Reading a battered 1978 copy of Rumpole of the Bailey it is remarkable how the barrister author, John Mortimer, even then was concerned about how the police were undermining hitherto sacrosanct freedoms despite no immediate threat to the nation. ‘It’s odd,’ says Rumpole, ‘how gentler days have somehow dimmed our passion for liberty.’
The use of an agent provocateur is, in this instance what had got Rumpole’s goat, and he relies on good old Europhobia to paint the use of such a dirty French trick as inimical to British justice and therefore inadmissible. The agent in this case seems slightly beyond ridiculous ‘Real cool house man… You can’t score nothing in this hick town. You don’t get no trouble from the Fuzz?’ prompting Rumpole to ask ‘Just from the way the old darling talked, didn’t you twig he was a Sergeant from the local drug squad?’ But there are similarities to the heroic efforts of the police officers that risked life, limb and paternity suits by infiltrating environmental protesters and a cycling pressure group. At the risk of being outed as a pretentious sod, plus ca change…
Rumpole defends a Labour MP where the Honourable Member has been attacked for sending his children to a convent school and a private school. Parallels here, in 1978, with Blair and the 1990s when he got into hot water with Euan and the Oratory.
Rumpole’s use of the phrase ‘old darling’ to refer to everyone from judge to defendant is endearing, but belies the sharp cunning that he displays when needed. The language gives the stories a certain charm; ‘ponce’, for example, is given its original meaning of ‘pimp’ and gives rise to the old joke: one judge asks another ‘how much do you usually give a ponce?’ ‘2 and 6d.’
Despite Rumpole’s flippant nature and love of jokes, Mortimer has his barrister drop in some musings, profound or otherwise, on what it means to be a lawyer and what the law is. ‘The law’ says Rumpole ‘is in another world; but it thinks it’s the whole world.’ Rumpole is also very serious on the topic of lawyer ethics. Murderers, adulterers and coveters of camels lawyers might be, but Rumpole does not believe there is any ‘one of us who has ever gone on to fight a case after our client has told us, in clear crystal ringing tones, that they actually did the deed.’ This might be a little naïve, but gives Rumpole as a character a necessary core and certainty.
It would be interesting, perhaps, to know how many at the Bar agreed with Rumpole’s answer to the question of whether there was anything more important in his life than being a barrister. Rumpole ‘thought about this very carefully. Unfortunately there was only one answer.’ These short stories paint the life of a barrister as fun, principled, exciting, challenging and worthwhile. Rumpole would, of course, never have got pupillage now. He had a middling degree, his extra curricular activity is drinking in the Pommeroy’s wine bar, and couldn’t network to save his life, refusing dinner with the QCs and CJs.
These first six short Rumpole stories are instructive to all young aspirants to the Bar. Rumpole gives tips for cross examining: either ‘start off politely, asking a series of questions to which the answer will be ‘Yes,’ gaining the subject’s confidence and agreement, leading him gently up the garden path to a carefully planned booby trap’ or else go in ‘all guns blazing.’
If nothing else, these books are interesting as history. ‘We’re the only Chambers without a woman, Mr. Rumpole,’ the Cinzano Bianco-drinking, Majorca-visiting junior clerk complains in Rumpole and the Married Lady, ‘It’s not good for our reputation.’
-  Rumpole and the Alternative Society, John Mortimer, Penguin (1978) 57
Guardian article on undercover police officers – View Website
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