Interview: Letters to Lupin
PUBLISHED: 12:33 27 September 2013 | UPDATED: 12:53 27 September 2013
When an exasperated father wrote remonstrative letters to a wayward son, little did he know that they’d eventually be turned into a marvellous book. Katie Jarvis meets the reprobate responsible.
When Charlie Mortimer was young and wayward, his father sent him a series of despairing letters, both hilarious and wise. Nearly 50 years after the first one was written, they’ve been published as Dear Lupin. Katie Jarvis meets the reprobate whose disasters inspired a literary masterpiece.
“Dear Charles, Your mother came back rather sad and depressed after seeing you [at Eton] yesterday. 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.”
From the white-balustrade balcony in Charlie Mortimer’s flat, you can see the world stretching out in leafy London-borough-shape. The breezy green lying below and beyond is idly criss-crossed by young mothers pushing prams; while to your right unrolls a row of smart shops and cafes where waiters know residents by name.
Inside the flat, the busy scenes of Grayson Perry’s seven-foot Print for a Politician line the hallway: vivisectionists, Satanists, fantasists (we’re all as bad as each other); the sitting room is dominated by a huge Richard Harrison painting – eye-searingly red and white – of a bold figure riding a swirling horse.
“Don Quixote on acid,” Charlie says. “Brian Sewell really supports Richard. Yet I put on a huge exhibition for him a couple of years ago and, though it looked magnificent, we really didn’t sell anything.” He shrugs at the vagaries of the art world.
On the other hand, Grayson Perry, so I’ve read, commands tens of thousands for his pots. Charlie and his partner, Tim, own two. (Chinoiserie from a distance; though the pure of heart should not look more closely).
“We went down to the basement in Victoria Miro four or five years ago and there were these vast pots. Tim and I went to a pub for lunch and I said, ‘Look - we’ve got to buy those!’ We’re so sophisticated that we thought: If they’re the biggest he’s ever made, they’ve got to have something going for them. That was the entire logic! So we made a ridiculous offer and ended up with them.”
Charlie shows me a photo – the pots are currently at Platt Hall, Manchester, in a glass case at the bottom of the stairs. Most of their amazing contemporary art collection - more Grayson Perry, jewellery by Bernhard Schobinger and Karl Fritsch - is on loan to penniless provincial museums (which appreciate their luck with a fervour absent in their swankier cousins)…
The thing is this.
All this art. Beautiful flats. It’s not at all what you expect to find when you go to interview a feckless youth. A chap whose book – Dear Lupin – reveals him as the eternal ne’er-do-well. It’s an utterly hilarious book that takes the form of letters written by Charlie’s father, Roger Mortimer, who for 30 years was racing correspondent of the Sunday Times.
“We went to a very good midday party at the Herns yesterday where there was a lot to drink and your dear mother took advantage of that fact… A former jockey called Stan Clayton, who breeds budgerigars, was good enough to tell me all about his blood pressure, while a tall lady with an azure wig explained at some length why she loathed her husband so much. Perhaps I am a sympathetic listener; possibly I just lack the energy to move away.”
Laugh-out-loud funny though they undoubtedly are, the true beauty of those letters lies in a story half-told: an increasingly resigned father’s reaction to his son’s youthful exploits. A disaster at Eton (Plenty of boys seem to get A-levels without working themselves into a state of collapse. Why not you?), a drop-out from the Coldstream Guards (Cousin Tom, like all those above the nappy-wetting stage, thinks you have made a complete ass of yourself), followed by a series of startling career changes, punctuated by brushes with the law – such as an arrest for attempting to eat his passport whilst drunk in the discotheque of the Hamburg to Harwich ferry... No wonder, early on in the correspondence, Roger decides to call his son Lupin, after Mr Pooter’s son in The Diary of a Nobody.
So what on earth possessed a now 60-something respected collector of modern art, living in a part of London that would shatter most bank balances, to publish a book of letters forever immortalising himself as a hapless, irresponsible failure?
Charlie half-laughs, half-grimaces. “There’s a review where somebody writes, ‘The tone of the earlier letters, where Charlie is constantly going off the rails – drug busts and so on – mixes simmering exasperation and sarcasm, sensible advice and pessimism. The growing sense of despair at the realisation that the little bastard is never going to sort himself out is palpable.’ And I do tend to get it in the neck: luckily, I’m not that bothered what the public think of me.
“The fact is, I’ve always known they were amazing letters. One of the things I’m most pleased about is the fact that people like Jeremy Paxman and Boris Johnson really like my dad’s style of writing.
“Secondly, it’s all very well having gravestones [Roger died in 1991] but what better tribute than something like this? The amount of people who have written saying their grandfather had been in bed for a year; he was given Dear Lupin and suddenly there were these chortles from upstairs. It has given a lot of people a lot of laughs and I think my parents would be thrilled that was the case.”
“With regard to your trip to Greece, I wish to make the following points, which no doubt will be totally disregarded:
[Includes] Try not to look like some filthy student who has renounced personal hygiene completely… It would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.”
