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Tom Chaney: Rumpole and the Primrose Path

Of Writers and Their Books Rumpole and the Primrose Path. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 14 May 2006.
The next earlier column: Tom Chaney: The Unseen Savage of the White Man's Heart

By Tom Chaney

Rumpole and the Primrose Path

I must confess to an addiction from which I have recovered.

For years I regularly watched television. In Texas in 1964 fellow graduate students and I gathered at the house of one of our number every afternoon at 4:00 p.m. for a dose of Maverick reruns.

Twenty years later found me glued to the box every day at 11:05 in the living room of a bed and breakfast I operated to watch reruns of Perry Mason on the Turner network. I knew the show had a formula which called for the revelation of the real murderer just at the end of the show -- in the nick of time. I didn't realize just how rigid was the formula until the Horse Cave noon siren shrieked daily just at that moment of revelation.

That winter I moved to Philadelphia and quit television cold turkey. Oh, I longed for Maverick and Perry Mason, but my living arrangements did not even call for hot running water much less television. I had a rough withdrawal. I might not remember 11:05, but when the workers whom I supervised broke for lunch at high noon, I thought of Perry Mason, Hamilton Burger, Detective Tragg, and Della Street.

When I was almost over the addiction, I changed jobs, took another apartment complete with running water and a victrola.

Then my friend George moved in. He had not kicked his addiction to the tube. He got me hooked again. We went out into the wiles of Philly in search of a television set. I jumped off the wagon.

I like to think that by 1988 my tastes had improved in the direction of public television. It was much like the drinker who moves from beer to single malt bourbon. I had two favorite shows. Missing the daily reruns of Are You Being Served? and the weekly airing of Rumpole of the Bailey was out of the question. For the next six years I reveled in the squalor of my addiction.

My return to Horse Cave led to a twelve-year stint of withdrawal. I am pleased to report that I have not slipped back into the slough of video slavery -- with the possible exception of a rerun or two of M*A*S*H every now and again.

But Rumpole still tempts me. Fortunately I have the patch of Rumpole books by John Mortimer. I have seen Leo McHearn, so I can visualize him as I read.

All of that to get around to the book I found a few days back -- Rumpole and the Primrose Path by John Mortimer.

For the uninitiated, Rumpole is a British barrister who defends in criminal trials at London's Old Bailey.

Rumpole is unabashedly orotund, despite the urgings of wife Hilda whom he calls "She who must be obeyed." He is fond, perhaps to excess, of Chateau du Thames Embankment, a particularly vile plonk as well as to noxious little cigars.

While not always a believer in the innocence of his clients, he is firmly committed to the presumption of that innocence. His wit cuts through the pomposity of judges and the arrogance of do-gooders like a knife through hot butter.

In the previous collection of stories, Rumpole suffered a severe heart attack from which he was not expected to recover. As this volume opens with the title story, he escapes from the "primrose path" of the nursing home under cover of darkness and returns to his firm only to find that his fellow barristers are planning his memorial service.

Reports of his death being highly exaggerated, he continues to do battle in the courts of the Old Bailey puncturing the balloons of arrogance, pride, and pretense while on the home front he polishes his skills at escaping the wiles of "she who must. . . ."

Along the way he does his best to reduce the prison population of England by getting his clients acquitted of crimes from petty theft to murder.

If you are not acquainted with Horace Rumpole, you would do well to remedy that appalling lack as soon as possible. Surely there are reruns on the tube. Certainly Mortimer's books will provide many an evening of secret pleasure. Perhaps, as the moist front brings sunshine and plonk to our neighbor city to the south, we may gather to celebrate Rumpole of the Bailey.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-05-15 03:53:36
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