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John Mortimer

English barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author

John Mortimer (21 April 192316 January 2009) was an English barrister and writer, most famous for his Rumpole of the Bailey series of books.


  • Do we want blanks, asterisks and exclamation marks which people can fill in with their own imaginations, or are we prepared and strong enough to tolerate, even if we do not approve, the strong Anglo-Saxon, realistic and vivid language?
    • Defending record shop proprietor Christopher Seale against obscenity charges for displaying advertisements for Sex Pistols' LP Never Mind the Bollocks, Nottingham Magistrates Court (1977-11-14)
  • I suppose that writers should, in a way, feel flattered by the censorship laws. They show a primitive fear and dread at the fearful magic of print.
    • Clinging to the Wreckage : A Part of Life (1982), p. 183
  • I found criminal clients easy and matrimonial clients hard. Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways. Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them and they're usually quite peaceful and agreeable.
  • People will go to endless trouble to divorce one person and then marry someone who is exactly the same, except probably a bit poorer and a bit nastier. I don't think anybody learns anything.
    • Quoted in Sam Marsden and Chris Moncrieff, "Rumpole creator Mortimer dies at 85," The Independent (2009-01-16)

Where There's a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life (2003)Edit

  • All I can do is advise you to be very cautious of those who claim to represent you and order you about for your own good.
  • Beliefs about how you live your life, matters of private decision, views best kept for private enjoyment, prejudice or entertainment, can't be imposed by the operation of criminal law. Attempts to enforce such views can only make the government the subject of ridicule.
  • A barrister's job is to put the case for the defense as effectively and clearly as would his client if he had an advocate's skills. The barrister's belief or disbelief in the truth of the story is irrelevant: it's for the jury to decide this often difficult question.
  • And in spite of David and Jonathan, Hamlet and Horatio, Caesar and Antony, Bush and Blair, women have a greater gift, I think, for friendship.
  • The three towering geniuses of European culture, Shakespeare, Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci were not allowed to appear on the euro note as they might, in their separate ways, cause offense: Mozart because he was a "womanizer," Shakespeare because he wrote The Merchant of Venice, a play judged to be anti-Semitic, and Leonardo because he was reported to fancy boys. Now the euro note carries a picture of a rather dull bridge.
  • The anxiety has been greatly increased by this government's multiplication of exams and emphasis on starting training as a middle manager in a computer company from the age of six.
  • A "war against terrorism" is an impracticable conception if it means fighting terrorism with terrorism.
  • The doctor who makes a friend of his patients, the lawyer who defends death penalty cases in distant countries for no fee, the schoolteacher who opens a child's eyes to a new world of books and poetry - such people do nothing that can be measured in marketplaces. The greatest painters, composers and writers don't offer you choices, they present you with what only they can do, and you must take it or leave it. So when such subjects as the values of the marketplace are discussed, you will probably not have much to contribute. You can repeat a poem in your head and wait until the conversation is over. But if anyone starts talking about "level playing fields," get up and steal quietly from the room.
  • If you can't sleep with your own wife wearing a false beard, what can you do?
  • Are people naturally destructive, immoral, predatory and self-seeking, only to be kept in order by harsh laws and fiercely deterrent mandatory sentences? Or are men and women naturally orderly, merciful, humane and bred with a need for justice and mutual aid? … when it comes to the law some sort of distinction can be drawn. Are you a Shylock or a Bassanio?
  • Jewish custom, which traces descent solely from the mother, is more sensible and more discreet. Our own lawgivers can't accept the fact that there are many things in family life that are best kept shrouded in mystery.
  • In New York, crossing 58th Street from the Plaza Oyster Bar to the Wyndham Hotel, I came up against a huge black man in a long, dark overcoat who said, in deep and threatening tones, "Give me fifty dollars!" I managed to ask him if he would be content with thirty-five and, rather to my surprise, he said, "All right, give me thirty-five dollars!" And so the deal was done.
  • It's tempting to wonder how many of the inventions of the past century we might have been better off without. Take the aeroplane for instance. It has transformed warfare from an event in which trained soldiers kill each other on distant battlefields to occasions when death is rained down indiscriminately on innocent civilians, while the professional fighters fly at a great height in comparative safety.
  • The "medium is the message" is one of the world's silliest remarks. The message is the message, and it doesn't matter whether you send it by e-mail, a note in a bottle or on a picture postcard. The book, or the poem, or the play is what counts and it doesn't matter if it's written with a pen on a long sheet of ruled paper, as I am writing now, or on the most highly developed word processor. No machine can help with the rhythms of your prose, even if it can spell better than you can.
  • We wondered why we ever thought there was, during the Cold War, any serious danger of Russia conquering the world when they couldn't even deliver the scenery for The Tempest.

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