Life’s endeavour of a quietly great man…

AN obituary written by a dead man somehow seems fitting for Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse.

Newspapers keep these tributes on the stocks, as shown by the obit in this morning’s Guardian, which is written by Dennis Barker, who died in 2015. The long-serving journalist graced the pages of that newspaper for some 50 years, and two years after his own death, his words on Dexter are published today.

It sounds almost like a set-up from one of Dexter’s dozen or so crime novels, with the dead honouring the dead. Barker’s ‘one he prepared earlier’ is lovely and not too long. Sometimes with obituaries, the honour being paid can rather go on a bit. Baker’s piece is succinct, respectful and captures the spirit of the man.

I never met Dexter, although I was once introduced to the equally great Reginald Hill, not that long before he died in 2012. That was at the Harrogate crime writing festival. Hill was given a lifetime achievement award that night; the same honour later went to Dexter, by coincidence in the year when Hill died. Dexter was already by then quite frail, but he gave a moving speech and brought the audience to its feet.

Barker’s obit reminds us that we have the rotten weather in Wales to thank for the creation of Inspector E Morse. The rain during a family holiday kept Dexter indoors. He read the detective fiction in the holiday house and concluded he could do better.

That otherwise unrewarding holiday in Wales led to Last Bus To Woodstock, the first Morse novel, published in 1975. Dexter never thought of himself as much of a writer, which is often the way with writers, great and otherwise.

Dexter, who has died aged 86, said he could revise his “bad starts” into something that worked. “I just started writing and forced myself to keep going. And it’s been the same ever since.”

He made Morse from his own flesh to an extent, giving him a classics background, a love of Wagner and real ale, and crosswords too. In a clip on the BBC news last night, Dexter implied that the success of Morse lay in people liking a grump, and that he himself had always been a “cheerful pessimist”, which sounds like a lovely thing to be.

I have read all the novels at one time or other. They work so well because of character, the idiosyncratic, puzzling, irritable Morse and his long-suffering sidekick Lewis (quite different in the novels than on television). And because of place, with medieval Oxford being one of the main characters. Dexter liked to say that he’d never have been a success if he’d been from Rotherham.

Like many others, I watched all the original Morse dramas on ITV, so striking in their day for running to a slowly mesmerising two hours, and with fewer ad breaks than you get today. After that I watched all the spin-offs, with Lewis stepping into the limelight, good at first, then less so, especially when cut down to an hour. Endeavour picked up the baton in style in 2012, with Shaun Evans so satisfying as the young Morse. That series has a title that answered one of the great Morse puzzles: what did that letter E stand for?

Dexter teased that one out until the end when, as Morse lay dying, he revealed that his parents had been Quakers who named him Endeavour in honour of Captain Cook’s ship, which bore that name. Dexter decreed that no other actor could play Morse after John Thaw died, a stricture for which we should be thankful.

A personal memory. Years ago, we used to go on holiday to my in-laws’ caravan which was parked in a field inland from the Cumbrian coast at a place called Tarn, not far from Aspatria. Morse was being repeated at the time. We would buy cheap, date-dodging chocolate from a shop on the coast and have a night watching television while the kids slept. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, as the car had to be driven down a steep slope so that we could hook the television to the battery. But then fuzzy Morse and old chocolate were ours. And beer too, of course.

Dexter might not have thought of himself as much of a writer, but perhaps that is easy to say when you become so successful. Crime readers loved his books, as did viewers by the millions around the world. A good legacy to have.

In that obituary by a dead man, Dennis Barker writes a lovely paragraph recalling the way Dexter measured his words. And here, to close, is that paragraph…

“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.”

Thank heavens for Mr Sharp…

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