John Mortimer

John Mortimer
John Mortimer

I just picked up and devoured Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, who is famous for the wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey series, but wrote lots of other funny books, plays and screenplays including Paradise Postponed, A Voyage Round My Father, and Tea With Mussolini.

If you haven’t read his books, you’re lucky because now you can.

Here are the opening lines of Summer Lease: “The woman walked round the corner of the house and saw a snake consuming a large Tuscan toad. The viction was motionless, looking about it only slightly puzzled, blinking, whilst the snake attacked its leg. The toad had the appearance of a fat businessman being done some sexual service by a hard-faced girl on the make and doing his best not to notice.”

The book is about an Englishwoman, Molly Pargeter, who rents a villa for her family vacation in Tuscany, also known as Chiantishire because of all the British tourists. She takes along her three daughters, ages 14, 10, and 3, her frumpy husband Hugh and her father, the irrepressible Haverford Downs, who writes a column called “Jottings” for the Informer.

“We paid all this money to bring you here,” Hugh tells the girls as they drive to the villa. “At least you ought to show a bit of gratitude and look about you.”

“Never look about you as you go,” says old Haverford, who loves to aggravate husband Hugh, “and then arriving will come to you as a total surprise. Besides which, there’s nothing much to see except the motorway and a lot of Krautish industrialists hurrying south in their Mercedes towards the bum-boys of Naples.”

The 10-year-old asks, “What’s a bum-boy?” and the 14-year-old replies, “A gay tart.” Clearly they’re used to traveling with grandpa. The whole thing is a delight from start to finish like all of Mortimer’s other books.

So now I’m rereading all my old Rumpole stories. What comes through on second reading is Mortimer’s compendious erudition. In every episode, Rumpole is reminded of some snatch of poetry from another era which echoes through the story and often includes the telling clue. But he’s equally at home in the present, enjoying breakfast at the Taste – EE – Bite among kids with green hair and pierced noses.

John Mortimer was a very funny guy. Here’s a remembrance by Trevor Grove in the Daily Mail.