first book I defended was Last Exit to Brooklyn and I got that off on the appeal, on the basis that the description of sex was so disgusting that it put the British population off sex for about a week. It was a frightfully moral argument which the Court of Appeal liked. The Oz trial just came upon me; like most things in my life, somebody asked me to do it, and I did it. It turned out to be absolutely typical of that strange flower-power generation, which seems to me much more distantly in the past than the 1930s or the 1920s. However, I’m not sure now it did change the face of England.
You grew up in an agnostic household and have never been able to bring yourself to believe in God. Have you ever felt that as a particular loss? Have you envied other people their faith?
I wasn’t ever christened or confirmed, so I grew up with no religion, but I never missed it at all. And I always admired my father, because although he went blind and had awful things happen to him, he never turned to God. But I am very interested in religion; I think sometimes atheists become obsessed with religion, and I certainly love talking to bishops, or arguing with cardinals. My problem with religion, or with an omnipotent deity, is to see why he puts up with all the evil in the world and why he allowed eight million Jews to be massacred and why he lets Bosnia go on, if he is all powerful. I can’t quite work out whether I would like God if he existed; that’s a kind of intellectual argument which I’m always trying to get the answer to, but I never succeeded. There have been more horrible deeds perpetrated in the name of religion than for anything else, and it’s difficult not to believe that the religions of the world have done more harm than good. As a writer, however, I am aware that Catholicism has provided a wonderful kind of starting-off point for novelists. If you’re Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh you can have a kind of framework for your life and your writing which I don’t have, and which I suppose I might envy. I also do think that a totally materialistic view of life can be a kind of stunted philosophy; you do want to attach some kind of almost mystical importance to something, otherwise your life becomes rather Stalinist.
But as you get older, don’t you hanker after some sort of faith?
No, I don’t, honestly. And I certainly don’t hanker after immortality. My father used to say that immortality of the soul would be like living in some kind of transcendental hotel with nothing to do in the evenings; and I don’t really look forward to that. It is important to believe in something outside yourself, more important than yourself, but having some political beliefs and also believing in the importance of literature is enough for me.
In your autobiography you quote from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, as if it gave expression to some scarcely acknowledged religious impulse. Have you yourself felt that ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns…’
Yes. What you have to find is the mystic importance of the moment of time, that moment when you’re experiencing the country, or solitude, or whatever. And I suppose the nearest I can get to religion is a sort of Wordsworthian reaction to the countryside and pantheism and the importance of nature. I can understand the mystic qualities but not the intellectual qualities of religion.
You once said, ‘Loyalty is a stultifying emotion.’ Can you develop that idea?
I think that anything which is uncritical is stultifying. You should be able to criticize everything and so if you’re devoted to somebody totally uncritically, it is stultifying. But in saying that I really meant loyalty to groups, or parties, or the old school, or whatever.
Does loyalty extend to fidelity? Is fidelity also stultifying?
No. I think it’s probably liberating in a way because it removes a lot of complications from your life. It’s something people have to deal with for themselves, but I think on the whole fidelity is rather freeing.
You dislike Mrs Thatcher and all that she stood for, feeling she epitomized what was worst about the 1980s. Is her legacy likely to darken the 1990s equally?
Yes. It was her legacy that destroyed basic industries in Britain; we’re producing service industries and computers, but nothing basic is being made in the country any longer, and I dislike the whole morality of everything having its price and the idea that nothing was important unless it was making money. Political idealism died in the 1980s and became an object of derision. We’re still living in that shadow.
You made no secret of your loathing for the SDP. Does that extend to the present Liberal Democrats?
Yes, I can’t stand the Liberal Democrats. They’re just there to spoil everything. We’ve had Conservative governments for so long because the opposition has been split, and when they could have voted against Maastricht and against the government – quite legitimately because they weren’t having a referendum – they kept the government going for no reason whatsoever. I dislike them intensely.
You have often been criticized for being ‘a champagne socialist’ and have defended yourself by claiming your role was to infiltrate the Establishment in order to change it. Do you think you can claim success in that respect?
