In the third installment of his autobiography, the ex-barrister Mortimer (The Sound of Trumpets, 1999, etc.) focuses on a year spent as a scriptwriter for hire, fundraiser for the Royal Court Theater, advocate for penal reform, and crippled, nearly blind old liberal staggering around Tony Blair’s new Britain.
In a more literate time—the 18th century, say, or the 1970s—this brief, witty memoir of an English man of letters suffering the beginning of what is shaping up to be a rather unpleasant old age might not seem quite so extraordinary. Today, however, it seems like a rare and possibly exceptional work. Mortimer begins with practical advice for his fellow screenwriters: “Writing film scripts is like sending soldiers over the top in the First World War. Very few of them come back alive.” From there it’s on to bigger and better things. There are numerous celebrity cameos. The elderly Italian director Franco Zeffirelli reflects pensively on his inability to distract himself with sex the night before a troublesome script meeting. The novelist Muriel Spark is charming and morbid. The baby-boom generation is represented by a pair of identical twins from Birmingham, now married to members of the rock group Deep Purple, who dabble in alternative medicine. Generation-X leftists appear and the author is a bit taken aback to discover they are less interested in such old-school progressive concerns as poverty and civil liberties than in protesting fox-hunting and explaining at length why leather seats are inherently sexist. Mortimer is no easier on himself, adamantly rejecting the idea that old age brings with it wisdom: “Some of the worst misdeeds, follies and crimes of mankind are committed by irresponsible old men. The experience of old age is that, in a body maimed and incapacitated by time, you feel much as you did when you were eleven.”