Friday, 24 March 2017

Britain is no longer a country for an old, quintessentially English, crime fiction writer called Colin Dexter who gave it Inspector Morse

Colin who will be remembered as the crime writer who created the curmudgeonly crossword and Wagner-loving detective, Inspector Morse who drove a vintage Jaguar around Oxford and solved murders by deep thinking, has died at the age of 86.

When actor John Thaw's 'Morse' first appeared on BBC TV screens in 1987 and subsequently in a further 32 episodes, Colin appeared, Hitchcock style in all but three episodes. He was 'The man in the wheelchair at Magdalen Bridge' and variously an Oxford tourist, doctor, prisoner, college porter, bishop, professor and 'The man with crutches in the hospital waiting room' and often appeared at the bar of the pub where Morse was drinking. In 1993 he achieved his ambition and played a small speaking role and added his enigmatic presence to episodes in the spin-off series, 'Lewis', between 2006-15. and 'Endeavour', with Shaun Evans as the young Morse, which began in 2012.

Born Norman Colin Dexter in the market town of Stamford, Lincolnshire in the Autumn of 1930, he was the son of Dorothy and Alfred, who had both left school at the age of twelve and were determined that he and his elder brother should get a good education and as a consequence excused them from household chores on the understanding that they spend every minute at their studies although he later confessed, in his early grammar school years at least : "Mother wrote my essays." In addition, he revealed that her Quaker beliefs and his Father's interest in Captain Cook may have informed his decision to christen Morse, with the name 'Endeavour' in deference to the Quaker tradition of naming children after abstract nouns and Cook's 'HMS Endeavour.'
Despite the fact that his father ran a shop in the town, where he sat outside on a chair, a large man with thick-lensed glasses, in a white overall and a peaked chauffeur's cap who served from a petrol pump, with his mother serving inside, the family lived in straightened circumstances. When Colin later recalled his big brother, John as the person who influenced him the most, he said : "We shared a bed for 19 years as we were so poor. One night, when I was 16, he woke me up playing Beethoven's 7th. He was in tears and I was intrigued. Classical music's been one of the great joys of my life." Poor as they were they did travel fifty miles to the coast in the summer where he enjoyed a "paddle in the sea at Skegness, which I loved as a boy."

He started at St John's Infant School when he was five in 1935 and after two years, he moved on to the nearby Bluecoat Junior School where he was impressed and remembered a trick with words when his teacher, Mrs Ireland, chalked on the board 'You will never misspell FRIEND as it has END in it.' After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he recalled the occasion when his class were sent down into an underground cellar when a German aircraft appeared. Then, after being let out after an 'all-clear' had been sounded, being very scared when a Messerschmitt appeared overhead and machine-gunned the playground and, without injury to anyone, cut a zigzag swathe from the houses to the garage,

Age the age of eleven, both Colin and his brother before him had taken up their scholarships at Stamford, the independent school for boys where at least one teacher left an indelible mark on him because, many years later when he was asked : whether he wrote for a readership or for himself ? His answer was that he wrote for his old English teacher Mr Sharp and would write a page and then ask himself, “Would Mr Sharp like that?” His aim was to feel that Mr Sharp would give it at least 8 out of 10.

Colin excelled in Mathematics and recalled "I loved algebra, loved answers to things. I've always been pretty good at that sort of thing, still up in the front row. The only thing I am good at" but only came to books when he was in the sixth form : "When I was a boy I didn't read anything until I was 16. Until then it was Beano and The Dandy because there were no books in the house. Then I started to take reading very seriously and I would read in bed every night. If I came across a word I didn't know I couldn't sleep until I had looked it up in the dictionary. It would worry me all the time. I had to know the answer."

Characterised as 'as sporty as academic' he played for the school rugby team where, at 18, he is seated centre and played alongside and remained friends with the great M.J.K. Smith, seated to his right,who went on to captain England at cricket and represent England at rugby. In the same year, 1948, he was enlisted for his two years National Service in the Armed Forces and served as a morse code operator in the Army Royal Corps of Signals, then took himself off to Christ’s College, Cambridge, to study Classics where he secretary of the hockey club and a was a keen tennis player. He graduated in 1953, a beer drinker, crossword solver and Wagner and Charles Dickens lover, who thought 'Bleak House' "a masterclass in writing" and appreciator of what became his favourite film, the 1951 'The African Queen' for its "tension and chemistry." 

In his mid twenties, in the mid 1950s, he became an atheist but remained "very, very fond and always shall be of church music, church art, church literature and so on and I also found myself, from the word go, congenitally incapable of voting for the Tory Party." Then in 1956, at the age of 26, he married, having met Dorothy, a physiotherapist, at a New Year's Eve dance in Leicester. By this time he was a classics master, teaching Latin and Greek at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Loughborough. He went on to earn his master’s degree from Cambridge in 1958 and said that his classical training gave him 'Initium est dimidium facti','The beginning is half of the deed' and that he "always found that the beginning is the hardest part of anything. Once that's done, I'm off and away." He claimed for the rest of his life, that he was a born teacher rather than a writer who took no interest in the moral welfare of his pupils, but prided himself on getting them better exam results than those of which they thought they were capable and, in addition, "I'd tell my pupils that asking questions is vital."

