On Thursday, 26th April, the City of Oxford, plus a host of the many friends he’d made over the years, said a moving goodbye to Colin Dexter, O.B.E, creator of the memorable character of Inspector Morse.
The Memorial Service was held in the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral, St. Aldates, Oxford.
I was thrilled to have been invited to be among the guests, and before I sign off, I shall tell you how I came to know Colin. But first, the Service and the Reception.
The Service opened and closed with Barrington Pheloung & Players, the composer of the Morse theme. Not surprisingly, the Morse theme closed the Service.
* a speech about Colin, followed by a reading of one of A.E.Housman’s poems by Peter Waine, Chairman of the Housman Society, of which Colin was a member,
* a tribute to Colin, a dedicated crossword player and clue-compiler, by Jonathan Crowther, setter of the Observer Azed crossword,
* a tribute by Kevin Whately – Inspector Lewis – speaking first as one of the Morse actors, and then reading from ‘Death Is Now My Neighbour’, the 12th novel in the Inspector Morse series.
On the back of the programme, there was ‘A Crossword for Colin’. This was a crossword compiled by Colin in 1993, that had been cleverly amended for the occasion by his close friend, Don Manley.
The Memorial Service was followed by a Civic Reception at Oxford Town Hall.
After circulating with wine or juice, we took a seat at one of the tables and listened to the speakers on the platform give their recollections of Colin.
One of the many interesting things that Philip Pullman, the first speaker, said was that Colin had written five Morse novels before he’d ever been into a police station! He went on to say that you don’t have to visit every place you write about, you don’t have to be a man in order to write about being a man, you don’t have to be a baker to write about being a baker, you don’t have to murder someone to write about a murderer, BUT you do have to be clever if you’re going to create a character who is clever. Colin Dexter, a classicist with a particular love of Greek, was a very clever man.
James Neville talked about Colin’s passion for Classics, Wagner, and real ale hostelries.
Val McDermid talked about Colin and the Crime Writers’ Association – he was the first event in the first Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. They had first bonded over a shared love of ‘The Archers’. In an amusing speech, she described him as a highly sociable and charitable man, who always had time for his fans and to help new writers. He was a self-deprecating man, she said, with a wicked sense of humour.
After the talks, one of the Morse fans had compiled a montage of clips of many of Colin’s cameo appearances in ‘Morse’, ‘Lewis’ and ‘Endeavour’, and this was shown on a large screen in the front of the hall. It was highly entertaining, but also quite moving as we watched Colin change from the young man he’d been when the TV series was first made, to the older Colin of recent years.
Just before we attempted to do justice to the sandwiches and cakes that were set out on large round tables and down the centre of the room, Kevin Whately came on to the platform with Sally Dexter, Colin’s daughter, who, with Don Manley, had organised so much of the afternoon, and he presented her with flowers.
I spoke to several familiar faces afterwards. Kevin Whately tells me that, alas, there won’t be any more episodes of ‘Lewis’. Not so with ‘Endeavour’, though. Colin said many a time how excellent he thought Shaun Evans, and how well he’d captured the onset of the Morse mannerisms that would intensify over the years.
At the end of the Reception, every guest was given a goody bag. Inside, there was a postcard copy of the oil painting, done in 2011, that hangs in The Morse Bar of the Randolph Hotel, Oxford; the book Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, which was written by Colin, and a booklet in which he answers questions put to him by fans about himself and Inspector Morse.
Now to the question of how did I get to know him? I think most authors would agree that at some point in their quest for publication, they had a stroke of luck which helped them on their way. My stroke of luck was meeting Colin, who was later to read The Road Back, my debut novel, when it was still in manuscript form. Not only did Colin read the novel, but he said that he liked it so much that he wanted to endorse it. The words that he wrote are on the front cover. They are:
A splendid love story, so beautifully told.
To wind the clock back, Colin Dexter was always a great supporter of new writers, and a friend to the Oxford Writers’ Group, to which I belong. Indeed, it was at an OWG party in 2011 that I was introduced to him.
We quickly found out that:
* we both shared an addiction for The Archers, but were very critical of the recent themes and the large number of ‘new’ voices,
* Colin knew Belsize Park, where Patricia, in The Road Back, was brought up, as was I,
* and we both loved cryptic crosswords.
The following day, the Chair of the OWG received a phone call from Colin, asking if he could be put in touch with me so that he could give me a book he had witten.
We met in The Morse Bar at The Randolph Hotel in Oxford, and he gave me Cracking Cryptic Crosswords. During our conversation, we got on to Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard – don’t ask! – which I’ve always liked. We started to recite it in unison. I faded before the end of the second verse, but Colin continued. Although he was already a sick man at that time, his mind was still fully alert, and his passion for poetry as strong as ever.
That was the first of a number of afternoons in The Morse Bar, me with a glass of white wine, he with a glass from which alcohol was missing. Tourists were regularly introduced to him, and as his books were on sale in the hotel shop, as was a model of Morse’s car, he was frequently asked to sign these. His real pleasure, though, was chatting to the people to whom he was introduced.
Eventually, his declining health made further such visits impossible, and his wife would make me a coffee in his home and we would chat there.
He was a good friend to me, and to many other people connected with writing in one way or another, and he’ll be greatly missed. Hopefully, from his cloud on high, he will have stopped doing his crossword on Thursday for a moment or two, switched off the Wagner, and listened to his Memorial Service and Reception, and he will know how highly esteemed he was, and always will be.
Colin Dexter, O.B.E. Rest in Peace.