Colin Dexter: October 2009 Castaway

When reviewing ‘My Ashmolean /My Museum‘, for the Oxford Times, I was struck by Theo Chalmers’ stern portrait of Colin Dexter. I mentioned it to Colin and he assured me that he did, indeed, know how to smile but that his instructions were to look grim ‘as if about to be consumed by fire’. The fine acting was required to resonate with the story implicit in the portraits of Colin and those of actors Kevin Whately and Lawrence Fox, one of the cruellest this city has witnessed in its long history. In 1555, Archbishop Cranmer watched from the Bocardo Prison as Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burned to death in what is now Broad Street but was then outside the city walls. Colin was photographed, his wrist manacled as was Ridley’s. Kevin held the key to the Bocardo then located on Cornmarket over The North Gate. In his portrait Lawrence held Cranmer’s band that is thought to have encircled the Archbishop’s waist as he was tied to the stake the following year. These objects connecting us to this horrific story are, of course, housed in our museum, the Ashmolean. How apt of them to choose Colin and Kevin who will for ever be associated with the irascible but lovable character, Inspector Morse, the Oxford detective created by Colin. The opera loving enthusiast of cryptic crosswords and cask ale was, in fact, so popular that eighteen million people watched the final three of the thirty three episodes screened by ITV. The description of Morse could just as easily apply to Colin himself. Morse’s crosswords may be symbolic, for his interest in the cryptic puzzles is more than shared by his creator who has been joint national champion. One short story is called ’The Double Crossing’ and on the BBC in 2008 he recounted some of the clues solved by Morse.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by Colin’s acting ability in front of Theo’s camera because, like Alfred Hitchcock, he always had cameo roles in the TV series. Who better to represent the dark side of Oxford than the author whose books contain 91 body bags! I am sure the devoted readers and the tourists who join the Morse Tours from the Oxford Information Office would not wish for even one less. When Colin agreed to be my Castaway, I wondered whether his chosen object might be located within the Pitt Rivers or the Ashmolean, both of which have featured in the books and TV adaptations, or would he want to leave Morse buried and be inspired by the other enigmatic aspects of his own life? What would he want washed up on the beach of our desert island, an antique, a work of art or an antiquarian book?

And a book was how it was looking as Colin began by saying ‘Education has dominated my being, indeed, my first books were educational not crime fiction. I was Senior Classics Teacher at Corby Grammar School when deafness struck and blighted my life. After that I came here, in 1966, to work as Senior Assistant Secretary at the University of Oxford Delegacy in Ewert House where I continued to work until I retired in 1988.’

I realised that meant he had written his first seven novels in his spare time after the day job and wondered how he did it? Colin joked that after supper, listening to The Archers and a pint of good ale at the local, if he wrote one page a day that was 365 a year! He continued by talking about Robert Maxwell

‘My first publisher was Robert Maxwell and I got on fairly well with him and found he could be charming. Pergamon Press published my three books on Liberal Studies. This followed C.P Snow, and various other intellectuals publicising their concern about the great divide between arts and sciences that occurred when children had to choose their subjects them at 16. They wanted scientists to appreciate Goethe and Shakespeare and arts students to know something about Galileo and Keppler. Liberal Studies in the Sixth Form were intended to add balance to the curriculum. Readers may find my choices surprisingly academic but they reflect a lifetime involved in education. People know me best for my fiction and Morse’s favourite artist and mine is Vermeer.

‘Morse had a Vermeer reproduction over his mantelpiece. I would have no hesitation in choosing The Milk Maid ‘which hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It is a superb example of an artist at the top of his form. Good art or music to me is when you can enjoy it more and more. There is nothing wrong with popular music but after a while you tire of much of it. I could never tire of this picture.’

Vermeer of course lived and worked in Delft and I noticed in one corner of the painting is a solitary Delft Tile and on that tile is a tiny cupid. In view of Colin’s next suggestion, I wondered if that was significant. Colin showed me a book on Ancient Greek Pottery by Michael Vickers, the curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Ashmolean. He pointed to a picture of a Bell Crater, or wine bowl with black and red figure painting which is in the Ashmolean collection.

‘The Greeks were sensible. Michael told me they used to dilute their wine to a ratio of one wine to four of water so you could enjoy it without getting drunk. I suppose this could even be useful as a drinking vessel on the island but my reason for choosing it is the sophisticated painting of ‘The Judgement of Paris’. Zeus had a golden apple ‘for the fairest’ but he didn’t want to choose between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite so he asked the mortal,Paris to do it. All three goddesses were beautiful but in addition Hera offered him riches and power, Athena wisdom and Aphrodite sexual love. He chose Aphrodite. You would expect it would be Paris in the middle on this pot but it isn’t it is Hermes. You can tell because he holds a caducus.’

Did this mean that Paris was busy with Helen of Troy starting the Trojan wars? With the bell canter on the island Colin joked that he would be in the company of the three most beautiful goddesses. I asked him if the Greek myths had played a role in his novels. Colin said,

‘The Oedipus story by Sophocles inspired ‘The Dead of Jericho’. That was also the first to be filmed. The screen play was written by Antony Mingella .His early death is tragic. Sophocles was probably prolific but we have only seven of his plays. So, I think the biggest tragedy was the burning of the great library at Alexandria. We can only imagine the books that were lost.’

That made me wonder which of the thirteen Morse books would he want to be rescued if the others were tragically lost?

‘I think that would be The Dead of Jericho. In fact, if I can only have one thing on the island it would have to be a book and the one I would choose is a selection of Latin translations of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elergy in a Country Churchyard’. It is edited by Donald Gibson Peter Wilkinson and Stephen Freeth and published by subscription. It would give me countless hours of pleasure. I could never tire of the brilliance of these versions. One is by my and Morse’s favourite poet, A.E. Houseman.’

Colin suggested A.E. Houseman as ‘great life’ on the BBC Radio 4  programme of that name (May 2008). He has much in common with his literary hero. They are both classicists who found a popular audience in another genre.

‘There is a personal resonance in that my brother John and I are subscribers to this publication.

So in the end the classics are the choice of this great mind.