A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)


15 thoughts on “A man of letters…

  1. This sounds charming, Annabel. I never think of myself as a fan of letters and diaries, but every once in a while, they can provide some welcome variety. I’ve got a copy of Love Nina and am looking forward to that one, and maybe I’ll move on to these. Great review.

  2. Love the sound of this Annabel. I was a great letter-writer in my youth and it *is* sad that the art has died. Adding this to the enormous wishlist!

    • I went through a phase of letter writing when I was courting my now ex and he worked abroad for some months. Not done a lot since though – but I still ensure my daughter writes thank you letters – older relatives love to get them.

  3. I remember reading an interview with Jane, who was a bit put out at the way that Lupin and Lumpy had presented their father. However, this was perhaps just sour grapes that they got their first! Who knows? I have this – a Kindle Daily Deal – and look forward to reading it soon. I think it will be rather fun and amusing. Super review, Annabel!

  4. What a delightful sounding book. Letters can either be entertaining or desperately dull to everyone but the original recipient these certainly sound like the former.

    • I must say, they sound like a highly entertaining family! My family are very unremarkable compared to them. There’s some irony to be found in Roger’s constant worries about Lupin being able to make a living – and in the end, he makes a fortune out of Roger’s letters! Would this please Roger, I wonder, or will he be angered he didn’t make a fortune of his own volition?! They’re from a certain distinct breed of English families that very probably don’t exist any more, sadly.

      • I think he would have approved. (Their relationship reminds me of that of young comedian Jack Whitehall and his retired theatrical agent Michael Whitehall – although Jack is not a slacker by any means – there is a definite Pooter and Lupin vibe to the pair which they exploit to the full in their TV chat show together.

  5. I’m not a great fan of letters on the whole, and my first reaction is that these two sound like an unattractive pair. Glad to hear they love each other, though. Good for you with the thank-you letters — they must be much appreciated. The decline of letter writing is sad indeed — I have all my father’s letters to my mother, written over a 40 year period — amazing.

    • How lovely Harriet. I had a lot of letters of my mothers too – but a more assorted bunch, from those from her French pen-friend Roland (who seemed rather keen!) to the one from her father regretting that he couldn’t leave his shop in Belfast to come to her wedding in London!!! Needless to say, they fell out.

  6. I remember reading this a couple of years ago when I was not in the best place and it just lifted me. Mortimer’s letters to his children are wonderful. I’ve read the book his younger sister compiled of his letters to her too. I also have Jane’s book, but that is a memoir rather than a collection of letters.

  7. I love reading letters and diaries, but it’s hard to find ones that stay entertaining all the way through when you don’t know any of the people they’re writing about. I’ll definitely look for this at my library!

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