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I once met…Sir John Mortimer

I had been invited to interview him on his book collection. Of course, I was aware of his reputation---as a champagne socialist and general bon viveur. The press photos  always showed him surrounded by adoring and attractive women. He lived in a house designed by his father and inherited from him, in one of the most beautiful parts of Buckinghamshire, among the beech woods of Turville Heath, not too far from Jeremy Paxman’s place and Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, the former home of John and Myfanwy Piper, whom I had known, and who were his close friends too. I was a little envious, I admit.

The taxi dropped me unceremoniously on the edge of woodland. The driver didn’t know where his house stood, and no did I, but I peered any all directions for any sign of a dazzling green pantiled roof, which Mortimer had told me to look out for. In less than five minutes I had found it, splendidly turquoise through the trees, looking as though it belonged to a thirties gem in Stanmore or Bushey than rural Bucks. I approached the front door and knocked. A women in her latish sixties clad completely in a white towel with a turban around her wet hair opened it. The first adoring female fan of the day, I thought. How many more would I meet before I left for home ?

None, as it turned out. The turbaned lady was his wife, who had just that moment stepped out of the bath. She showed me to his study and she did so warned me that her husband was ill. I must say, he didn’t look too chipper. He was wheezing and his face was flushed. He explained that as well as the house his father had bequeathed him two medical conditions—asthma and blindness. My envy dissipated forthwith. We talked about his childhood enthusiasms for the stage and for poetry and how he hated his time at Harrow. One remark surprised me and has remained in my memory ever since. On the subject of Law he remarked that he didn’t consider it a worthy academic discipline and wished that he had spent his time at Oxford reading a 'proper' academic subject, such as  history or English Literature instead.

Before I left he offered me a glass of (you’ve guessed it) champagne—the first and only time I’d been offered this after an interview. His wife joined us and afterwards drove me back to Henley station. [RH]

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