So begins one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. You may know John Mortimer better as the author of the “Rumpole” books: Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole, Rumpole for the Defence, and so on. I have never read the Rumpole books, and I never got around to watching the BBC TV series Rumpole of the Bailey which ran for seven seasons, from April 1978 to December 1992.
My first introduction to the author were the Rapstone novels, written during the Thatcher era, and featuring the wonderfully execrable right-wing prig, Leslie Titmuss. Those three novels, Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and The Sound of Trumpets, don’t appear in my bookshelf at the moment – lost, I think, in one of my frequent moves. I’m making a note as we speak to replace them and read them again.
Mortimer was an enormously prolific writer. Besides the Rumpole novels – 20 of them, as well as the TV series – and the Rapstone books, he wrote nine other novels, 44 plays, and several volumes of autobiography; The Summer of a Dormouse is one of those and, like everything he wrote, it is delightful.
I’m actually a little surprised to find it here, in my apartment, as I like it so much I keep buying copies and giving them to friends for their birthdays. It’s that kind of book. Although you wouldn’t give it to someone younger than 50, I don’t think. As it says on the book jacket, Mortimer describes what it’s like to be 77 and still feel like you’re 11. I’m not 77 – yet – but I can relate. I can still put on my own socks and walk without assistance but I’ve been known to swear at the writing on a bottle of pills and wonder why everybody mumbles.
The title is taken from a quotation in 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? The summer of a dormouse.” How much life do we actually experience, when we aren’t eating, sleeping, or scrolling through our phones? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But Mortimer does think about it, and he does so from the vantage point of someone who’s led a busy, productive life and finds that, as he enters his golden years, things are speeding up. “In childhood,” he writes, “the afternoons spread out for years. For the old, the years flicker past like the briefest of afternoons.” His friend, the playwright Christopher Fry, who’s 93, tells him that after the age of 80 you seem to be having breakfast every five minutes. You don’t have to be in your 90s to relate to that. It seems I just took down the Christmas decorations and now here we are in March. Stop the world, I say; I don’t want to get off, exactly, but I’d like to slow it down.
I don’t want to give you the impression that Dormouse is a litany of grievances – Mortimer, who died in 2009 at the age of 85, was not a grumpy old man. Not in print, anyway. His gentle, self-deprecating wit allowed him to relate the frustrations of aging in a way that makes you think, Well, if he can just get on with his life, so can I. He, after all, inherited from his father bronchial asthma, glaucoma, and a tendency for his retinas to become displaced; my father just passed down to me his bad teeth. Teeth can be replaced, eyes not so much. So, no whining!
One thing we share, he and I, is a dread of falling. I haven’t so far, but he cheerfully describes four falling incidents which sound painful and traumatic, but do nothing to diminish his energy or optimism. As he says, it’s simply another hazard of aging: “All over the world,” he writes, “men and women who have experienced a reasonable quantity of life are toppling over, collapsing in kitchens or hurtling down stairs.” It’s a powerful image. Makes you wonder why every senior citizen in the neighbourhood isn’t hobbling around on crutches. Or worse.
What I really like about Mortimer, besides the fact that he began every morning with a glass of champagne, is that he simply refused to retire. This book, written as I said in his 77th year, is jam-packed with activity. He flies off to Rome to stay with Franco Zeffirelli while writing the screenplay for the director’s next film, Tea with Mussolini. He writes a TV film adaptation of Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee’s beloved story of his Gloucestershire childhood. He accepts engagements to perform his work onstage at an arts centre in Eastleigh, a country house near Malvern, a school in Folkestone, and a Georgian theatre in Yorkshire. All this, and we’re only on page 30.
John Mortimer made the most of his dormouse summer. He ate and drank what he wanted when he wanted and he championed the causes he believed in; most of these were on the left of the spectrum but he did stand up for fox-hunting, putting him at odds with animal rights activists. He never exercised, and worked like a Trojan, getting up around 5am to start work on a new novel or play or both, and finishing off with long gossipy lunches with friends followed by dinner and the theatre.
Mortimer had his serious side: he played an important part in the abolition of the death penalty in Britain and his argument in the case of Last Exit to Brooklyn ended the Lord Chamberlain’s power of theatrical censorship. He championed penal reform and he and his wife, Penny, helped to establish a holiday home for deprived children. In 1986 he was awarded a CBE and he was knighted in 1998.
All of this, of course, you can get from Wikipedia. Or, since his death, from one of the many obits online. But to get a real sense of the man, of the writer, you need to spend some time with his writing. I’ll leave you with a sample, written while he was on a book tour in the US, staying in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin:
“Madison is in a cheese-producing area and its inhabitants, at times of celebration, wear hats shaped like huge cheeses. My hotel window looks out on an apparently boundless frozen lake and I see people cycling across the grey ice. Then small keel-less sailing boats skitter across, and holes are made in the ice for fishing. Brave people speed across it in four-wheel drives. In March, I am told, the lake starts to thaw. The first four-wheel drive falls in and occasionally its passengers drown. Then the inhabitants of Madison know that spring has come at last.”
Mortimer, John. The Summer of a Dormouse (2001) Published by Viking Penguin.