I am very sorry to see that Colin Dexter has died, aged 86. Dexter's was the fertile mind that birthed Inspector Morse, the television adaptation, and its sequel and prequel, Lewis and Endeavor. For all my great affection for the latter incarnations, the books and the original series had a magic that the later entries did not quite possess--although the shadows of the original frequently deepened and enriched the later shows.
But Morse itself! How to describe its charm? For me, it was the gentle melancholy that lay at the core of Morse's psyche that defined the series of books and haunted John Thaw's portrayal of the character. A performance reflected, by the bye in the rather haunting theme tune by Barrington Pheloung:
All of Morse's brilliance, his success as a detective, could not heal his wounded heart; he was, in one of Dexter's best phrases, a man far more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.
Colin Dexter, however, was rather different:
Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. His father, Alfred, was a taxi driver who had left school at 12, as had Colin’s mother, Dorothy (nee Towns), and was determined that Colin and his elder brother, John, should be well educated. The boys were not required to do any domestic chores but were expected to spend every available moment studying. Both gained scholarships to the independent Stamford school, and Colin then went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics.According to his above-quoted obituary, "he one extravagance to which Dexter would admit was his purchase of the first editions of the works of A.E. Housman."
He became a classics teacher, claiming for the rest of his life that he was a born teacher rather than a writer: he took no interest in the moral welfare of his pupils but prided himelf on getting them better exam results than they thought they were capable of. He taught at schools in Loughborough and Leicester, and by his mid-30s was head of classics at a school in Corby, Northamptonshire. It was there that he discovered there was something seriously wrong with his hearing.
This had the effect of making him seek a second career in which impaired hearing would not be a disadvantage. So he became a GCE examiner for the Oxford University Board. It required him to move to Oxford, and he remained there from 1966 until 1987, by which time Morse had changed his life.
The first of the Inspector Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written because, with his wife, Dorothy, and two sons, Dexter was on holiday in north Wales at a time when the rain never seemed to stop. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better. With the benefit of medieval and suburban Oxford as the setting (Dexter reckoned that he would never have become a writer had he moved to Rotherham), Last Bus to Woodstock proved the point.
Dexter was often asked whether he wrote for a readership or for himself. His answer was that he wrote for his old English teacher Mr Sharp. He 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 eight out of 10.
Dexter gave Housman the last word on Morse, as above shown, so let me extend the same courtesy to Morse's creator:
How Clear, How Lovely Bright
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.