John Mortimer

British barrister, dramatist, screenwriter and author (1923-2009)

John Mortimer QC (21 April 192316 January 2009) was an English barrister and writer, best known for his Rumpole of the Bailey television drama series and books.

Quotes edit

  • 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 (14 November 1977)
  • 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
  • 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.
    • As quoted in "Rumpole creator Mortimer dies at 85" by Sam Marsden and Chris Moncrieff, The Independent (16 January 2009)

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

A "war against terrorism" is an impracticable conception if it means fighting terrorism with terrorism. The feelings on both sides are not that they are taking part in some evil and criminal act but risking their lives heroically for what they consider to be a just cause.
  • 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.
    • Ch. 6 : The Domino Theory and the Tyranny of Majorities
  • A barrister's job is to put the case for the defence 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 this story is irrelevant: it's for the jury to decide this often difficult question.
    • Ch. 11 : Lying
  • 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.
    • Ch. 12 : The Companionship of Women
  • 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.
    • Ch. 13 : Causing Offence
  • Childhood, after all, has to be an age of discovery. These are days you'll remember vividly all your life, even when you're old and forget why you came into a room. It must never be allowed to become the age of anxiety.
    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. Parents have made things worse by worrying unduly about exam results and seeing that their children work a great deal harder than most middle managers in computer companies.
    • Ch. 14 : Living with Children
  • Most people in the West, certainly everyone in Israel, would agree that the Palestinian suicide bombers, who kill women and children, are terrorists. Not many people remember when Palestine, as the land of Israel was once called, was in that obscure state, a British Protectorate. Were the Jewish members of the Stern Gang, those who hanged a British sergeant with piano wire or organized the bomb in the King David Hotel with murderous results (the organization in which Prime Minister Begin started his political career), ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘terrorists’? What, looking at the matter from an entirely neutral standpoint, would we call them now?
    A terrorist, the dictionary tells us, is ‘one who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community’. This would certainly cover Russian activities in Chechnya and Israeli invasions into Palestinian territory, killing innocent men, women and children and even employees of the United Nations, in a prolonged attempt to fight ruthless terrorism with ruthless terrorism. The word ‘terrorist’ could certainly have been applied to Nelson Mandela before his trial. If it means the calculated mass killing of civilians to obtain an end, it must be applied to the destruction of Hamburg and Düsseldorf and, of course, to the dropping of H-bombs. So all these activities can be defined as ‘terrorism’ if they are committed by an enemy or ‘freedom-fighting’ if by a friend. If so, the conception of a ‘war’ against it calls for the most careful thought.
    • Ch. 15 : Interesting Times
  • Of the old, violent anarchist groups it was said that they always contained one pathological killer, one selfless idealist and one police spy. It was difficult, at first glance, to tell which was which, but the idealist was always the most dangerous. A "war against terrorism" is an impracticable conception if it means fighting terrorism with terrorism. The feelings on both sides are not that they are taking part in some evil and criminal act but risking their lives heroically for what they consider to be a just cause. You could understandably reduce terrorism by improving security and increasing the number of police spies, but it can only finally be reduced by removing the number of just causes. ANC terrorism was pointless after the end of apartheid. Terrorism in Israel will stop only when a just solution has been agreed to and the occupied territories handed back. Terrorism has existed in Ireland since Elizabeth I sent the Earl of Essex out in an unsatisfactory attempt to quell the rebels. However, since former terrorists have become government ministers in Northern Ireland, some progress has been made and sometimes the signs are hopeful.
    • Ch. 15 : Interesting Times
  • 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.
    • Ch. 19 : The Marketplace
  • If you can't sleep with your own wife wearing a false beard, what can you do?
    • Ch. 20 : Law or Justice
  • 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? Of course these qualities, or defects, are not evenly distributed, and undoubtedly there is much of each in all of us, but when it comes to the law some sort of distinction can be drawn. Are you a Shylock or a Bassanio?
    Shylock pinned his faith on the words in the contract, the nature of his bond and the duty of the state to uphold the letter of the law regardless of human suffering. Bassanio put another point of view. More important than the sanctity of the law was the plight of the individual parties in the particular case.
    • Ch. 20 : Law or Justice
  • 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.
    • Ch. 21 : Family Values
  • I have to say that I haven't met an aggressive beggar in London. 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.
    • Ch. 24 : Giving Money to Beggars
  • 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.
    • Ch. 28 : Inventions and the Decline of Language
  • 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.
    • Ch. 28 : Inventions and the Decline of Language
  • 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.
    • Ch. 29 : Avoiding Utopia
  • Our system, which we call democracy, at least leaves us the right from time to time to get rid of those who wish to govern us. And, if it's nowhere near Utopia, it is probably the best of all imperfect systems. All I can do is to advise you to be very cautious of those who claim to represent you and order you about for your own good.
    • Ch. 29 : Avoiding Utopia

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