Dear Dad, I hope you're proud of your son, the middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired): Charlie Mortimer pays tribute to the father who never gave up on him
23:54 GMT, 10 August 2012
Roger Mortimer, right, pictured with Charlie as a child, described writing a letter to his son as 'about as effective as trying to kick a 30-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers'
My father’s car is marooned in a quagmire, miles up a dirt track in remote Berkshire countryside. Dad stands beside it, having abandoned the fruitless task of exhuming it from its boggy grave. He is beaming.
It is my 12th birthday and he has contrived this adventure as a special treat for me. He has driven the family saloon as if it were an Army jeep, miles off-piste and into the mud on purpose. I am at his side, his conspirator in the mischief, and of course I am delighted.
We both know what will happen next.
Dad and I will trek back to our village — it’s 1964; mobile phones have
yet to be invented — and call on Major Staples. The Major, who is bluff,
kind and as practical as Dad is useless at anything manual, will be
induced to drive out with tow rope and tool box to rescue us.
will be a drama and that will perk Dad up no end. After we’re unstuck,
Dad and I will drive off — sometimes, in fact, he’ll let me drive along
the track, because this is the era before health and safety blighted our
fun — and then go for a meal at our favourite transport caf.
sign outside reads: ‘Fred’s gone mad! Egg & Chips 3/4d’. (This is
the pre-decimalisation age when a fry-up can be had for just over 15p).
Dad and I will then enjoy our modest meal with more relish than we would
a banquet at the Savoy.
you see, was the pattern my treats with Dad would take. He knew I loved
nothing more than what I called a ‘little disaster’ and he’d ensure
that every outing with me was enlivened by one.
He had many qualities — humour, kindness, generosity of spirit, hypochondria and an unfailing ability to infuriate my dear mother — but prime among them was an enviable capacity for cheering people up. He achieved this in many ways, not least through the letters he wrote to me over 25 years.
From my unruly adolescence into my less-than-distinguished adulthood, Dad was there, proffering unheeded advice, chronicling family news and punctuating it all with his waspish observations and wit.
I always knew Dad’s letters were special and unusual, and now, 21 years after his death, I think it would delight him to know they have brought merriment to many thousands of other readers.
For posthumously, my father Roger Mortimer — former Coldstream Guards’ officer, ex PoW, and for 30 years racing correspondent for the Sunday Times — has become a best-selling author.
Dad’s book, Dear Lupin . . . Letters To A Wayward Son, is constructed around his correspondence with me, and I put it together for publication as a tribute to his, and indeed my dear mother Cynthia’s, endurance and forbearance over my endless shortcomings, failures and disasters.
I imagined the book would sell about three copies; that thereafter it would be given away with jars of chutney at Conservative Association garden fetes. But its success has confounded us all, and to my utter surprise I have found myself celebrated as a successful author.
However, although I am credited as Dad’s co-writer, my involvement was not a literary one: he did all the writing and supplied the humour, I merely contributed a quarter of a century’s worth of disorderly conduct.
Dad’s collected letters to me have, since their publication in May, and after this newspaper published extracts from them, edged their way to the top of the best-seller lists. Dear Lupin was BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the lead-up to Father’s Day.
Now there is talk of a play and even
a film of the book — I could visualise the actor Jim Broadbent playing
my father magnificently.
said, I know Dad would probably be rather uncomfortable with all the
brouhaha; especially when reviews have cast him as the hero he was. He
was always enormously self-deprecating.
Tribute: Charlie Mortimer, pictured in LA in the 1970s, has published his 'special and unusual' letters from his father Roger in a book that has become a surprise success
Once, in the late Sixties when he had just written his classic tome The History Of The Derby, I overheard someone ask him what he thought of his great work. ‘Well,’ he replied earnestly, ‘It’s got three really good things going for it. Firstly, if the leg falls off the billiard table it’s big enough to prop it up. Secondly, it’s too big for my wife to throw at me, and thirdly, with the current shortage of lavatory paper you’ve got about six years’ supply there.’
Whenever I suggested he write his autobiography he was similarly flippant and dismissive. ‘I’ve only got about three good chums left and I’d prefer to keep them if you don’t mind, sonny,’ he would say.
So when Dad started writing to me, when I was a pupil at his old school, Eton College, he had no suspicion his letters would garner such a wide readership. He intended them for me alone: they were letters of fatherly advice — often stern, invariably wry and funny — to his errant only son.
For while my father’s academic career was distinguished, mine was not. We didn’t know it at the time — because such labels had yet to be invented — but I was dyslexic and border-line dyspraxic (a neurological condition which can affect co-ordination).
I compounded my academic failings by also being hopeless at sport. I was the only boy at Britain’s premier public school who actually managed to bowl a cricket ball backwards.
I think my friend Nicholas Soames, the former Tory minister, and I managed to achieve about two O-levels between us, although it wasn’t for want of trying.
My father had nicknamed me Lupin, after the disreputable son who was the source of so many of Mr Pooter’s worries in The Diary Of A Nobody.
‘You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge, so to speak,’ he wrote in the tone of weary rebuke he customarily used when I was a teenager. (The knife-edge he referred to was the final warning that followed a flogging from the headmaster as punishment for visiting a certain Denise Bunny in London one night).
I left school early with Dad’s words of admonishment ringing in my ears. ‘Plenty of boys seem to get A-levels at Eton without working themselves into a state of collapse. Why not you’ he implored.
After school I served briefly in the Coldstream Guards. My decision to leave when I was within a whisker of being commissioned, to become a social worker, was fairly unpopular at home.
‘I have informed Lt/Col Arthur myself that you felt the call to minister to lunatics rather than serve your country as a soldier,’ wrote Dad, with more than his usual asperity.
