To Solon’s precept ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’ we should surely add another: ‘And until that event do not write the biography.’ John Mortimer’s first biographer, Graham Lord, was fortunate (though he may not have immediately recognised it) when, after a few months, Mortimer announced that he could no longer authorise his book, thus releasing Lord to proceed on his own with total candour. Valerie Grove, Lord’s appointed successor, faced a trickier task. Mortimer and his second wife Penny are friends of hers and, unlike Lord, who was prepared to be openly disapproving or even rude if his subject’s actions demanded it, she is in any case an essentially conciliatory, not combative, writer. Throughout her book one can only admire the adroit way in which, gently and sometimes also humorously, she either records or merely implies something not entirely favourable to her subject and then leaves it at that.
From her first pages Grove makes it clear that, of all the people central to Mortimer’s private life, including two wives, children, stepchildren and innumerable lovers, the most important was his father. Mortimer followed him into the profession of barrister, took most of his opinions from him, continued to live