John’s journey

We all love a good story and none loved to tell one as much as John Mortimer, QC, author, playwright, raconteur and all round good guy. Or was he? A close reading of Mortimer’s biography reveals some rather unexpected aspects of this jovial man’s character…

Born in 1923, Mortimer lived a long and productive life fuelled by his three passions; love, literature and the law. He married Penelope in 1949, taking on four stepdaughters, and the care of their own two children, a son and a daughter. They divorced in 1971 and he married Penny Gollop in 1972 and enjoyed the parenting of another two daughters, Emily and Rose. Mortimer’s early years saw him grow up as a much-adored only child in a home of privilege, under the doting gaze of his barrister father and home-maker mother. After graduating from Oxford he spent time writing novels and screenplays before returning to study to become a barrister also. Mortimer loved the law, but regarded it with a very clear eye – noting its foibles, inconsistencies and the unfairness of many judgments in class-conscious Britain. He also adored language and his ability to mix lofty phrases and observations of the machinations within the legal world came together in the rumpled, rambunctious character of Rumpole of the Bailey played faultlessly by Australian actor, Leo McKern. Many people still confuse Sir John (he was knighted in 1998) with his character, Rumpole, married to Hilda or She Who Must Be Obeyed. On the contrary, in real life, Mortimer obeyed neither of his wives, enjoying numerous dalliances and some full-blown affairs with actresses, secretaries, publicists and many other attractive young women who crossed his path. These public misdemeanors he seemed to find entirely forgivable, despite the enormous hurt inflicted upon his wives, children and stepchildren. A Voyage Round John is a very long work, but also a very rewarding one. The author, Valerie Grove, is careful not to shield us from his less attractive traits of dishonesty, boastfulness and selfishness, but she also knows when to celebrate a first-rate mind and wit.

Read and enjoy

A Voyage Round John Mortimer

Valerie Grove

Penguin Books