Representing Himself: John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage

Mortimer, John. Clinging to the Wreckage. 1982. Penguin, 1983.

I found this book on my bookshelf a couple of weeks ago and realized that it must be several years since I last read it. Certainly, when I began reading, nothing seemed particularly familiar. Perhaps I never actually read this book at all before now. The biography section of my book collection lives in the guest bedroom; perhaps this was a book left behind. Whether I came to this book completely fresh or whether I was rereading it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Whichever was the case, I can say it afforded me a couple of days or so spent in the time of a witty, lively intelligence.

Why do we read autobiography and why do people write it? It’s easier perhaps to answer that question when we are thinking only of biography. We read about people’s lives because we are interested in that particular person or in the particular time and milieu about which he or she writes. Biographers produce biography for much the same reason, no doubt. But autobiography is different. Surely writing one’s own life and publishing it must include at least a soupçon of narcissism. One might write a record of one’s life for oneself as a way of coming to terms with one’s life, as a kind of therapy, but to publish it: that’s another thing entirely. Either way, autobiography must needs be somewhat confessional, an explanation. Or perhaps it is indeed simply a record that the writer thinks may interest others and from which he or she might actually make a little cash. Am I sounding a little cynical, a little envious given that I know that there’s no-one out there remotely interested in what my six decades or so on this planet have to show for themselves? Perhaps. Suffice it to say, I decided I would re/read Clinging to the Wreckage.

The title comes from a remark made to Mortimer by a sailor who couldn’t swim: “‘If you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage!’” (npag). Mortimer comments, “I thought I’d been taking [that advice] for most of my life. That kind of understated humour is what we associate with Mortimer. Born just a little too early to be an angry young man but who, according to Emlyn Williams, “‘just got into the New Wave as the Tube doors were closing’” (173), Mortimer had a career as both a writer and a barrister. Clinging to the Wreckage traces his life from childhood to his then present in the early 1980s. His style is, as I said, self-deprecating and anecdotal. I’m tempted to argue that it’s very British in the kind of understatement that actually suggests a certain pride. That meiosis, too, is inherent in his description of his father who although blind continued his practice at the Bar having his wife read all his briefs and supporting evidence to him.

A similar somewhat tactful restraint is also evident in the way Mortimer treats his divorce from his first wife Penelope. He talks of “the cracks [that] spread across the ceiling” and turns his discussion to the various therapists he consulted in the “constant and increasingly hopeless search for a cure” (201). He says nothing specifically negative about his first wife, but here and there are subtle comments such as when he points out how “In her stories Penelope kept her log of these years with wry precision” (149). Penelope isn’t the only Mortimer who handles things with “wry precision.”

She isn’t the only Mortimer either whose fiction is drawn from experience. Actually, could there be fiction if writers had no experience? Could Rumpole have existed if Mortimer hadn’t been a barrister? What I found very interesting was the correlation between Mortimer’s own life and the people and events of Paradise Postponed, his novel and television series, written a few years after Clinging to the Wreckage was published, particularly in his observations of his early dealings with Hollywood.
I was also interested in what he left out. He makes no mention of his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981), which was a major success. Perhaps the timelines of writing, publication, and screening dates did not sufficiently align, or perhaps it’s another example of that reserve that isn’t quite reserve.

So why did I read this book? Because I have enjoyed much of what John Mortimer has written, because I tended to agree with his publicly stated view of the world—I can forgive him for being champagne socialist—because he captures things I remember about the place where I grew up, and even though “the Tube doors” had closed by the time I was in my teens, that “New Wave” was still important to those of us teenagers who considered ourselves intellectual;  because I sometimes share with him the feeling that “‘Make Love Not War’ seems as dusty an apophthegm as some saying of the Early Father of the Church” (11). Because he can use the word apophthegm, a word that spell check is resolutely underlining even as I type.


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