Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tribute to John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame

A friend and reader of these platitudinous posts informed me that the great John Mortimer, creator of the legendary Rumpole of the Bailey series has passed. I am sorry. I will miss Rumpole’s adventures even as he aged and cheated death along with his creator.

As I noted in my tribute last year to another great British author, George MacDonald Fraser, many of my favorite authors, British septua- and octogenarians mostly, have started to pass. First John Fowles a few years ago, then Fraser and now Mortimer. All that are left are John LeCarre and John Forsyth. And I’m not sure how many new works we will get from them from here on. LeCarre will turn 78 this year and Forsyth heading to 71. LeCarre still publishes every year or so, but Forsythe, a little less frequently, his last in 2006.

But let’s talk about Mortimer. 85 years old and infirm, he died on the 16th. He was a novelist and screenwriter, and, unlike with Forsyth, Fraser and LeCarre, I can’t say I’ve read virtually every fictional work he wrote. In fact, other than one series of books, I haven’t read anything he wrote. And I don’t care. Because the series I’m talking about that I've read is immortal, in the pantheon of the greatest crime fiction – Rumpole, as in Rumpole of the Bailey, of which he wrote, I believe, nearly 20 novels (although you could describe tham as connected short stories for the most part too).

Who was Rumpole? Like the author he was an older attorney, oldest in his chambers as he tells us. His specialty was criminal work. But he wasn’t just any old lawyer. He was the hardest drinking, wittiest, worst dressed, most henpecked, poetry loving, legal gadfly who ever haunted the halls of the Old Bailey. He was not invincible. Occasionally he lost. But since the Penge Bungalow Murder case, where he obtained an acquittal without a leader (that’s an inside joke known well to all fans) he has been a leader in his field, even if not that many are aware of it.

I’ve always noted that many of my real life heroes as well as the fictional ones, rarely dressed well and were unconventional if not downright iconoclastic. Rumpole was both of these things. His suit was well worn and often spattered with his own cigar ash and stained with his favorite plonk – Pomeroy’s Chateau Thames Embankment, the house wine at his favorite pub.

Nemesis’s? He has a few. Foremost is his most enduring and often endearing relationship with “She Who Must Be Obeyed” aka, Rumpole’s wife, Hilda. Usually comical, she is a society climbing, busy bodying, somewhat prudish woman, who pretty much forced her way into Rumpole's life while he was trying the Penge Bungalow Murder case, and gained an acquital without a leader (did I say that already?)

Others? Whichever judge he’s before. They tend in Rumpole novels, and it seems to me real life, to side a bit much with the prosecution, often telegraphing their prejudices to the jury. They are often given apt names, such as Justice Bullingham (The Mad Bull) and Justice Graves. Rumpole has a beautiful way of putting them down to their face, often with such deft that everybody in the courtroom gets it, but there is little the judge can do.

Others? Whoever is head of chambers at the time. They are usually featherbrained, like Guthrie Featherstone, or politically correct or arrogant beyond bearing like Soapy Sam Ballard. And often a somewhat harried associate in chambers, Claude-Erskine Brown, who is benevolenty incompetent but quite the muttonhead, causes our Rumpole to good naturedly wince. More than once does Rumpole have to help assist Claude’s marriage to his much more successful wife, Phyllidia, who Rumpole has dubbed, in his literary fashion, Portia, originally a heroine from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Allies? Usually his solicitor (in Britain lawyers are either solicitors, who solicit work and barristers, who try the occasional felony [a Rumpolism] and other matters in court and Henry, clerk of chambers who hands out briefs. Sometimes, Portia is an ally and also a younger woman, a feminist named, suspiciously, Miss Fiona Allways.

Many of his fellow lawyers “take silk,” i.e., they become what is known as Queen’s Counsel (it would be King’s Counsel when there is a king), as did, by the way, John Mortimer, for all he makes fun of it, which gives these lawyers a sort of exalted status, regardless of whether or not as lawyers they are worthy of their powdered wigs. When Rumpole says he obtained an acquittal without a leader, he refers to one of these usually chowder-headed QC’s, who, were it not for Rumpole, would happily surrender their client to the mercy of the court.

Rumpole has made a living representing an extended family of hopelessly affable criminals named the Timsons, often with great success, although, if you a Timson, that might mean something different than it does for you or I. The Timsons have their arch-enemies, but, I’m getting caught up in a bunch of stuff that may mean little to you and so let me move on to a touch of Rumpole. But, first, try one. Read the first one, Rumpole of the Bailey, of course, and then others if you like it. Go in order if you can because the characters grow and change with the series. If you just can’t bear to read anything, or, not comic novel's anyway, then rent the brilliant series which starred Leo McKern, who, although not Mortimers first choice, was so perfect a Rumpole, for a while Mortimer continued to write the series just to see McKern play him on tv.

