For someone who has had more than twenty years to get used to the fact that he’s one of the nation’s best-known and best-selling crime writers, Colin Dexter still has the air of someone who is slightly taken aback by all this fortune and fame.
In an evening where we were exceptionally honoured to be able to welcome him to St Helen’s and St Katharine, Abingdon, on March 20, Colin Dexter said he still thinks of himself as a school teacher (which he was for many years) rather than a writer (and be warned, because if you write him a letter, it sounds as if it is very likely to get marked).
His great storytelling abilities meant he managed to make all present feel he was having a personal conversation in their front room – all 200 of those present – as he shared some of the journeys life has taken him on since the incredible worldwide success of the Inspector Morse television series, which was based on his books.
Whether appearing in cameos in the television series, working on set with the likes of Anthony Minghella and John Thaw, to receiving letters asking for his assistance in matters urgent and small, Colin Dexter manages to make it sound as if life has been very good to him and really rather jolly good fun.
From the inspiration of Oxford, the wonders of the Ashmolean, to the muse in a bottle of scotch, he also manages to make it sound as if writing his intriguing and compelling mysteries has been pretty effortless – and also pretty good fun.
He wrote the first when bored on a wet family holiday in Wales and went on to write 13 Inspector Morse books, which was expanded in more than 30 episodes of the popular television series, plus the spin-off series ‘Lewis’ and the programme ‘Endeavour’. The success of the television series - and their establishment as a cultural institution - continue to bring people to Oxford to visit the scenes of the crimes.
He has received several Crime Writers' Association awards: two Silver Daggers for Service of All the Dead in 1979 and The Dead of Jericho in 1981; two Gold Daggers for The Wench is Dead in 1989 and The Way Through the Woods in 1992; and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1997.
And as well as Oxford making a permanent mark on his books, his books have also made a permanent mark on Oxford. For example a bar in The Randolph Hotel (both a landmark in Oxford and a place Morse would often head for a pint) has been renamed The Morse Bar.
The evening finished with plenty of questions for one of our best-known local celebrities, and an audience eager for the chance to get to the bottom of some of the intriguing elements of Inspector Morse’s character.
And there was even time to offer a few tips for writers – Colin Dexter said his best advice is to just get it written, because from then it can always be improved, and to expect that first draft to be pretty awful, but not to let that put you off.
It was a thoroughly convivial evening, and an inspiration of just how unexpected life can be from the roots of writing a simple detective story when on a wet holiday in Wales.