Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

John Mortimer

John Mortimer has plenty of physical complaints - his sight is failing, his body is aching, and "I can't walk properly, which is quite tiresome," he said - but there are unexpected compensations. "You have hundreds of friends helping you about," he said, "and you get into all sorts of adventures."

A quintessential Mortimerian adventure took place at the theater recently, when Sir John, trying unsteadily to reach his seat, suddenly lurched into a man in pinstripes sitting at the end of his row.

"I grabbed his knee," Sir John related, pausing to take a sip of wine in the midst of a long, drink-fueled lunch recently. "Then I stumbled down the steps and my hand slid up, and I grabbed his genitalia.

I said, `I´m terribly sorry.´ Later, he turned and said, `Oh, wasn´t that a wonderful evening?´ " This is also a compensation in aging for Sir John, 78: the telling of racy anecdotes over delicious meals of smoked salmon, crusty bread, new potatoes and tomatoes and cheese in his rambling farmhouse far down an Oxfordshire country lane. He collects funny stories the way a magician might collect new tricks, and there are many examples in his latest book, "The Summer of a Dormouse" (Viking), an episodic memoir in which Sir John - playwright, screenwriter, novelist, lawyer and general bon vivant - describes what life is like when your body is failing but your mind is young.

The title comes from a passage in Lord Byron's journals. "When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning - how much remains of downright existence?" Byron wrote. "The summer of a dormouse."

If anyone feels like a dormouse for whom time is quickly compressing, it is Sir John. (He acquired the Sir when he was knighted in 1998; he chose for his knightly coat of arms a dormouse drinking Champagne.) In the year covered by the memoir he wrote the screenplay with Franco Zeffirelli for "Tea With Mussolini," presided over the committee debating the future of the empty pedestal in Trafalgar Square, wrote a television adaption of the Laurie Lee memoir "Cider With Rosie," went on a book tour, was host for a fund-raiser at Wormwood Scrubs prison, sat at the deathbed of his first wife and was chairman of the Royal Court Theater in London, which was undergoing a multimillion dollar overhaul.

That is only a partial list.

Just now he has two plays in the works: "Naked Justice," about judges, which opened outside London and is moving there this fall; and "Hock and Soda Water," about growing old, which is opening in Chichester in November. He is writing a screenplay for a film of "The Merchant of Venice." A collection of short stories called "Rumpole Rests His Case," about the barrister known to many through the television series "Rumpole of the Bailey," is being published in the autumn. (Despite the title, Sir John said, Rumpole does not die in this book.)

Sir John has no hobbies - "I've never been able to play golf or anything," he says, horrified at the thought - and spends little time lying around. Work is leisure. "Otherwise I'd get terribly bored," he said. "I wouldn't know what to do."

He will not admit to feeling defeated by the aches and discomforts of age; by the blindness in one eye and the glaucoma-induced fuzziness in the other; or by the general lameness caused by a bad fall several years ago that left him with an irreparably torn knee. Combined with a deep vein thrombosis and ulcers in the leg, the injury has left him unable walk for long unaided. He has to sit down at parties, where, he said, "nobody speaks to you; you're like a chair." In airports, he uses a wheelchair.

He remains firmly uninterested in improving his health, beyond the occasional visit to a local doctor who invariably advises him to drink brandy before bed. "I don't want to go and have checkups in case I have bad news," he said. "I've never done anything healthy, really. The doctor says, `Do you get breathless when you take exercise?´ " and I say, `I never take exercise, so I wouldn´t know.´ "

Sir John has a model to live up to in his father, a divorce lawyer who quoted Shakespeare from memory and who practiced law even after going blind. The senior Mortimer enlisted the help of his wife, Sir John's mother, who duly read aloud the necessary legal documents - often lurid accounts of adultery - during his morning commute on the train.

