Rumpole and the Golden Thread

Notes on Kittle’s PhD thesis Chapter 4:

The role of the British legal system in British sense of national identity – “the long history of British common law serves a specific ideological function. It helps to establish as a distinctly British trait the fair and reasonable treatment of those involved in legal proceedings, whether criminal or civil.”

The story Rumpole and the Golden Thread set, very unusually, in Africa, in the fictitious country of Neranga. The story is inspired by events that happened in Zimbabwe and the trial of the seven accused Zapu dissidents. The British High Commissioner there is named Arthur Remnant, “he is among the last vestiges of British Empire still extant in Neranga” (Kittle, p. 168). “The story as a whole… makes the British justice system a clear marker not just for national identity, but for the British position in the larger global community” (Kittle p. 169).

  1. Neranga (formerly New Somerset)
    1. based on: Zimbabwe (formely Rhodesia)
  2. Justitia International
    1. based on: Amnesty International
  3. David Mazenze (Nerangan Minister of Home Affairs) – Apu tribe
    1. based on: Joshua Nkomo (leader of the oppositional Zapu party) and a former member of Mugabe’s cabinet, from Matabeleland
  4. Dr. Christopher Mabile – Matatu tribe
    1. based on: Robert Mugabe prime minister and leader of the ruling Zanu party)
    2. scholar/politician with a reputation for bloodthirstiness
  5. Sir Worthington Banzana (judge)
    1. Hilary Squires
      1. white man accused of judicial bias during the trial
  6. Trial of David Mazenze
    1. Trial of seven Zapu dissidents

“Mortimer’s story may question the universality of Common Law, but still poses the question in purely British terms” (Kittle, p. 175).

My notes:
1) Mortimer never challenges the institution of the Courts nor, really, the fairness of laws. In this sense, Rumpole is both conservative (small c) and naive. Rumpole stories do not exist in the conceptual, legal, social extremes where the law is uneasy, vague or inadequate, and Rumpole (as he himself admits) has little to do with the nuances of the written law, and everything to do with the people (and the society from which they come). His skill is not in the understanding of laws, as prescribed, but in understanding of the machinations of the legal system (as a cultural institution).
2) Rumpole as essentially an anarchist. “I believe in Mutual Aid, Universal Tolerance, and the Supreme Individual. At heart, I’ve long suspected I’m an anarchist” (Mortimer Second 14). His whole identity rests on two absolutes regarding which he is never willing to yield: a) never plead guilty; b) the Golden Thread (the presumption of innocence).
3) Rumpole and the Golden Thread ironically, and rather cleverly, reverses the courtroom drama trope. Namely, the verdict of Not Guilty is a death sentence, while Guilty means freedom (individually and politically).
4) Someone once said – I don’t remember who – that what made British TV of a certain era (Sixties, Seventies) so compelling was that there were a lot of people working in the medium who felt they did not quite belong there. Sort of entertainment’s equivalent of Michael Foot. Seems that John Mortimer is definitely of this mold, although few have been quite as adept in bridging the literary fiction/television divide.
5) There is a sense that Mortimer cultivated the Rumpole persona – although the character was inspired by his father. Clearly he was a more ambitious barrister than Rumpole – made QC, took on famous cases – and retired to the life of a famous writer. His politics ran to the left of Rumpole’s. One suspects that Mortimer admired Rumpole as a purer, untainted self and grew into him as we – in so many ways – adopt our parents’ manners and habits as we age.

Another book for the reading pile: Valerie Grove – A Voyage Round John Mortimer.