JOHN MORTIMER is an atheist who wrote the screen script for Brideshead Revisited the best dramatist ever to defend a murderer in court, a non-believer obsessed with God.
He is a tall bulgy man. When I met him in his London flat in Little Venice he was working on a script, alone apart from his attractive but unintelligent King Charles-like dog. He peered through thick lenses, a red flannel scarf about his neck, a thick watch chain in the lapel of his sports coat. An everlasting gas log fire hissed in the grate. Theatrical posters hung framed on the walls. Watery sunshine lit the tussocks of the back gardens clustered behind the sitting room window.
"Godly people and religion seem to have some fascination for you — your interview with Cardinal Hume or your one *title Tony Benn . . . "
"I always ask people about God. Well, I think it's a very good way of beginning. If you ask people about God it's a good framework to say what they think about life. Either they don't believe, or they do believe in God, or they don't think about God, which is also very revealing. I think about God a lot because I don't believe in God. The man I most didn't get on with when I was interviewing him — a computer whizz-kid — what he said about God was 'neutral'."
"Did you believe him?"
"Yes I think I did, because when I asked him about politics he said 'neutral' too. He was only interested in computers."
"What do you think of people like the rationalists, or the secularists like Nicolas Walter. Are you in their party?"
"My non-belief in God I regard as an act of faith, as much as a belief in God would be. I don't think it has a particularly rational basis not to believe in God any more than to believe in God does. It's a leap in the dark. I think my non-belief in God is based on the fact that I wouldn't like God if he existed, but that implies a certain amount of belief."
"It's like toothache, isn't it? One can't help it. But you must have doubts, mustn't you, like any non-believer or believer?"
Mortimer has a comforting way of laughing when asked questions and a disorientating habit of interrupting himself when answering them and leaving his sentences unresolved.
"I certainly have doubts. I don't think I can believe in a personal, anthropomorphic sort of God, because I wouldn't agree with what he did."
"Regarding the usual sort of problems of evil and pain?"
"The problem of evil and the problem of the idea that you give people free will in order that they can massacre seven million Jews. If it was me I would withdraw the free will on that occasion if I had the power to do so."
"Where does that leave you with regard to the seeming accidents of life? They do tend to fall into a pattern, which perhaps we project on to them. Is that the way you look at it?"
"I think we have a pattern, that the purpose in life is us, the purpose of the universe is us. We're the thing with purpose. I think we make accidents happen. I think that accidents are deliberate. If you crash your car that's usually a deliberate act.
l'The only thing I regret about it is your life becomes very involved with yourself if you don't believe in God. When you get to my age you have a longing not to believe so much in yourself.
"What about death though?"
"Death is final and the end of everything. It's all very unfortunate. I think life is absurd, really. I think it's an absurd
situation we're in that we have these great powers and potentials and dreams and it all ends. That is why I think comedy is so important. I think we're in a comic situation ... It doen't stop me being very interested in religion."
"How much study of the doctrines of Christianity have you made, for example"
"Not a great deal. I started by being brought up in very conventional Anglican schools, which I found not particularly interesting. My father didn't believe in God, My mother didn't oelieve in God, so I was brought up to be a traditional Bernard Shaw-period atheist. I've made a close study of Evelyn Waugh's Catholicism for the purpose of doing Brideshead. I think my most sympathetic religious beliefs would be those of Graham Greene. whom I am very fond of and admire most as a contemporary writer. I met him recently by the good fortune of working \\ ith him on the script of Doctor Fischer of Geneva.
"His Catholicism is the one I would go for if I were religious. But I'm not quite sure what his Catholicism is — it's almost indistinguishable from atheism. But it gives his writing enormous strength — you envy that power."
"You don't think that Waugh would ever have fallen into that sort of religion?"
"Well, Waugh's religion is much less humane than Graham Greene's."
"You don't think that Waugh was trying to resist a tragic view of life, a pessimistic view?"
"Don't you think he has a pessimistic view?"
Mortimer lets out a mild oath as the telephone rings for the second time, and shambles out into the kitchen (where I notice the ceiling has developed a sort of black mould acne like my bathroom — condensation) to
take it off the hook.
