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Dearest John - Penny Mortimer on John Mortimer at 100

Blog | By Penny Mortimer | Apr 16, 2023

John Mortimer's great creation, Rumpole of the Bailey

The writer and creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer, would have turned 100 on April 21st. His widow, Penny Mortimer, pays tribute to him

John would have been 100 on April 21st. It’s amazing that he managed to live to the age of nearly 86, dying in 2009.

He drank champagne and wine every day, and he was hardly what you’d call slim. He’d hadn’t done a minute’s proper exercise in his life. Whenever he heard that some fitness freak had had a heart attack while out running, he’d say, ‘There, I told you so. Exercise is not good for you!’

Various doctors and physiotherapists would try to get him to gently exercise his ulcerated leg. It was caused by a deep vein thrombosis after an operation to mend his ruptured Achilles tendon – acquired not by playing tennis but by tripping over the telephone wire in his study. He would tell them he couldn’t concentrate on writing if he moved his leg; and that was that.

He did occasionally swim once up and down our rather small swimming pool and afterwards reward himself for the effort with a glass of champagne. We thought it rather amazing when, on Palm Beach in Australia, he went several times to the sea swimming pool. We later found out that it was actually only chest deep and he was walking slowly up and down making breast stroke movements with his arms.

He was not physically brave. I remember, years ago, the time we were in bed upstairs when we heard a noise downstairs. Alarmed that it might be burglars, we got out of bed and moved towards the door. When we got to it, he firmly pushed me out in front of him.

But he was brave mentally. A couple of months before he died, I’d brought him home from hospital for the last time. A friend and I were sitting by his bed, wondering if he was coming to the end. He suddenly opened his eyes and declaimed, ‘I haven’t kicked the bucket, I’ve just turned a little pail [as in a pail of water].’

Five minutes later, he said, ‘They’re on the other side of the river. Little men with white teeth and little black hats. They’re getting the boat ready to come over and fetch me. But their journey may be in vain!’

He was determined to enjoy life and saw the funny side of most things. The night I met him, on New Year’s Eve 1969/70, he made me laugh. The next day, he took me out in my lunch hour to a fancy restaurant in Curzon Street (I was working in a ritzy casino as a waitress) and backed his Mercedes into a parking meter. Life with him was never dull.

I don’t think he ever felt guilt. He said it was a waste of time. He didn’t dwell on upsetting occurrences – he’d pretend they hadn’t happened. When his first wife, the writer Penelope Mortimer (I was always known as Penelope the Second), wrote her second volume of autobiography and sent him a copy, he put it in a drawer and shut it, because it was most unpleasant about me, as well as him. Of course, it had to be revealed in the end but, for three whole weeks, he was able to forget about it.

Writing was his life and I never knew him to spend a day without some hours sitting chewing his handkerchief while putting pen to paper. He said his idea of heaven was to be working in his study with three attractive women sitting in the kitchen next door, quietly talking about how wonderful he was.

He loved women and most women he knew loved him. He’d tell them how brilliant they were and made them laugh. He was never bored and, if he felt that nothing interesting was happening, would often start an argument.

I would argue back and then I’d see a gleam in his eyes and know that he was thinking, ‘That might be a good line for She Who Must Be Obeyed [John’s nickname for the fearsome wife, Hilda Rumpole, in his Rumpole series of novels].’

Life with him was never a daisy-strewn path. He could be very annoying and demanding, needing constant attention.

He was in some ways still a boy at heart. He was an only child and his mother spent most of her time looking after his interesting, blind father. I think he spent his early years living in his imagination and not involved in many childish activities.

He said that, when he met Penelope the First, one of her attractions was that she already had four daughters (by three different fathers). He was able to join the gang and often play the naughty boy, as she was six years older than he was.

We spent forty years together, mostly here at Turville Heath, his childhood home in the Chilterns. He loved it and loved the garden that his father had built. He made me promise that he could die here and indeed he did.

I miss him very much and feel lonely without him. I don’t think I ever really got to the bottom of him. Perhaps that is why life with him was constantly fascinating.