There was certainly reason to think, at least at his birth, that Charlie might toe the upper-middle-class line. Roger’s mother was an heiress of food company Crosse & Blackwell, his father a stockbroker. The 1911 census details eight live-in staff at their house in Cadogan Gardens, Chelsea. Roger himself did rather better at Eton, followed by Sandhurst and a commission into the Coldstream Guards. After a desperate battle at Dunkirk, during which most of his men were killed and he was wounded, he spent the rest of the war in high uncertainty as a prisoner-of-war. His illustrious career as a journalist included the authorship of some of racing’s classic books, such as The History of the Derby. Other of Charlie’s relations include Aunt Boo, who once stood on a ‘Keep Dorking White’ ticket. No small wonder that when Charlie was born on Grand National Day in 1952 (Roger was up in Liverpool working), all expected a textbook story of Oxbridge success.
Instead, as the letters from Roger show, Charlie ploughed his own furrow. We only get glimpses into what’s going on – the letters merely allude to most disasters – but we know it’s not good.
“How eager for fame (or something) a man of 25 must be to give, unasked presumably, an imitation of a defunct pop-singer during an auction in London. However, few of our relations, fortunately perhaps, see the Daily Mirror. The Daily Telegraph kindly concealed your name.”
The letters are punctuated by a few very brief annotations from Charlie, explaining some of the more obscure references. Viz the above: “…Some antique-dealer friends bet me £300 to jump up on the display table at a big Sotheby’s sale and give my impersonation of ‘The King’ singing Blue Suede Shoes.
Or, when Charlie was arrested for possession of drugs and a flick knife at a Rolling Stones concert, “My mother is particularly annoyed that I appear on the front page of the Newbury Weekly News, overshadowing the mention on the back page that her Dalmation, Pongo, had taken first prize in the fancy-dress class as the Captain of HMS Pinafore.”
All this would merely be comedy if it were not for two things. Firstly, the genuine love Roger feels for his son suffuses all these letters. Quickly, disappointment turns to concern; finally, the tone is one of a man who simply wants his son to be safe and happy: Remember I am here in the background to help all I can if anything goes wrong.
The second is that, despite the lack of detail, it is easy to see that Charlie, himself, is at times in a deep, black hole.
“There’s a lot in the book that I don’t put in,” he admits, “and the reason is it was a book about my father and not about me. I didn’t want my story to be competing for space. For example – and you can print this if you like – I was one of the very first people to get diagnosed with HIV/AIDS back in 1985; in the book, it’s simply that I’m taken to hospital with a hideous rash.
“These things didn’t come up in my relationship with my father. When you’ve put your parent through the rest of Dear Lupin, do you really want to tell him you’ve got AIDS?”
As I say, Charlie’s hilarious exploits hide a darker truth. We talk, for a while, about his diagnosis, on which he’s eloquent, moving and – like his father – very funny. “My mother took me to lunch at the Turf Club with her first cousin, Robin Denison-Pender. She said, ‘Robin, of course, you do know Charles has got HIV, don’t you?’ He said, ‘Well done, him!’ He thought it was like a CBE. We hadn’t got the heart to tell him it wasn’t anything of the sort.”
There was also the moment he decided to reveal to one of his closest – and unsuspecting – female friends that he was gay. ‘I rang her up and said, ‘I’d better tell you – you know that girl I’ve been banging on about for months? It’s actually a bloke’. And Caroline said, ‘My god! How awful! How did you find out?’”
Tim, his partner of 18 years, chips in, “You can see the way Charlie is. Even a lot of my friends who are gay, when they first met Charlie were like: ‘Are you sure?’ Charlie’s a man’s man. People just didn’t believe it.”
“The first thing I did [when diagnosed with HIV/AIDS],” Charlie adds, “which was quite legal then, was to go out and buy a shotgun [for self-protection] because I read in the Sunday People, ‘90 percent of our readers think anybody infected should be forcibly rounded up and put on the Isle of Man in quarantine’.”
Quite. For a few long years, he was told he was likely to die of the virus at any time. Which is not, he points out, psychologically unlike the experience of his father – albeit for such different reasons – in his prisoner of war camp.
Of such reflections is philosophy born. For success is a curious thing: we often look for it in the wrong places. Tim talks of Charlie’s devoted nursing of his mother in her old age, not to mention Aunt Boo.
And wouldn’t Charlie’s father be immensely proud, I suggest, that his son got off the conveyor belt he so hated and ended up being totally, utterly true to himself?
“It’s very nice of you to say so. From my dad’s point of view, I think anybody would be pleased [with the book] who had written a letter for an audience of one. I think he would have also liked Tim, and been very pleased that I am as happy as I can be.”
Yes. Above all, I think to myself, if Roger were to hear – somehow – about this book; about being famous again after all these years, I’m pretty sure I know what his thoughts would be:
How wonderful – how very wonderful – that Charlie kept all my letters.
Not much news. Old General Scobie died from a heart attack. He stopped Greece going communist in 1945. Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for lent lasted three-and-a-half days. Pongo has chewed up a rug and had very bad diarrhoea in the kitchen. Six Indians were killed in a car crash in Newbury.
Best love, D
Charlie Mortimer will be at Calcot Manor, near Tetbury, on Monday, October 21 discussing Dear Lupin - Letters to a wayward son.
For tickets (£28 including lunch and a glass of wine):
call - 01666 890391
visit - www.calcotmanor.co.uk
Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer is published by Constable in paperback, price £7.99
Charlie’s sister, Louise, has published her own collection of letters from her father, Dear Lumpy (Constable: hardback, £12.99)