After the success of Dear Lupin, Roger Mortimer finds himself facing something not normally experienced by former Guards officers who have been dead for more than 20 years — namely Difficult Second Album Syndrome. Lupin, a collection of letters written by Mortimer to his extremely errant son Charles (‘Lupin’) took everyone by surprise when it became a big hit last year.
Certainly its success astonished Charles himself. ‘It would not be an exaggeration to say that expectations for sales were not that high’, he writes here in his preface — hardly surprising as ‘I had barely read a book before, let alone compiled one.’ Unbeknownest to him, his younger sister Louise (‘Lumpy’) had also a stash of letters from their father — 150 of them locked away in a drawer since his death in 1991.
Mortimer’s tone here is much the same as before, shot through with bemused gloom, yet with one eye always trained on life’s grotesqueries — ‘Mrs Bomer has bought a new car: the colour is that of the messes made by dogs after de-worming pills.’ Several of the same characters who appeared in Dear Lupin make brief but stumbling bows here, among them the troublingly enticing ‘Aunt Boo’ who once stood for parliament on a ‘Keep Dorking White’ ticket.
What there isn’t so much of is the apoplectic exasperation with which Mortimer often addressed his son. True, there are occasional admonishments about Louise’s manners — ‘Your attitude sometimes borders on the oafish … At times you make no effort at all, possibly from shyness, more probably from sheer laziness.’ Mainly, though, there is tenderness — albeit dealt out with a properly restrained hand. ‘I enclose a small present. Don’t just buy milk chocolate or you will soon have the same waistline as the oldest and greediest elephant at Billy Smart’s Circus.’
One of the things that makes Mortimer such an entertaining letter-writer is that he tells you enough to set your imagination whirring away, but never too much. Thus there are passing references to his wife’s orange nylon wig — it flies off one day in front of a riveted Queen Mother at Sandown Park. And there’s just enough for us confidently to infer that Mrs Mortimer (‘Nidnod’) is a rampaging alkie whose fingers fasten unshakeably around the neck of any passing bottle of booze — ‘Your mother is particularly controversial after 7p.m. when she is tired.’
As the years rumble on and old age encroaches, the jollity tends to wear a little thin. But here again there are glimpses of the dark rather than anything too overt — ‘I have not been very well lately. I collapsed when clearing some undergrowth, but just managed to stagger to the house where Nidnod found me unconscious on the kitchen floor.’
However infirm he becomes, Mortimer’s eye for the animating flourish never deserts him. In one of the last letters here, written shortly before his death, he writes about how much he enjoyed seeing his grand-daughter, Rebecca — ‘and her shy friend from Dorking with her out-of-door teeth’.
I suspect your enjoyment of Dear Lumpy will depend to a large extent on just how crusty you like your crusty old buggers to be. Personally, I like mine very crusty indeed, and as a result snorted happily into my Inverness cape throughout.