As you may recall, I have been re-reading Murderers and Other Friends (Penguin, 1995) as part of the Landing Eight mission. Due to the rather inconvenient fact of being aware that I was to lose my bookselling job come the end of March, my concentration has been somewhat fragile. Consequently, reading anything, even from an old familiar face has been rather a struggle. But, as I am nearing the end of my Landing Eight pile I have determined to soldier on regardless. Judging by experience, any sort of ‘readers block’ that I have ever encountered wilts quickly enough if I batter it into submission. After all temptation is always (and only) a Landing Bookshelf away.
This is John Mortimer’s second volume of autobiography, the first being Clinging to the Wreckage (1982). He also wrote a play about his father’s life as a barrister entitled A Voyage Around my Father (first broadcast as a radio play in 1963). In Murderers and Other Friends, Mortimer picks up the threads of his life’s story in the 1970s, embarking upon his second marriage and acting in the Oz trial. Accounts of legal cases interweave with reminiscences of family and friends. He is an engaging writer who has a wealth of amusing and perceptive stories to tell about the great and the good, as well as the frankly criminal. The book stands up well on the whole to re-reading. However I did find that Mortimer’s more hedonistic adventures with various friends and acquaintances tried my patience somewhat. However, my present state of mind might have a strong bearing on that reaction.
As a confirmed Rumpole fan, I have re-read this book with him in mind, looking out for Rumpole related anecdotes. John Mortimer explains how he put together the various character traits that we see in Rumpole from several sources. For instance, a couple of Mortimer’s colleagues inspired Rumpole’s habit of referring to judges that he disliked, as ‘old darling’. Closer to home, Mortimer’s father was the source of the Wordsworth quotations at inopportune moments and a waistcoat regularly adorned with cigar ash. The author does however, very modestly disclaim any resemblance to his fictional legal counterpart, ‘I lack his courage, his stoicism and the essential nobleness of his character’.
As I said in the previous post, Horace Rumple’s first appearance was in a BBC Play for Today, which was later developed into a series. The character was actually created for television, something that I failed to realise on first seeing the Thames Television series in the late 1970s. Mortimer talks about Rumpole’s beginnings, explaining how Leo McKern took on the role of the Old Bailey hack for the first television episode. Mortimer is eloquent in his praise of McKern’s talent, ‘His acting exists where I always hope my writing will be: about two feet off the ground, a little larger than life, but always taking off from reality’. In his memoir, John Mortimer mentions having written the part of Rumpole with nobody in particular in mind to play the part though he felt that ‘Alastair Sim would be excellent in the part, but sadly Mr Sim was dead and unable to take it on’. No doubt Alastair Sim (had he been still alive) would have made an excellent Rumpole, but like many fellow fans, to me Rumpole will always be Leo McKern…
Now what remains to be read of the Landing Eight?
The two adventures of Rumpole illustrated here are two collections from the Landing Bookshelves:
The Omnibus (1983) contains: Rumpole of the Bailey (1978), The Trials of Rumpole (1979) and Rumple’s Return (1980).
Rumpole a La Carte was published by Penguin in 1991.