I first encountered “Rumpole of the Bailey” in my twenties, by which time I had begun to cut back on my consumption of political books, an obsession which had dominated my reading since about the age of 16, it was, on reflection a great discovery. I vaguely remember watching the character being played by Leo McKern on TV and being captured by it, a huge comic, clever creation which boosted the image of the rather ‘dusty’ legal profession. Rumpole’s creator John Mortimer became a name which I looked out for after that and enjoyed watching and reading anything he did; he also appeared in the newspapers regularly through his high profile as a top QC in some celebrity trials, Lady Chatterley? “a poor novel but people are entitled to read it” said he. The “OZ obscenity trial” was another, he loved being a leading non conformist; which was of course a club that we young revolutionaries all claimed membership of.
Some will doubt what I am about to say but, I had no idea at this time that Mortimer was a Labour man; nor was I, as far as membership was concerned at that time. His background was classic upper class; Harrow, where he formed a one man cell of the Communist Party, an Oxford graduate and QC at the Old Bailey, he did not seem like a comrade of mine, politics were simpler then. Being ‘one of us’ of course and moving in the circles he moved in and came from, made him a curiosity and a bit of a rogue hero to us, opprobrium rained down on him from the establishment; further consolidating his popular position on the left.
A fully paid up member of the awkward squad; Mortimer knew he was a national treasure and he could say what he liked and he did, sometimes he did so in a most derogatory way about Labour and top Labour politicians knew better than to take him on, Labour always claimed to be a broad church and he proved that they were, on many occasions. He was called a champagne socialist; to which he replied “I want every socialist to be able drink champagne “he was pro hunting and smoking and enjoyed annoying the PC brigade
His socialism; while not being similar to mine was; nevertheless, genuine, he championed too many good causes to mention; and was always a voice for progress and freedom. Above all he left behind a great literary legacy and some unforgettable characters; Rumpole’s wife Hilda “she who must be obeyed” His female legal colleague inevitably nicknamed “Portia” and many more. He will be missed by Labour; by the literary world and the British public to whom he was a much loved part of their lives for so long.
As I have remarked in the past; this is a generational thing; I am at an age where I tend to notice that people whom I have admired most of my life are "shuffling off this mortal coil" and the "shuffling" is becoming a brisk walk. Last year was terrible with 'Humph' 'George Melley' 'Paul Newman' 'Studs Terkel' etc. and sadly it now occurs to me that this process will continue to speed up as time goes by, it was ever thus!