History Makers: John Mortimer

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we remember the barrister and novelist at his free speech-loving best.

Five years ago this month, the world of letters lost one of its most effervescent contributors, John Mortimer. During the course of his 85 years, Mortimer produced countless plays, autobiographical sketches and novels. But it’s the corpulent, Falstaffian hero of the Rumpole of the Bailey novel series, Horace Rumpole, for which he is still most fondly remembered.

In the portly form of Rumpole, Mortimer provided the law with one of its most enduring fictional embodiments. Long-winded, self-important and not a little pompous, Rumpole was, at heart, a good man, committed to doing the right thing. So popular was he in fact that the Rumpole of the Bailey television series ran for 14 years up until 1992.

But Mortimer wasn’t just a writer – that was his vocation, one he pursued in the early hours and then in the interstices of the evening. No, thanks to the urgings of his stern, blind father, the barrister Clifford Mortimer, Mortimer was also a full-time lawyer. And the shame of it is that this part of Mortimer’s life is perhaps obscured by his literary legacy. It shouldn’t be. As a lawyer, as a bewigged real-life equivalent of his fictional alter-ego, Mortimer was to become a staunch defender of civil liberties and legal process.

Not that this would have been apparent at the start of Mortimer’s time at the bar. Like his father, Mortimer specialised initially in divorces. But with the relaxation of marital law in the 1960s, the money started to dry up, prompting Mortimer to move towards criminal law. It was here that Mortimer started to make his mark as a barrister willing to defend what many deemed indefensible, from allegedly obscene publications to blasphemous poems.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Mortimer’s commitment to freedom of speech, informed in part by his shadow literary career, was evident in his willingness to help push the Theatres Act 1968 through parliament. This, remember, was the act which did away with that incursion on artistic freedom, the Lord Chamberlain’s power of censorship.

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He soon got into his liberty-defending stride. In 1968, he successfully defended the publishers John Calder and Marion Boyars, who were on appeal from their conviction for obscenity after they published Herbert Selby Jnr’s epic of sex, drugs and violence, Last Exit to Brooklyn. But it was in 1971 that he really found his feet with the Oz trial.

Oz was a satirical-cum-hippy magazine founded in Australia that relocated to London in the late 1960s. In 1970, in an attempt to get down with the kids, the editors decided to let a bunch of largely public school-educated teenagers edit an issue. And true to public-school-boy type, their guest-edited edition was published with a cartoon strip featuring Rupert Bear with an erection. Police officers from the Obscene Publications Squad were not impressed. And in 1971, the magazine became part of what was to become an infamous obscenity trial, with the adult editors accused of ‘Conspiracy to corrupt and debauch the morals of the young of the Realm’.

What’s striking about the trial was just how repellent many at the bar found it. As publisher Felix Dennis, one of Oz’s then editors, recalls: ‘As the months had gone by and our trial date loomed, the same sequence of events repeated itself. A likely candidate would agree to represent us, delighted, no doubt, at the prospect of what was sure to be a high profile case at the Old Bailey. Then, within a few days, they would weasel out of their commitment with some feeble excuse or other.’

With the accused at their wits’ end, enter John Mortimer QC. ‘John had agreed to represent us’, writes Dennis, ‘despite having a concurrent case running, despite the very short time available for him to become familiar with our case, despite having to attend rehearsals for the launch of yet another play and despite the pregnancy of his new wife’. But that was the thing about Mortimer – defending liberty mattered.

Mortimer’s performance during the Oz trial was momentous. Against the odds, and a distinctly unfavourable judge, Michael Argyle, Mortimer convinced the jury that the conspiracy charge was utterly disproportionate to what the editors had done. It was nothing else than a monstrous violation of freedom of speech and thought, he argued. Oz was still found guilty of obscenity, but the conspiracy-to-corrupt charges had been dropped. And in the appeal, Judge Argyle’s directions to the jury on obscenity were found to be profoundly misleading and the defendants were acquitted.

Mortimer continued in this vein during the 1970s and 1980s. He successfully defended the pornographic film Inside Linda Lovelace against the charges of obscenity. And in 1977, he unsuccessfully fought on behalf of Gay News against a private prosecution for blasphemy brought by the secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Mary Whitehouse. The poem, ‘The Love That Dares to Speak its Name’, in which a centurion takes Christ from the cross, observes that he is ‘well hung’ before ‘laying his lips around the tip / of that great cock, the instrument / of our salvation, our eternal joy’ continued to be a focal point for anti-blasphemy law campaigners up until the law’s abolition in 2009.

Whether he was successful in his trials or not, what always stood out was Mortimer’s unstinting commitment to liberty, and especially to the freedom to speak and express oneself as one sees fit. Speaking to spiked in 2001, it seems his libertarian commitment trumped his life-long support for the Labour Party. ‘I think we are gradually realising what New Labour is, and it is coming as a bit of a shock’, he said at the time. ‘The areas I am most interested in – the law and civil liberties – are the ones the government is worst on. I don’t think they have got a single libertarian bone in their bodies.’ What particularly angered Mortimer was the government’s increasing desire to ‘live our lives for us’. ‘What business is it of the government’s if I give money to a beggar so that he can spend it on drink or drugs?’, he said. ‘What business is it of the government’s to tell teenage girls, if they’re over the age of consent, not to have sex? These are not areas in which the government has got any place.’ Indeed, such was his hatred of the busy-body impulse at work in New Labour, he even took up smoking. ‘I only started again because of all the anti-smoking hysteria’, he told Laurie Taylor in 2007.

There was a note of regret to that 2001 spiked interview, a sense that a new form of illiberalism was taking root. ‘It was clearer in my day’, he said. ‘Somebody thought something should remain unavailable because it might be corrupting, and then legal men of a certain mind would argue against that decision and for free speech. Today, free speech is looked upon with utter disdain, because we are not allowed to offend anybody or anything – and arguing against the politically correct censors can be a difficult thing to do.’ Indeed. Which is precisely why we need more people of Mortimer’s mind today. His life should be an inspiration.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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