Colin, who had started to lose his hearing when he was still at school and had four unsuccessful operations to improve his hearing in his twenties, was teaching the fifth form 'The Aeneid, Book II', when he began to feel that there was something underhand going on in class of which he was unaware and discovered that one of the pupils had been playing a pop music station on the radio and had been gradually turning up the volume to see how long it would be before 'Sir' noticed, only to find that, even at full volume, he had heard nothing. He knew deafness was part of his genetic inheritance, since all four of his grandparents, an uncle and his father had become deaf. It was now that he made, what must have been, the heart-breaking decision to abandon his career in teaching, of which he later said : “I think it’s truly more satisfying than writing, It forms very strong links in your life.”

In 1966 he secured the position of Senior Assistant Secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations which set exams for secondary schools and he ran the English and Classics syllabuses for the board for the next 21 years, until 1987, when, at the age of 57, he retired to concentrate on his writing. Colin's job had taken him to Oxford where he lived with his wife Dorothy and their children Jeremy and Sally. Three years later,'Something' by the Beatles became little Sally's favourite song and remained the one which meant the most for him for the rest of his life. He also admitted that when he had her dog put down at the vets he could "hear Sally, who was 13, weeping next door. It was one of the few times I've wept."

In these years, to supplement his income, he wrote school text books, published by Robert Maxwell and later admitted that the event that altered the course of his life because it was : "Getting my first book, 'Liberal Studies, 'published in 1964 which started my writing career." In fact, the three books he had published and aimed at sixth formers were co-authored with a colleague at school in the History Department.

It was when he was 43, on holiday in a guest house in North Wales with the family in the inclement summer of 1973, that Morse was born. It was another wet day, a saturday afternoon when feeling miserable and bored after the kids had said : "why didn't I take them to a place where the sun was shining ?" and "We want to go home" that he read the two detective novels in their holiday accommodation, one about Miss Silver in the 1930s and decided that he could do better than that. The result, 'Last Bus To Woodstock', which began life as no more than a page and a half written behind a locked door, on the kitchen table, owed much to its medieval and suburban Oxford setting and lent credence to his later claim that he would never have become a writer if he'd he moved to Rotherham. The fact that the book wasn't an instant success, having been turned down by Collins before being published by Macmillan, may have gone some way towards explaining why he maintained his career with the exam board and said : “I never, ever, had to earn a living out of writing. I was well looked after and paid at the University Schools Examination Board.” In fact he slotted his writing in an exercise book, after his day job and in between listening to long-running radio soap 'The Archers' and a nightly visit to the pub and "found if I wrote a page a day, 360 days a year, it soon built up.”

His principal characters, 'Morse' and 'Lewis', were named in deference to his friend and "just about the cleverest man I’ve ever met," Jeremy Morse, who went on to become Chairman of Lloyds Bank, a Director of the Bank of England and a Mrs B Lewis, both regular and successful entrants in the crossword competitions which Colin, five times champion in the Ximenes and Azed Competitions, also entered. In his character, Morse was unlike him as an irascible, mean, intellectual snob and like him as a lover of Wagner, Vermeer, particularly 'The Milkmaid' in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Charles Dickens and the taste of real ale.

The initial print run of this, his first novel was only 4,000 copies and not long after the book came out, Macmillan offered to send him the 120 copies they had sitting in their offices at a cost of a £5 freight charge. Colin declined the offer. He had no way of knowing that a quarter of a century later a copy of a first edition of 'Last Bus to Woodstock', in good condition, would cost around £1,000.

His guiding principle in writing his Morse stories remained the same from start to finish 25 years later : “I’ve never worried about character study or anything like that. I want to write stories that people are interested in. The idea that I am analysing or exploring the dark abyss of the soul is silly. I stress plot. I write short chapters and keep things moving.” He also confessed that : "I never did any research at all really. I used to know quite a lot of policemen and then I became quite friendly with quite a few of them, but I was never a researcher."

As he continued with Morse and it wasn't long before success caught up with him. His 'Service of All the Dead' in 1979 earned him the 'Silver Dagger Award' of the Crime Writers’ Association and two years later, 'The Dead of Jericho' he won it for the second time.

He won the 'Gold Dagger Award' for 'The Wench is Dead' in 1989, in which Morse solved a century-old murder while recuperating in a hospital and 'The Way Through the Woods' in 1992. This found a miserable Morse temporarily transported from his City of Dreaming spires to a reluctant holiday break in Colin's favourite, the Bay Hotel on the seafront in Lyme Regis, Dorset, a frequent summer holiday destination for him, Dorothy and the kids. In 2012 he told The Telegraph that the town was his "favourite place on earth." He harboured fond memories of sitting in a deckchair with a glass of scotch or taking a teenage Sally on the Thomas Hardy Trail before lunch in the King's Arms in Dorchester.

