Observer review: The Summer of a Dormouse by John Mortimer

John Mortimer's take on growing old, The Summer of a Dormouse, shows him as witty as ever

The Summer of a Dormouse
John Mortimer
Viking £16.99, pp212
Buy it at BOL

According to PG Wodehouse, who had thought deeply about the thing, there are 'two ways of writing'. One, he went on, is 'making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn'.

Sir John Mortimer, an English playwright and novelist who has given his admiring public more literary music and comedy than they have any right to expect from one man, has now, apparently, reached the age when 'going right deep down into life' is being forced upon him by the remorseless onset of old age, by the indignity of wheelchairs and wayward socks.

Characteristically, whenever the catalogue of illness and disability threat ens to become tedious, he tells a very funny story. With Mortimer, 'a sort of musical comedy without music' is never far off. The experience of reading The Summer of a Dormouse, the journal of Mortimer's life as an old crock, is like enjoying the best after-dinner speech of your life from a performer who cannot resist the opportunity to entertain.

There's the retired circuit judge who speaks directly to God and breezily tells his gay son to 'go on with your artistic career'. There's the prep-school headmaster who dismisses his boys' complaints about a homosexual history teacher with: 'Most of the masters in this place are homosexual. Why else would they take on the job? The pay's not much, and you boys can be extremely irritating.' And there's the hilarious transcript of the proceedings in the famous Russell divorce case.

Counsel (indicating photograph): 'Ignore the hand. What can you tell us about the penis?'

Witness: (without hesitation) 'Not his Lordship's.'

Behind the sparkling Mozartian grace-notes of Mortimer's comic pen, there are many darker chords. He has heard the hoofbeats of mortality, and he's not too pleased. 'It's the time ahead that's the worry,' he says, anticipating the likely reaction of his teenage daughter to his demise. His own first wife Penelope's sad death is another memento mori. The pages describing her funeral are typical of this extraordinary memoir - deft, evocative and unbearably moving.

Elsewhere, this particular dormouse takes his readers through a catalogue of elderly afflictions: incontinence, an ulcerated leg, the trouble with sticks, the dread of Alzheimer's, unexplained blindness. Every page of this remarkable little volume reminds us what every woman and every patient knows: that we live in our bodies, and that when our bodies let us down we have to face up to some very big questions. Mortimer himself elegantly concedes a fear of death in a telling passage about the Scottish poet William Dunbar, quoting his 'Timor Mortis conturbat me', before cheerfully announcing that: 'At this age it's really no use worrying.'

In the place of timor mortis, Mortimer finds solace in saeva indignatio, the satirist's ancient consolation. New Labour comes in for a fair bit of his well-advertised stick. Jack Straw seems to be Mortimer's bête noir, and after the heady moments of May 1997, 'the project' itself turns out to be as 'dull' as ditchwater.

'What is sad,' he writes, joyously off-message, 'is the feeling of having waited so long for a powerful Labour government, which would improve social justice, care for public services, nurture the arts and protect civil liberties, only to get one whose ideas of justice can be dictated by focus groups and last week's headlines.'

He also pokes harmless fun at Roy Jenkins, and avenges himself, memorably, on Blair's pollster, Philip Gould, who, incredibly enough, asked Penny Mortimer if she stayed with her ageing husband out of 'love or duty?'

'Probably both,' she replies, presumably stunned by the question. The real answer lies in this book. The Summer of a Dormouse is like a long picnic with a wise, old and delightful friend who knows that those clouds on the horizon will eventually rumble with thunder, and are approaching.


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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