Actually I abandoned the social work plan and became — among other things — a vintage car restorer, oil-rig roughneck, pop group manager, then boat boy/car mechanic in Africa; a manufacturer of boxer shorts, and an antique dealer. Now I’d describe myself as a middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).
I live in West London with my partner and now I am 60 — the age Dad was when he began writing to me — I can finally appreciate the wisdom and advice he imparted in his letters.
That I kept every one of them (around 150 in total) despite my rackety past, proves how greatly I valued them. From the start, I realised that they were vastly more entertaining than those other people received from their dads. Sometimes I read them out loud to friends, who invariably laughed, too.
It was my totally loyal and wonderfully unique Danish godmother Agnete Cameron, who also happens to be David Cameron’s great aunt, who inspired my favourite lines in the letters: ‘Mrs Cameron came to lunch yesterday. She achieves the truly remarkable feat of talking even more opinionated balls than even your dear mother. No wonder her husband declines to buy a hearing aid, it would not be to his advantage.’
My dear mother, too, who died in 2005, came in for some merciless lampooning. Dad enjoyed caricaturing her, wig-askew, tottering unsteadily; a bottle of Beefeater’s gin permanently clutched in her hand. ‘Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted three-and-a-half days,’ he writes.
Both Mum and Dad were huge characters, and were equally loveable. Dad’s passions, aside from horse racing, were military history, murder stories — the more ghoulish the better — and criminal law. He was thrilled when the police set up their murder HQ in our kitchen after an unfortunate teenager’s body was found nearby.
Few things gave him more pleasure than to deliver really bad news with suitable gravitas. Dad was always preparing for the oncoming winter in June, bankruptcy was always staring him blankly in the face; he believed no good news ever arrived in a manila envelope, and that ill health and death were just around the corner.
When I was 29, he warned me to prepare for an unlovely era of ‘receding hair, shortness of breath, growing pomposity and in general a feeling that life has singularly failed to bring you your just rewards’.
Success story: Charlie Mortimer says his book, which is based around the letters his father wrote to him, could even be turned into a play or a film
Even so, he made us all laugh. He loved rhymes, particularly ones of a slightly inappropriate nature. Indeed, when I was six, I was sent home from my day school after repeating one of them which started memorably: ‘Lady of Spain I adore you . . .’
My father also loved stories constructed around the antics of some of our more eccentric relatives, one of his favourites centring on my Great Aunt Shirley, who turned up for the weekend in her chauffeur-driven Humber.
After lunch on the day of her arrival, she thanked my father for a wonderful weekend. He responded: ‘But Shirley you’ve only just arrived. It’s still Friday!’ But she was having none of it. Finally, in desperation, my father produced a copy of that day’s newspaper and pointing to the date said: ‘Look Shirley it’s still Friday October 20th.’
To which she retorted disdainfully: ‘My dear Roger, I would have thought that you would have learned by now not to believe what you read in the Press!’ And with that she was off.
When I think of Dad now, I picture him sitting at his huge roll-top desk in his study at our family home — the first in Yateley, Hampshire; the second in Burghclere, Berkshire — the sound of his two-fingered tapping at his old Underwood typewriter resonating through the house. He tried to inspire my two sisters and me with his love of literature. In my case he failed lamentably. I’ve barely read a book, and I think he would find it both amusing and ironic that it was I, his barely literate son, who finally got him on to the bestseller lists.
He would, however, have taken huge pleasure in the response to his book from his old PoW friends, one of whom, Lt Col Freddy Burnaby-Atkins, by now in his 90s, wrote to me just before he died this summer: ‘Roger kept me going in the darkest days of PoW life and lots of times afterwards. Good luck with the book.’
Another of my parents’ oldest friends, Sheelagh Lempriere-Robin, wrote of her delight in Dear Lupin: ‘It brought both your parents back to life, especially some of the comments made by your father about your mother.’
Of course, although my mother and father could not have lived without each other, their relationship was volatile. Dad had an unerring capacity to wind my mother up. One incident I feel sums up their relationship. My father had returned from Newbury races (circa 1971) and had his feet up in front of a blazing fire, surrounded by newspapers, a mug of steaming tea to hand, the six o’clock news blaring from the radio.
My mother had been foxhunting and a horse had trodden on her face following a heavy fall. She threw open the sitting room door and stood there, a dishevelled vision caked in mud and blood at which, my father casually looked over the top of the newspaper and inquired: ‘Do you know where the biscuits are’
Although they sniped at each other constantly, they were devoted. My mother, whom he called Nidnod, once told me that whenever they were at dinner parties she always found herself craning to hear what my father was saying because it was much more interesting and amusing than anything else anyone had to say. I always found this rather touching.
My mother was also a star in her own right, known affectionately as the Bureau of Misinformation. One day she went into a local hardware store to buy a wok. ‘I’d like to buy a yuk please,’ she demanded.
‘I’m sorry we don’t sell yuks madam,’ retorted the sales assistant haughtily. My mother ploughed on, undeterred. ‘In that case you’re not with it at all!’ she retorted.
When Dad died in 1991, aged 82, of Parkinson’s Disease, which was complicated by his age, my mother was at his side holding his hand. After the cremation and a service of thanksgiving, we took Dad’s ashes to his favourite spot on the gallops at Lambourn and scattered them there.
Three months later, Party Politics, a horse trained by Nick Gaselee, one of Dad’s great racing friends, won the Grand National. The horse had been trained on the very gallops where we scattered Dad.
We’d all like to think he had a bit of a hand in its victory — and doubtless Dad would have enjoyed the idea, too.