He also won the 'Cartier Diamond Dagger Award' for 'Services to Crime Fiction' in 1997 and the 'Sherlock Holmes Award' in 1999. It was in that year that in 'The Remorseful Day' he killed off Morse, after 13 novels featuring some 80 corpses and in that inimitable Dexter way : in a hospital bed, from cardiac arrest brought on by his inattention to his diabetic condition.

Colin's own diabetes had been diagnosed in 1987, when at the age of 57 he spent two weeks in hospital, the first on an insulin drip and the second in the Radcliffe Infirmary Diabetic Ward. In his diagnosis 'heredity' scored 'low', 'worry' scored 'average' and 'alcohol' scored 'high.' Following in his Father's footsteps he had been and continued to be a "very big drinker indeed," who had his first drink at the age of 14 and continued for 60 years until at the age of 74 in 2004, when he was having problems with high blood pressure, had seven laser treatments on each eye and when he found : "They're afraid I'll go blind like Sue Townsend," gave up alcohol completely and as a result lost two stone in weight.

The first of 33 episodes of the Inspector Morse television series was presented in 1987, with John Thaw as 'Morse' and Kevin Whately as Lewis and after his original novels ran out he wrote additional scripts, before turning over the series to other writers. For the record : Morse’s car, in the original books, was an old Lancia which was swapped for an iconic 1962 Jaguar during filming because the production company couldn’t find a Lancia to suit; the Morse code for MORSE  – — •-• ••• • features in the background of the famous 'Morse Theme' and incidental music, written by award winning composer Barrington Pheloung who occasionally spelled out the name of the killer in his music using the code.

In 1995 he told the Irish Times : “I don’t take all this awfully seriously. There are more important things in life than detective stories. For me it is just a bit of fun. I’ve never had to meet a deadline, never had to make a living out of writing a book. I just happened to be lucky.”

Tongue in cheek, Colin was always at pains to point out the misapprehension people had about him : "That I'm cleverer than I am! The Inspector Morse plots made people think I'm very smart. I'm definitely not as smart as Morse." At the height of its popularity he saw the series reach a global audience of a 750 million people in 200 countries. He once said : "It's always a sadness when your parents die before you've done anything,"

The last episode of 'Morse' in 2000, featured his death and after John Thaw’s death in 2002, Colin stipulated that no other actor should reprise the role. He said : "I didn't feel any regrets writing about Morse's death. Why should I? I'm getting older too. I shall be 70 next year. I've murdered lots of people, written 13 or is it 14 novels? Things come to an end. It's only natural" and "Morse would never have lasted in retirement. He had no lawn to mow. He had a few girlfriends but he never got married. He would have gone spare. No, it's better this way. I in the meantime shall do nothing more than read more and listen to more music."

In fact, Colin did much more and went on to write 42 episodes of the spin-off series, 'Lewis', between 2006-15 and 14 episodes of the 28 episode prequel series, 'Endeavour', with Shaun Evans as the young Morse, which began in 2012.

He said his the happiest moment he would cherish forever was being given the 'Freedom of the City of Oxford' in 2001 at a time when the only living recipients were Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi and when asked about the City he said : “My only claim to fame is to make it the murder capital of Europe. The body count before Lewis started recently was up to 87, now it’s up to 93.”

He was by now a wealthy man who eschewed and cared little for the things that money could buy. He and his wife continued to live in the semi-detached house in North Oxford which had been their family home since the 1960s; they never replaced their car until it began to disintegrate and were perfectly happy, when they took a holiday, to book places on a coach tour or walk in the hills of mid-Wales and stop in Machynlleth for tea. Another pleasure was fish and chips at The Trout Inn in Oxfordshire, with children, Sally and Jeremy, both in their fifties and grandsons Thomas and James in their twenties. In addition, at the age of 80 in 2010 he said : “The only thing I’m good at is crosswords” and published  'Cracking Cryptic Crosswords: A Guide to Solving Cryptic Crosswords.'

Colin once described himself as : “Short, fat, bald, deaf; a lukewarm socialist; a Low Church atheist; a lover of crosswords, Wagner, cask-conditioned beer and the scholar-poet AE Housman; a hater of American musicals, Australian cricketers, litter and the political prejudices of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne.”

He said that the poem which touched his soul was and 'Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray from 1751, which was "so lyrical it's like music when you read it."
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Colin wrote of Morse in 'The Way Through the Woods' :
'During the previous night his thought had been much preoccupied with death, and the mood persisted now. As a boy, he had been moved by those words of the dying Socrates, suggesting that if death were just one long, unbroken, dreamless sleep, then a greater boon could hardly be bestowed upon mankind.'

He offered no one the opportunity to write his biography while he was alive and said with perfect understatement : "I would never allow that. I've had such a lot of luck, I don't want to risk having someone ridiculously ill-informed doing it. I think it should wait till you are dead. 
And when you're dead, everyone forgets you anyway, if you write crime fiction."

In 2008 he told Sue Lawley on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs' : "I no longer believe in the Almighty or any future life, but I've always loved a lot of church music and I think if there is a future life I shall long to be paraded into eternity by the 'In Paridison' from the Fauré Requiem" which was used in the first episode of 'Endeavour' and featured in 'Morse.' 

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