"I found the end of Brideshead very moving to write and very interesting, But I think that's because anybody sacrificing anything for any belief is moving
. The people Graham Greene likes most are disillusioned Communists aren't they — people who are attached to those great beliefs that they no longer believe in, but they wish they did."
"What sort of pleasure now that the whole thing's finished except that it's starting in America, like some disease which sweeps the world — do you see in Brideshead on the screen? Do you see it as something quite different from what you intended?" "No, I think it's quite close to what I intended. I was very interested in the religion in it and I think it figures very strongly in it. I think the most surprising thing about dramatising it is how Charles becomes a much more unpleasant character than you'd ever thought he was before. Because when you read the book you identify with him, but when you see the nauseating things he does — like not going back to his children — it is very different. ' And that gives a great strength to the end, because when you read the book, you think Julia's behaving stupidly and you're on Charles's side and you can't think why she doesn't accept this nice man, but when you see him acting as he does, actually dramatised, I think she gets much more of a case. So I think the end of the film is somehow more impressive when you see it than when you read it, "But I don't feel deeply involved in Brideshead — I think it's all due to Evelyn Waugh if it's a success. I do hate religion being in any way confused with the English class syskem."
You didn't find your schooldays were anything like Charles Ryder's schooldays, which we now discover in the Times Literary Supplement?"
"Well I haven't read that yet, but I think they must be quite like that. I think there's a similarity between me and Evelyn Waugh in that we were both middle class boys educated above our stations slightly. But I think Brideshead is much more anti-upper class on close inspection. There's a wonderful speech by Anthony Blanche in the picture gallery you know, English charm kills everything like a creeping dry rot — it's quite good."
"In your autobiography,* did you find it was difficult to talk about yourself?"
"I think dealing with yourself is the most difficult thing to do, because you've got to be very modest about yourself, but modesty can become a kind of showing off. I tried to deal with myself as someone that everything happened to."
"A sort of Charles Ryder figure much nicer though? It's not entirely clear from your autobiography what makes you happy.'
"0 God — what makes me happy is to have finished a bit of work. Working makes me happy, being in the country makes me happy.
"Families are a difficult thing because they produce happiness, and yet at the same time . . . '
.'... anxiety, yes. I'm very happy with my present family."
"As far as your parents go, you write about them a good deal, in fact you're always writing about them — like God really — did you find that at different times in your life you liked or loved them unequally?"
"Since I became familiar with my father, which wasn't till I was about eight or nine, I always felt very great affinity with him. I didn't feel that with my mother really until almost when she died, because she always seemed to be different from us. Not talking the same private language that we did. But she was marvellous, she was very tough under it all and very brave."
"How do you find getting on with people who do have these unsupportable beliefs like Christianity? Do you find that they're sometimes too doctrinaire?"
"I respect people, obviously, with religious beliefs and I have begun to think in a way that you can judge beliefs not so much by what they are intrinsically but by the effect they have on people's behaviour. Whatever the Rev. Ian Paisley believes, the effect it has is to make him behave like an impossible person. Whatever the Ayatollah believes, if the effect of it is to make you execute children and hang women and so on, then I would condemn that belief.
"Given that, the people 1 like most and get on best with are Christians. For instance, I'm very fond of John Osborne; I very much like Private Eye and Richard Ingrams, and he's a Christian, and Malcolm Muggeridge. I think I probably find them more sympathetic than agnostics or Guardian readers or women's libbers or whatever. A militant secularist is terrible absolutely awful, and it would be terribly hard to live in a world without religion." _
"I suppose the criticism of Catholics is that they think they can behave badly, then confess it ..."
"Hence the high proportion of Catholics in prison?"
"I think that's to do with the fact that the working class is predominantly Irish. If you go to the Old Bailey you do find that the people being tried tend to be either Irish or Asian or whatever they are and the people trying them are good Church of England whites. I don't think it can be to do with Catholicism, because after all blacks are not Catholic."
"Have you anything particular to say to the readers of the Catholic Herald?"
"Did you enjoy Brideshead? . .. No, seriously, I think my atheism is more akin to Catholicism than any other form of religion — I think I'm a lapsed Catholic atheist."
"Whereas Grahame Greene is a lapsed atheist Catholic?"
* Clinging to the Wreckage (Weidenfeld, £8.50).