Why Dexter Wrote Morse

by Paul Humphreys

S ummer of 2020: no exams, no GCSEs, no A-Levels.

Some prospective candidates appear off-the-hook. But many students seem genuinely disappointed. Among them, those more likely to fare better in their estimated grades this year. "More disposed to have done some prep," as the creator of Inspector Morse at one time would have put it.

Before picking up his pen to write Morse, Colin Dexter was a schoolteacher. He taught Latin. He loved his subject and told his pupils, "When you study Latin, you become better at everything else you do. Latin has a special way of lubricating the mind for analysis and interpretation — we do little other. Learn Latin, and you can tackle anything."

Examiners this year must be counted among the disappointed. Particularly senior examiners who wrote the papers — two years in careful preparation, but no need this time around for invigilators to hand out their meticulously drafted questions, nor for anyone in the hall to announce 'Begin'.

In his lifetime, Colin Dexter never experienced a year without public examinations.

He moved from the classroom to an office. Pupils no longer immediately in front of him he was surrounded instead by books. But he didn't ever lose vision for his protegés. He always remained, first, a teacher. He became an examiner, an author of questions by profession. It is no coincidence in retirement that his creation, Morse, also relied on asking questions. "We don't need to focus on their answers, Lewis. Look to see if they understand the question being asked of them. That's the secret. Do they answer a different question," asked the Chief Inspector.

What motivated Dexter to write Morse?

It was Colin's passion to keep his subject alive, at least active in the public consciousness, at a time when entries for Latin examinations were in steep decline. They say if you love something you want to protect it, that's why at the beginning of his every chapter we find a quotation taken from the Classics. We stand safely in Oxford, but Colin places us inside Caesar's tent, or alongside Socrates, Aristophanes, or Plato while he teaches us. Subliminally, we learn that the plural of the word syllabus cannot be syllabi: the root is Greek; its origin not from Rome. So, syllabuses.

To discover the root of his passion — which Colin later invested in Inspector Morse — we need to step back into Colin's own school days at age eleven. He was a clever boy, but something extraordinary happened in Colin's mind when his Latin master wrote these words in chalk on the blackboard on young Dexter's first day at secondary school: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.

"Boys, write down these words, commit them to heart, and remember them all your life. They contain the key, and the key to translation."

Dexter saw it immediately.

Writing Morse put Mr Dexter back into the classroom. He was a teacher by nature. "It's never too late to learn something old, Lewis," he wrote, "and don't forget to do your homework. It'll do you good."

SEE ALSO by Paul Humphreys:
Effective Notetaking
Young Saint
Why Dexter Wrote Morse

Paul Humphreys is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.

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