March Colin Dexter and I had lunch together in the Dew Drop Inn in Summertown,
Colin’s local of many years. From the warm greeting extended to him
by locals at the bar I could see that despite obeying (with reluctance)
his doctor’s orders to stay off alcoholic drinks, Colin still enjoys
being in a pub. Indeed, in the course of our conversation, it became clear
to me that here was a man who had spent a lot of time in this environment,
just like his famous creation Inspector Morse.
Probably like many Oxford residents, I felt I knew Colin even before I met him – perhaps that’s the effect of fame for you, or perhaps it’s because I’m a great fan of Morse, but it’s also because I used to sell wine to Colin when I worked in the Oddbins Summertown shop in the early 90s. “Where’s my wine?” he used to bellow, almost menacingly, on entering the shop. Talking to Colin about himself was a very different experience: here was a warm, very amusing, intelligent and witty man who (of course) tells a great story.
Talking about his doctor’s orders, he got on to the subject of smoking and drinking, “I used to smoke an awful lot. It was one of the greatest pleasures I ever had in life, apart from drinking – but I’ve missed drinking far more than I’ve missed smoking.” As well as his well-known love for English literature and Wagner, Colin has always been a great fan of crosswords—all interests that are of course shared by Morse. Talking about filling in time between giving talks to the Sherlock Holmes Society he told me, “If it had been the old days I would have enjoyed those couple of hours very much, having a couple of pints of beer, a couple of single malts, completing the crossword and feeling that the afternoon had been very purposeful for me. It’s a wonderful way of passing a couple of hours that have got to be passed if you’re in the middle of things.”
Colin’s (and Morse’s) liking for a pint is of course famous, “I always felt Adnams to be a very nice beer and London Pride is a lovely pint – I used to drink that quite a bit when I went to Lords to watch the cricket, but I also used to like Morrells.” (Sadly, Oxford's only brewery was closed in 1998 after more than 400 years of beer production, although the Morrells brand lives on and is still popular in Oxford) “I used to drink Morrells every night in The Friar Bacon pub in Cutteslowe – a lot of people were fond of Morrells then.”
As well as being fond of real ale, Colin was a great fan of single malts, above all Glenfiddich (another liking shared by Morse). “I never liked the heavy peaty stuff – Glenfiddich for me fitted the bill better than any other malt. What’s more, when I was a lad I was told that you must be a philistine and a heathen if you ever added any water to it. Well I always, in the latter, say twenty, years of my life, added a quarter to three quarters of water, and that to me was very good. I always bought lots of Glenfiddich, and if the Almighty decides to close down the planet next Tuesday, the first thing I shall do is to go out and order a couple of crates.”
When it comes to wine, Colin, again like Morse, is a Bordeaux man—particularly St Emilion, “As nice a red wine as I’ve ever had. Always if we were going out for an anniversary with my wife I would say, ‘We’ll try a St Emilion Premier Cru.’”
But despite his real enthusiasm for good beer, malts and wine, Colin remains firmly down to earth in his views, including those on the wine trade, “One of my favourite lines of all time is from “Omar Khayyam”: ‘I often wonder what the vintners buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell.’”
We move on to talking about Inspector Morse and I ask Colin when he wrote his very first lines about the famous detective. It was in 1972 – whilst on a family holiday in North Wales. “It was often raining, and one Saturday afternoon when the rain was dribbling down the windows my children said to me, ‘Why don’t you take us, like everybody else’s father, to a place where the sun is shining and the sea is warm and you can catch crabs and get a suntan?’ They said they wanted to go home. so I said, 'Well, you’re not going home so just shut up and leave me alone.’ I shut myself into the kitchen and got a sheet of paper (I always wrote on lined paper) and started writing a story about a detective called Morse that very Saturday afternoon in August 1972. I don’t suppose I wrote more than a page, or two or three paragraphs, but over the next eighteen months I kept on writing in spare moments. Obviously I knew where it was going to be set—in Oxford—and I knew how it was going to end. I was always a whodunnit writer: my job is to entertain. I always wrote in longhand and got a dear old lady to type it out for me. I’ve never typed a word, never touched a computer key and never shall, but I can write quickly and legibly and so I was all right with a biro and ruled paper.” That was how “Last Bus to Woodstock” came into being.
Colin was very fond of the actor John Thaw, who played Morse and who sadly died in 2002, strangely only two years after Colin had finally laid Morse himself to rest in “The Remorseful Day”. He is adamant that as long as he holds the copyright for Morse he will not let any other actor play him – nor any actor other than Kevin Whateley play Sergeant Lewis. It seems to me that Colin almost sees John Thaw as Morse, and that Morse is somehow a mixture of parts of Colin and his artistic creation that became personified by John Thaw. Colin also sees some similarities between himself and the actor, because although Thaw, in Colin’s words, shared neither his academic interests nor, interestingly, his love of beer—“Dear old John Thaw never liked beer at all – he wasn’t a great drinker” – they did share a love of similar music: indeed, when they were invited independently on to Desert Island Discs, three of their choices were the same.
Colin talks easily, often with a smile and a twinkle in his eye (especially during a joke) but as our lunch is coming to an end and he’s getting ready to leave, he turns to me somewhat more seriously, and says, “You know, if Morse felt that he wasn’t thinking very clearly he would finish off his half bottle of Scotch and open another one. His mind would sharpen up. Morse used to tell Lewis on many occasions, ‘I don’t drink because I like drinking; I drink because it helps me to think.’ It’s very, very certain in my life that with a goodly measure or two of single malt I would be away – I’d have too many ideas rather than too few. It affects people in different ways. Morse could think when he had the opportunity to drink—no doubt about that, no doubt about that at all…”