I just believe champagne should be freely available to all. Nye Bevan was forever drinking champagne, and that was a very good sign. I also don’t think attacking the Establishment from the outside has much effect. The best form of attack is humour, to laugh at the trappings. If you get the jury laughing in court, you know you’ve won the case. But I don’t think I’ve succeeded very much in changing anything. The great thing about the British Establishment is that it is totally impervious. All a writer can do is to try and promote people’s understanding of each other and their sympathy with each other, and to make established institutions look ridiculous.
Beneath your own cheerfulness and bonhomie, I suspect there is a grim pessimism, and malaise…
Pessimism is a very good basis for a cheerful outlook on life. If you don’t expect too much you don’t get disappointed. I always used to tell my clients that they could go to prison for six years, and when they ended up by being fined £2 they were frightfully relieved. But if you’d told them they were going to be fined 10 shillings and they were fined £2, they would have been very cross. So I think it is better to expect the worst. I do have a fundamentally pessimistic attitude to life, but I hope I don’t have too much malaise, except in the afternoons when I often get depressed.
Your preferred genre for writing is comedy. Do you think that is the best way of saying important things, or is there perhaps a danger that important issues will be seen as trivialized?
That’s a very good question. Comedy is the most important and the most difficult form of writing. Anybody can be tragic, but to be funny is really hard and requires great skill. It’s a great English tradition from the comedies of Shakespeare like Twelfth Night and As You Like It, which are quite sad plays really, through to the novels of Dickens which can be and comic and savage at the same time. Comedy is also the most truthful thing; if you rule out comedy you rule out half of the truth. Does it trivialize the truth? I don’t think it does. Just the reverse.
You are very sensitive to criticism and unfavourable reviews. Haven’t you reached a stage where you can afford to ignore adverse comments?
I’ve now stopped reading reviews. They are just quite irritating, and it can be bad for the confidence. Dickens never read reviews, then suddenly he read a bad review of Little Dorrit by mistake and got into a terrible depression. Writers are very uncertain about what they’ve written, and if it gets very well received, that’s a wonderful relief and surprise; if it is badly received, it’s depressing.
There are many contradictions in your character which I am sure you are aware of. You are an upholder of traditional values, but a defender of liberalism; you are both worldly wise and apparently starry-eyed, and so on. Have these contradictions ever worried you? Have you ever tried to resolve them?
Oh no, I wouldn’t like to resolve them. I would cease to exist if I resolved them. The contradictions are essential, and if you’re writing, you have to have the tensions in your writing which are the different parts of your character.
I have the impression that the fact that you were never able to get close to your mother, even at the end of her life, was one of the hardest and saddest things for you…
Yes, it is one of my greatest regrets. I think because I had a very strong relationship with my father, she was rather left out. Also she came from the English tradition of – not coldness, because she was not in the least bit cold – but of not being demonstrative. Her father committed suicide while she was in South Africa and her family just sent her the local paper with a note saying, ‘This story will probably interest you.’ As a family they didn’t talk about things like that. And although we weren’t quite so remote, it was never as close as I should have liked.
I believe you are infuriated by the thought of dying. Wouldn’t you be comforted by the thought of an afterlife?
No. My father’s immortality is that I remember him and that my children are like him. The only sort of immortality I believe in is when people remember you, or people’s lives have been shaped by you to some extent. I don’t want some sort of strange and detached existence floating about the universe.
Looking back on your life, what are you proudest of?
Of the good things I have written, Clinging to the Wreckage, A Voyage Round My Father, and I’m also rather proud of Rumpole. It’s quite difficult for a writer to keep going in a lot of different generations, and I’m pleased to have done that. I’m proud of my children, and happy to have kept my parents’ house in the condition it’s been accustomed to I don’t think my achievements have been really great. I hope I’ve been on the side of tolerance, liberalism, letting people alone, and social justice, but millions of other people have said all those things, so it’s not anything I feel particularly responsible for.
You have sometimes said that to conduct an interview is much more difficult than to be interviewed…do you still take that view?
This has been such a good interview that it’s made me think very deeply. I was never quite so well prepared as you, and it is always nerve-racking until the interviewee suddenly says something extraordinary and then you can relax in the knowledge you’ve got the bloody thing wrapped up. I remember interviewing Hailsham and asking him what he did when he sat on the woolsack looking bored. And he said, ‘Well, what I do is whisper bollocks to the bench of bishops.’ And I knew that since I had got him to say that, everything would be alright.