Flatterer, fibber, and mischief-maker supreme... how I miss my darling Dad

I'm terrified of forgetting my dad  -  of losing the feeling of being next to him.

Sitting in his chair with him by the fire while he chewed his hanky.

Or his elegant hand reaching out across a tabletop and his girlish voice saying, 'I do love you darling' or 'God, you look so beautiful', or 'This is the best lunch of my entire life.' 

John and Emily Mortimer

Grieving : Emily Mortimer with her father, John, who died in January

It's very difficult saying goodbye to someone when they have no interest in dying.

My dad always said that if there was such a thing as an afterlife he knew exactly what it would be  -  a lobby in some enormous transcendental hotel with lots of No Smoking signs everywhere and awful muzak playing through speakers hidden in spider plants.

So he made his best effort to believe that one life on earth is all you get.

Someone a few years ago asked him what he considered to be his biggest regret. 'Missed opportunities', came the answer. 

This was surprising. As far as any of us could tell, he had pretty much denied himself nothing during his 85 years on earth.

'Someone once asked me to go and do something disgusting in Soho,' he explained. 'I thought they meant eat some sort of nasty food, so I turned them down.

He promised me he'd never die - and I believed him


Afterwards I realised it had been an altogether more interesting proposition.'

I'm terrified of forgetting my dad, but I'm also frightened of remembering him too much.

One of my last recollections is of him sitting at his favourite table at the Wolseley restaurant in London, looking very thin and a tiny bit lost, but as dapper as ever in his checked suit with his inevitable yellow tie and pink hankie in his breast pocket.

He would sit there like a mystified Mr Toad who is shocked to find himself in a losing battle, with his own mortality, and is doing his best to ignore it.

I remember the strict roles that had to be adhered to on a night out to dinner with my dad.

He was deeply irritated by anyone looking at a menu, and always made us decide what we wanted to eat in the car on the way there.

Certain topics were banned and dismissed as irritating and bourgeois, like global warming, or (in Italy) our mosquito bites. And we always had to leave way before there was any chance of pudding. 

Happy day: John gave Emily away at her wedding in 2002

Happy day: John gave Emily away at her wedding in 2002

Despite these neurotic displays, dinner was a treat because he told funny, racy, gossipy stories and paid us masses of compliments.

His flattery held very little water. It was always about how beautiful we looked  -  when we knew he was blind, or else how it was the happiest night of his life when we knew he'd said exactly the same thing the night before.

But it didn't matter. It still did the trick.

Perhaps it was because he was so doting that I would always forget to ask all the questions I had for him about how to be happy, how to be loved, how to keep my head above water.

Or perhaps it had something to do with his attitude to life.

Because the really exciting thing about being with my dad was that, underneath all those compliments, the jokes, the excesses, the neurosis and the gossip, he was a true radical.

He was terrified of lifts and he didn't like being alone in the dark, but he had a punk rock soul.

Some of his anarchic pronouncements were made just to initiate or start an argument, like 'honesty is the most overrated virtue'. But when he claimed to have a hazy understanding of the difference between right and wrong  -  this wasn't just an excuse, it was some kind of creed.

I think the only piece of serious advice he imparted was that I should always make sure I had lined myself up with a new boyfriend before I got rid of the present one.
But he was inherently and constantly forgiving.

John  Mortimer , Emily Mortimer

Doting Dad: Emily has many fond memories of her father

I remember once asking him if he'd love me any less if I got a Third at university. 'I'll love you so much more if you get a Third,' he said.

He sympathised with the young, and that in turn kept him young.

He was furious when young people were told what was best for them by a puritanical government, and would beg my sister to take up smoking again whenever she packed it in.

In fact, he himself took it up aged 80. He went on the TV to complain about the curse of political correctness and how he hated the smoking ban because it meant that he was always left alone in a room while all the people he loved most went out for a fag.

As an illustration of his solidarity, he lit up a cigarette on camera  -  and got hooked.

From then on, he demanded a little brown cigarillo after dinner every night.

Another thing that kept my father young was that he never stopped fibbing. The last great friends he made in his life were Jon Lord and Ian Paice  -  the keyboard player and drummer from the rock group Deep Purple.

A couple of years before he died, Dad found himself, aged 82, at his first heavy metal concert  -  a Deep Purple gig in Oxford. He was sitting in his wheelchair at the side of the stage drinking champagne out of a paper cup, when someone came up and asked if he was Ian Paice's dad.

Yes, he replied. 'And very proud of the lad I am, too.'

It seemed impossible that someone who carried on like that could ever die.

Sometimes I thought my dad was like Falstaff  -  big-bellied, hilarious, cowardly at times maybe, but firmly and unapologetically on the side of life.

I'm terrified of forgetting my dad, but I'm also frightened of remembering him too much

He even promised me once that he wouldn't ever die, and for a while it was hard not to believe him.

The doctor came about a week before he died, when he was bedridden and too weak to say much, and asked him if he wanted to stop the treatment he was getting.

He said no. I think he thought that if he could have one more day, or hour, or second looking out of the window at the garden, or hearing the voices of the people he loved in the next room, he should be allowed to take it.

The campaign he had made to keep living somehow made his dying all the worse for us. In fact my sister and l kept wishing someone had brought us up to believe in God because maybe then we wouldn't feel so desperately sad about him not being here any more.

But now, months later, I realise that he lives on in the jokes we laugh at, in the funny, irreverent things our children say.

Emily's full story is in this month's Tatler

Emily's full story is in this month's Tatler

My dad titled one part of his autobiography The Summer Of A Dormouse. This was after Lord Byron, who wrote: 'When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling  -  buttoning and unbuttoning  -  how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse . . .'

This appraisal of life so appealed to my dad that when he was knighted and asked what he would like for his coat of arms, he decided it should be a dormouse drinking a glass of champagne.

About two weeks after he died, Binni  -  my dad's adored assistant, carer and friend in his last years  -  went into his bathroom and found a round-eyed, big-eared mouse sitting looking up at her from the bottom of the bath.

Not quite believing her eyes, she fetched my mum, who confirmed that the creature was indeed a rare and very nervous-looking dormouse. The two of them picked up the mouse and released him back into the garden: the garden that my father's father made, that my dad adored and that all his children and grandchildren run about in still  -  making mischief and telling lies and getting on with the messy, exciting, nerve-racking business of being alive.

  • The full version of this article can be seen in the October issue of TATLER, on sale now.

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