Here are the first words from Rumpole of the Bailey, as he practically sums up all of the books for us:

“I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed) and father to Nicholas Rumpole (and father to Nicholas Rumpole (lecturer in social studies at the University of Baltimore, I have always been extremely proud of Nick). I, who have a mind full of old murders, legal anecdotes and memorable fragments of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition) together with a dependable knowledge of bloodstains, blood groups, fingerprints, and forgery by typewriter; I, who am now the oldest member of my Chambers, take up my pen at this advanced age during a lull in business (theres’ not much crime about, all the best villains seem to be off on holiday in the Costa Brava), in order to write my reconstructions of some of my recent trimphs (including a number of recent disasters) in the Courts of Law, hoping thereby to turn a bob or two which won’t be immediately grabbed by the taxman, or my clerk Henry, or by She Who Must Be Obeyed, and perhaps give some sort of entertainment to those who, like myself, have found in British justice a life-long subject of harmless fun.”

Rumpole, is, if nothing else, the outraged voice in many of us when the wheels of Justice, capital J, move much faster than forces of justice, small j. And you consistently chuckle and smile all the way (but don't expect to laugh out loud that often). As I heard Mortimer himself say in an interview once - Rumpole got to say the things we all wished we could get away with. Perhaps more, he is an aging man, who should be past his best powers, who never quits on a client, and seeks out more and more battles in court to stave off the inevitable at home – perhaps he’d say, a veritable Ulysses of the Bailey. It's not a perfect analogy, because Ulysses had a home at the end of his travails where prudent and chaste Penelope waited. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe it is a better analogy than I first thought, as both of Mortimer's wives were named -- Penelope. Now that's odd (unless Penelope in England was like Mary here back in the day). Really didn't see that coming.

Here are some more choice bits of Rumpole:

“'In praise of God, Rumpole. It is going to be Christmas.’ Hilda installed herself on the other side of the electric fire.

“Sometimes I wonder if God enjoys Christmas all that much.’"

From The Trials of Rumpole. Now, here’s Rumpole summing up to the jury in pure Rumpole fashion, which means, bombastic:

“In it not a matter entirely for your Lordship.’ And I said fearlessly. ‘It is a matter for our Common Law! And when London is but a memory and the Old Bailey has sunk back into the primeval mud, my country will be remembered for three things: the British Breakfast, The Oxford Book of English Verse and the Presumption of Innocence. That presumption is the Golden Thread which runs through the whole history of our Criminal Law – so, whether a murder has been committed in the Old Kent Road or on the way to Nova Lombaro, no man shall be convicted if there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. And at the end of the day, how can any Court be certain sure that that fearless young woman Mabel Mazenze has not come to tell us the plain and simple truth?”

From Rumpole and The Golden Thread. Now here’s Rumpole battling the court while conducting his usual devastating cross-examination, in a rare episode narrated by Hilda – She Who Must Be Obeyed (a name, by the way, which Mortimer snatched and resurrected from the great British adventure writer H. Rider Haggard of a century past).

“’You might venture to suggest it, Beazley. And you might well be correct. And when you first saw Mr Skelton Senior, he appeared to you to be dead?’

‘He appeared to me to be very dead, sir.’

So if he was dead, then he’ unlikely to have been able to call out for help a few seconds before?’

‘That would seem to follow, Mr Rumpole.’ A weary and sepulchral voice came from the Bench, apparently inviting Rumpole to get on with it and not waste time. At which my husband, with elaborate courtesy, said, ‘Thank you, my Lord. Thank you for that helpful interruption in favour of the defence. Now, Beazley, you say you and your wife were watching a war film at ten forty-five?’

‘He has already told us that, Mr Rumpole.’ Graves was making it clear that he hadn’t joined the defence team.’

‘Any rumpus in the hallway which took place at that time would have been drowned by the batlle of Iwojima?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But when you did hear a voice, we are agreed it could hardly have been that of Mr Skelton Senior?’

No, sir.’

‘It might very well have been the voice of my client, young Michael Skelton?’

‘It might have been.’

‘Calling for help for the man he’s accused of murdering? Is that your evidence?

From Rumpole and the Angel of Death.

As all Rumpole-philes know, Rumpole was devoted to quoting from his beloved edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Thus, I shall end with a verse as well, from one of Rumpole’s most dearly loved poets, Lord Alfred Tennyson, which Sir John Mortimer has Rumpole quote himself in The Trials of Rumpole. The poem, to match my earlier analogy, is "Ulysses".

“Come, my friends,
`Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”

And now it seems, he has finished with smiting anything and died. Good bye, you loveable old codger.


  1. Conchis3:38 PM

    What a grand summation -- fitting of Rumpole himself! Sadly, there will be no more stories of Horace. He -- and his creator -- shall be sorely missed.

  2. Well done, Horace! A truly fitting tribute to a great writer. Good job, Frodo!


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .