“People think I am cleverer than I really am because of the Inspector Morse plots. I know a lot, but I’m definitely not as smart as Morse”
By Rob McGibbom
Published 8 August 2014. Interview conducted a few weeks earlier
The prized possession you value above all others…A signed first edition from 1896 of A.E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – his cycle of 63 poems. I bought it in 1966 for £600 and it is probably worth at least £4,000 now. I started collecting first editions when I was 17 and have about 75 now, but that is the book I’d rescue if the house was burning down. I love his work.
The biggest regret you wish you could amend…Having four operations on my ears during my 20s to cure deafness. I first started losing my hearing when I was 18, but the operations didn’t help and I wish I hadn’t put any faith in them. They caused me a lot of pain and I’d wake in the mornings with blood on the pillow. My life has been smitten by deafness, which ran in my family, and has caused me a great deal of anxiety. I would sit at dinner parties and tell people, “Don’t worry about me, talk amongst yourselves,” and I’d never hear a word of the conversation. I can only hear now with the help of hearing aids.
The temptation you wish you could resist…Biscuits – especially Ginger Nuts. I was diagnosed with diabetes in my 40s, so I have had to watch what sweet things I eat ever since. I still find it hard to resist biscuits and I’m always getting told off for eating them by my wife Dorothy .
The book that holds an everlasting resonance…Bleak House by Charles Dickens is the greatest novel in the English language. I have read it three times and its plot and characters always strike me a Masterclass in writing. It really is marvellous.
The priority activity if you were the Invisible Man for a day…I would be intrigued to see what life is like for the Queen and Prince Phillip when they are in private at Buckingham Palace. I have heard that they enjoyed watching Morse for years – maybe they watch Endeavour now! It would be fun to know.
The pet-hate that makes your hackles rise…Litter. I’m 84 now and I’m in a wheelchair, but each day Dorothy, or a kind lady who helps us, takes me for a walk along the Banbury Road in Oxford. We always pick up any litter and by the time we get home the bag is full. I find it disgusting how people litter our streets. What are they thinking?
The film you can watch time and time again…The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It is directly brilliantly by John Huston, but above all I love the interaction between Bogart a Hepburn. It has such tension and chemistry.
The person who has influenced you most…My brother John. He was 18 months older than me and we were very close. Our family was so hard up that we had to share a bed for 19 years. One night, when I was about 16, he woke me up by playing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony loudly on the wireless. I told him to turn it off, but he had tears rolling down his face. I was intrigued that music could have that much power and began listening. That night, John opened the door to classical music, which has been one of the great joys in my life. Later, he began to teach me about Wagner, who is my favourite composer. Sadly, John died two years ago.
The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint…Richard III. I would love to know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower [Prince Edward and Richard, the sons of Edward IV, were imprisoned in the Tower of London by Richard III and later disappeared. Many suspect they were murdered upon his orders]. I studied the case in my teens and came to the conclusion it was not him, but he would have known what really happened. I’d also like to know where he would want to be buried now that his skeleton has been found. My vote would be for Leicester because he was originally from there!
The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child…I’m not sure I have much wisdom to pass on! I loved teaching Classics, Latin and Greek from 1952 to 1966 and I always told my pupils to speak up and ask a question if they didn’t understand something. Asking questions is vital. That’s how you learn.
The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity…I have been fascinated by Greek mythology all my life and I loved reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The trouble is I have forgotten much of it now – not least the names of Zeus’ 117 daughters.
The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again…The ability to follow to The Archers! I loved that programme for 56 years, but I finally gave up soon after the 60th anniversary. I could hear it OK with my hearing aids, but by then I could no longer distinguish between the female characters because they all talk too quickly and sound too similar. I lost the thread as to what was going on. It is such a shame because I really do miss it.
The unending quest that drives you on…Throughout my writing career I always strived to write the best page I could. If it wasn’t good enough, I’d start again. That still applies today if I am writing a short story, but I don’t do much writing these days.
The poem that touches your soul…Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray from 1751. I learnt it by heart when I was 14 and I still know it well. It is so wonderfully lyrical that it feels like music when you read it. It is beautiful.
The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase…That I am cleverer than I really am! The Inspector Morse plots made people believe that I must be very smart. I do know a lot, but not that much! And I certainly don’t know as much about opera as I could. I’m definitely not as smart as Morse.
The event that altered the course of your life and character…Getting my first book called Liberal Studies published by in 1964. It was an academic book and I was thrilled when the publisher liked it so much he said they didn’t want to change a comma! The Morse books began with Last Bus to Woodstock in 1975, but that first book put me on the road to my writing career.
The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it…I would steal Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid from the Rijksmuseum museum in Amsterdam. I love the colouration and light in that picture. I have admired it so much over the years that I put a print of it above the fireplace in Morse’s home.
The song that means most to you…Something by The Beatles. They were the greatest when it came to words and music. It is such a beautiful song and so romantic. It reminds me of my daughter Sally because it was her favourite when she was young.
The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions…It would help to enjoy this day if I were a few years younger – so let’s say I am 50! I’d begin with a nice bowl of porridge in a comfortable hotel in the mountains of Austria, with the ringing of bells from pretty churches filling the air. After that, Dorothy – who’s a Welsh girl – and I would go for a brisk walk in the hills of mid-Wales and stop off in Machynlleth for tea. We used to love visiting there in years gone by. Then we would go for a nice drive through Florida to Fort Lauderdale to get some sun. Later, I’d have fish and chips with mushy peas for lunch at The Trout Inn by the river in Oxfordshire, where we’d be joined by Sally and our son Jeremy and his children – Thomas, 24, and James, 22. I used to love a pint of ale and any type of whiskey, but doctors warned me to give up alcohol 15 years ago, or else I wouldn’t live to old age, so I’d just have a glass of Robinsons Lemon Barley Water. After lunch, I’d a paddle in the sea at Skegness for old time’s sake. I loved going there as a boy and I remember the advertising poster said, “Skegness – it’s so bracing!” They should have written “bloody cold” – but we loved it so much. I’d then watch England beat Australia in the final overs of The Ashes series at The Oval. I would finish the day in Germany at the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria listening to a performance of Die Walküre, which is my favourite opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The happiest moment you will cherish forever…When I was given the Freedom of the City of Oxford in 2001. At the time, the only other living recipients were Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Oxford has meant a great deal to me and this was a wonderful honour. However, I have never exercised my right to drive a flock of sheep or cows across Magdalen Bridge.
The saddest time that shook your world…When my daughter’s King Charles Cavalier dog died. He was called Mycroft and was very poorly, so I had to call the vet over to the house. I remember it looking at me from the kitchen table as the vet prepared the needle with such deep sadness in his eyes. I have never forgotten that look. I felt like the executioner. I had to hold him as the vet gave the injection and I could hear my daughter, who was 13, weeping in the next room. It was one of the few times in my life that I have really wept.
The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you…To be World Chess Champion. I was pretty good when I was at school and that was my big dream, but in truth I was never good enough.
The philosophy that underpins your life…It comes from the Latin phrase initium est dimidium facti, which means “Once you’ve started, you’re halfway there”, or “The beginning is half of the deed”. I have always found that the beginning is the hardest part of anything, but once that is done, I am off and away. The rest is about getting your head down and doing the bloody work.
The order of service at your funeral…I would be happy with a simple affair without too many tears, as long as they played the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, which is sublime. I do not believe in the Afterlife. I’m with Socrates, who spoke of it as being like a dreamless sleep. I’d rather be burnt than buried and for all I care you can put the ashes in the dustbin.
The way you want to be remembered…As a good teacher. I got more pleasure from teaching than any other job in my life.
Colin Dexter was a modest, fun and gentle man to interview. He died aged 86 peacefully at home in Oxford on 21 March 2017