Her husband was growing deaf, too, so she had to speak up. His father listened to books on tape, went on long walks, loved gardening. "He always said that you mustn't think he wasn't enjoying life just because he couldn't see," Sir John said. "And he said if we heard anyone calling him a poor old blind thing, we were to turn and say, `No, he´s enjoyed every moment of it.´ "

Sir John deeply admires his father's brand of stoicism. He includes one of the great - and possibly apocryphal - stories from the English stoical tradition in his memoir, in which the Duke of Wellington is standing with Lord Uxbridge at the battle of Waterloo. "A bouncing cannonball knocks off Lord Uxbridge's leg," Sir John writes.

"After a long pause, Wellington says: `My God, Uxbridge. You´ve lost your leg!´ At which Uxbridge, looking down, agrees, `My God, so I have.´ "

Sir John would like to think the story is true. "I read quite recently that Lord Uxbridge buried his leg with full military honors." He said.

"Everyone turned up and somebody preached a sermon and he solemnly interred his leg in a coffin." It is this attitude that he means to convey, in some ways, in his work.

"That's what English writing is," Sir John said. "You deduce what people are feeling from what they're not saying. Because English people don't say what they feel. In American writing, they say, `You don´t understand me, Dad.´ Whereas in English writing they say, `Hello, Dad, how many lumps of sugar do you take in your tea?´ "

There is no question that Sir John prefers good gossip or a meaty debate about civil liberties to the sharing of touchy-feely emotions. He is a sharp listener, in part because of his legal training, in part because he is eternally curious, in part because he likes to save up the funny parts for later.

Lunch went on, and Sir John's wife, Penny, breezed through the door, trailed by the couple's teenaged daughter, Rosie, and Rosie's boyfriend. (Their other daughter, Emily, 29, is an actress who has appeared in, among other things, the films "Notting Hill" and "Love's Labour's Lost.") The teenagers promptly dissolved away into the house. Another bottle of wine was recovered from the refrigerator.

The Mortimers married nearly 30 years ago, when Sir John was 49 and newly divorced, and Penny was 25. Penny had heard scandalous tales about him for years, because he had a tenuous connection to her family. After Sir John's first wife, Penelope - Penelope the First, he calls her - left her then-husband for Sir John, the discarded husband went on to marry the best friend of Penny's Aunt Marjorie. As a teenager Penny often heard her aunt referring to Sir John as "that wicked, wicked man, John Mortimer," which made things extra-exciting when they finally met.

Penny has a gravelly voice that always hints at a joke around the corner. The two make a fine double act, even when discussing the unpleasant subject of mortality. She does not fear death, she said, having had a classic near-death experience - complete with tunnel, white light and feeling of serenity - when she began severely hemorrhaging after Emily's birth. "I don't mind about dying," she said.

"I just don't want to be decrepit and old and ugly." She turned to her husband: "Don't you hate getting old?"

"I'd like to go on living forever," Sir John said.

His wife said, "He's always telling me that he'll be dead soon, that we'll be bankrupt." She looked at him. "You're always saying you're going to die. But you've been saying that for 30 years. So I feel like saying, `Well, can you give me a date so I can make some plans?´ "

She laughed a deep laugh and said she'd grown accustomed to his ailments. "These things happen gradually and you get used to it," she said.

In a marriage, "it's friendship that matters," she said. "I always think that it's just luck whether people can stay together. It's luck that you happen to match up - what you do, how you have rows, how you get out of them, all that sort of thing. You can't really tell that in the beginning. It's like finding the right bit of jigsaw to fit in."

In "The Summer of a Dormouse," Sir John relates how Penny was once seated at dinner next to Philip Gould, an aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two had never met.

"He really is getting old, isn't he?" Mr. Gould asked her, by way of an opening line. "Why do you stay with John? Is it love or duty?"

Taken aback, Penny replied, "Probably both."

It was only later, discussing the incident with a friend, that Penny decided what she should have said: "It's because of the wonderful sex.

But I don't suppose you'd know about that.



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