Rumpole creator and Gay News defender Sir John Mortimer dies

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Author, dramatist and free-speech barrister Sir John Mortimer has died at the age of 85 after a long illness. Sir John famously defended the publishers of Gay News in 1976 after they were accused of blasphemy for publishing a poem that appeared to imply that Jesus was gay.

Sir John who trained as a barrister went on to become one of Britain’s most prolific writers. He created the acclaimed Rumpole of the Bailey in both print and on television.

His first radio play was broadcast in 1957 and aside from Rumpole, he adapted Brideshead Revisited for television. He received a CBE in 1986 and was knighted in 1998.

In 1971, as a barrister, he successfully cleared Oz magazine against charges of obscenity, although he he was less successful when he came to the defence of Gay News

Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, (NVLA) announced her intention to sue in December 1976 after she read the poem entitled The Love Which Cannot Speak Its Name by James Kirkup, published in Gay News.

The poem expresses the fictional love of a Roman Centurion for Jesus and describes him having sex with the Christ’s crucified body.

Whitehouse described the poem as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion.”

On 11th July 1977 Editor Denis Lemon was found guilty and sentenced to nine months suspended imprisonment and fined £500.

Publisher Gay News Limited was fined £1,000.

An appeal led by Sir John against the conviction was rejected by the House of Lords. The European Commission of Human Rights found that the case was not admissible to be heard at the European Court of Human Rights.

It still ‘illegal’ to publish the poem in the UK. However, it was published again in two socialist newspapers few days after the original trial the offending poem as a protest against censorship. Given the accessibility of the poem on the internet, took the decision to reproduce it in 2007 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publishers of Gay News conviction for printing it. (It is reproduced below this article)

Sir John noted for his bizarre owlish glasses ability to produce a one-liner once said. “When you get to my age, life seems little more than one long march to and from the lavatory.” He had been suffering from a long illness. “Dying is a matter of slapstick and prat falls.”
Today in a statement, Sir John’s family said: “Sir John Mortimer died peacefully at six o’clock this morning at his home in the Chiltern Hills.”

“His wife and family were at his side,” they added.

Culture Secretary Andy Burnham paid tribute to Sir John saying he was a “brilliant and distinguished figure in our cultural life – a writer who could be wise, passionate and very funny indeed. He will be sorely missed.”

The controversial poem that Sir John unsuccessfully defended against charges of blasphemy is reproduced below:-

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name
By James Kirkup

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms-
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.
He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.
I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound-
the blood was harsh
For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation
I knew he’d had it off with other men-
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit. – even me.
So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.
It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread-
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth – I came and came and came
as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s finbal seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.
-This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they dies of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one another’s limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.
Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew not what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.
And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.