John Mortimer may have started his career as a barrister in England, but he is equally, if not better known for his literary career, topped off by a memoir in three parts. The last part, The Summer of a Dormouse, Mortimer wrote while making the most of his mid-70s, almost a decade before he died.
While life has its inconveniences for him, Mortimer certainly gives the impression of living life to the fullest while he has any say in the matter. That’s not to say he doesn’t think about death and dying. Towards the end of his book is a chapter that begins:
I that in heill was and gladnèss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor Mortis conturbat me.
That last line, written by William Dunbar, Scottish poet, is Latin and translates to “fear of death disturbs me” or “the fear of death confounds me”. Mortimer notes how “Dunbar was especially worried by the fact that death seemed to have it in for writers” and lists stanzas from a Dunbar poem wherein each stanza had a rhyme about an author or two coming to an end, the stanzas ending with “Timor Mortis conturbat me.”
Here is Mortimer on Dunbar:
For me Dunbar, the good-time monk, got it right when he thought of death not as a mysterious love object but as a vague, unexplained anxiety. Timor mortis, like arthritis and failing eyesight, sets in around seventy and becomes acute after seventy-five. There are, however, if not cures, at least painkillers, placebos and periods of remission.
Love, the opening of a bottle of champagne or the act of writing sentences to fill a long sheet of ruled paper can banish timor at least temporarily. The cure is to be found among the living, not dwelling with those good fellows, Rowll of Aberdeen and Rowll of Corstorphine, reduced to an asterisk by death and the editor of an anthology.
[The Rowlls were authors, and in a reprint of Dunbar’s poem, an editor deleted their names and replaced them with an asterisk!]
Humor was certainly Mortimer’s method of understanding life. And in his final sentences, having embarked on an annual picnic, wheel chair among his companions, he leaves us with what I hope guided him through his next decade.
I feel neither old nor in any way incapacitated. Everything is perfectly all right.