Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Where There’s A Will by John Mortimer


Rating: (Recommended)




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Any reader familiar with the writing of John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame) will understand at once that a conversational memoir from him will not be weighty, but will capture human nature in revealing ways. The thirty two reflections on the pages of Where There’s A Will are structured to provide a legacy for his heirs, the lessons Mortimer has learned over eighty years. All topics are up for grabs, and Mortimer provides his anecdotes, memories and perspectives with relish. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 9, “Listening,” pp. 59-64:


The world’s full of talkers, with not nearly enough listen­ers. This leads to many lonely people wandering from room to room in their quiet empty houses, asking and answering questions from and to themselves. Too many of us rabbit on about ourselves, repeating what we know already, arid fail to discover anything about the curious lives and the unopened histories of the passenger in the corner seat, the sad-eyed, lonely drinker at the end of the bar or the apparently ill-assorted couples in the holiday hotel.

The art of listening is one that has to be learned by lawyers. You may think of Rumpole’s life as one of inces­sant chatter, forever up on his hind legs making speeches or asking questions. Yet a good half of a barrister’s life is spent listening in silence in his chambers room or during a prison visit.

It was as a divorce barrister that I learned of the hote­lier husband who fixed up a lengthy trough from his bed­room window to the vegetable garden, so that he could urinate in comfort and water the runner beans at the same time. This device caused embarrassment to the hotel’s visitors who were taking tea in the garden. His wife, not unnaturally, wanted to end the marriage. At the trial the husband asked if he might give evidence standing on his head. This request was curtly refused. I heard from the lady who joined a wife-swapping club in Croydon, ‘mainly to give my husband some sort of interest in life’, and fell deeply in love with her swap. I learned more than perhaps I needed to know about the husband who armed his children with lavatory brushes and put them through small-arms drill with these implements every morning before sending them off to school. I also heard much of the husband who would write letters to his wife’s furni­ture which he then pinned to it, such as, ‘You are a cheap and vulgar little sideboard. Please return to whatever bar­gain basement you came from! You are certainly not wanted in this establishment.’

I listened carefully to the elderly man who carried out a number of alleged ‘mercy killings’ who told me his evi­dence would be given by his ‘puppet master’, who would speak through a hole in my client’s head. I defended a cer­tain Anthony Sorely Cramm, of whom the judge said, ‘Best name for a bugger I ever heard’, and, being in a mer­ciful mood, said he might go instead of prison to a Salva­tion Army hostel, at which Mr Cramm called out in desperation from the dock, ‘For God’s sake, send me to prison!’ I learned how a talented artist came to invent a non-existent Victorian photographer and forged a large number of photographs of the slum children of Victorian London which completely fooled the National Portrait Gallery. I also heard the story of a rich young man who, when asked what he had done when he stabbed his mother, said, ‘I have either murdered a prostitute or killed a peacock in paradise.’

But strange, almost unbelievable stories are not avail­able only to lawyers. They are all around you if you are prepared to listen. After a brief acquaintance a friend told me that, when he was a youngish boy, his mother left his father. The father, a correct and presumably sane army officer, told his son that his mother was dead. This is what he believed until he was in his late twenties, and was stay­ing in a house in Scotland. There was a grey-haired woman there who was married to an air vice-marshal. After dinner she took my friend aside and told him she was his mother but it would embarrass her husband if he found this out, so would he please call her ‘auntie’. Another casual friend told me that when he was a small boy his father came to his bedroom and said, ‘I found this chap had been making love to your mother, so I shot him. I hope that’s all right.’ He then switched off the light and left the room.

It’s not only friends, however casual, but total strangers who, in the first chance encounter, have told me about their unhappy marriages, their request to God for advice on divorce and even about the size, often a disap­pointment to them, of their virile members. All that is needed to open the floodgates is a look of rapt attention and an opening request which can be as unsubtie as, ‘Do please tell me the story of your life? Ten to one, no one has ever asked them this and they’ve been longing to tell it.

All this will be of great assistance to you if you’re think­ing of going in for the business of writing; at least it will convince you that there is no such thing as an ordinary life. Such encounters may be of even more direct assis­tance. I found myself sitting at lunch next to a grey-bearded, energetic-looking man who started the conversation by asking me a question. ‘What do you do he said, ‘when your boat meets a force eight gale in the Channel what do you do with your female crew?’

I confessed that I had no experience of yachting and asked him what lie would do.

‘Double my fist, punch her on the chin and stun her.’ He spoke as though it was the most obvious course to take. ‘If she’s unconscious she’s far less likely to slip over­board.’

‘And what do you do when she wakes up?’

‘Get her to make a cup of tea.’

It was time to ask if his sport of yachting wasn’t extremely dangerous.

‘It’s not dangerous at all if you can’t swim,’ he told me. ‘If you can swim you try to swim to the shore and invari­ably drown. If you can’t swim, you cling to the wreckage and they’ll send out a helicopter for you.’ So he gave me the title of a book called Clinging to the Wreckage. It was at the same lunch table that an elderly man, who had remained silent throughout the meal, suddenly asked me, in a loud voice, if I could get my gamekeeper to eat rooks.

So there’s no better occupation than listening, only interrupting to ask for further and better particulars. An acquaintance came up to me with a friend and asked if I knew ‘Baghdad Price’.

‘No, I don’t know Mr Price I had to confess, and was lucky enough to ask why he was called ‘Baghdad’. Did he perhaps come from Iraq?

‘No. It’s just that he’s a most terrible shot. And when out shooting once he shot his father by mistake. So they call him Bag Dad.’

  There aren’t many Iraqi jokes around at the moment, so this was one worth listening for.


There are thirty one more episodes like this one to entertain readers, so pick up a copy of Where There’s a Will and enjoy eavesdropping on Mortimer’s legacy to his heirs.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2005 issue of Executive Times


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