Friday, 27 April 2018

Colin Dexter Taught me to Read

35 years ago, I was pleased but somewhat bemused to be offered the post of typesetter at the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations. When I had applied for the position I had only just learnt to type. I later learned that they would have preferred someone with at least some experience but that I had one distinct advantage over all the other candidates – I could start immediately!

I also had a handicap of which they were unaware – I can’t spell!

While looking for a suitable occupation, I had avoided secretarial roles, knowing that I would have struggled as a shorthand typist. I felt relatively safe in this role as I was mainly copy typing and the copy was prepared by Subject Secretaries who had no difficulty spelling even the esoteric words related to their specialist subject. Unfortunately, some of them had appalling handwriting. I dare say that I made many a mistake but one howling error still makes me cringe when I think of it.

Every year, UODLE published a document called “Teacher’s comments, and replies” in which concerns or criticisms regarding examination papers were addressed. In my first year, the publication included a general comment on the examinations as a whole, which concluded with a statement about the declining standard of writing and, in particular, of spelling and grammar. I don’t recall the exact wording, but I do know that the last three words of this damning indictment ended with the three words (as typeset by yours truly) “… spelling and grammer.” Another error for which I was relentlessly teased but that, fortunately, did not make it to print, was in a Mathematics A level paper where I had consistently misspelt “angle” as “angel”. UODLE was very proud that few errors made their way into the printed examination papers. This was due to rigorous proofreading, first by the Subject Secretary, and finally by a professional proofreader. Had that same procedure been applied to the aforementioned publication, much embarrassment may have been avoided!

Colin Dexter, Subject Secretary for English Language and Literature, had his own procedure for proofreading all materials for which he was responsible. He and I undertook this task together; first, one of us read aloud from the source material while the other checked the proof copy, then we would swap roles and repeat the process. At first, I found this daunting; I was no better at pronouncing some words than I was at spelling them. But Colin was a very gentle and kindly man; he never made me feel stupid or inadequate for the mistakes I made. Instead, he gently prompted, coached, and encouraged me. While I never enjoyed proofreading per se, I came to enjoy and even look forward to these proofreading sessions.

I recall the first time we proofread an English Literature O level paper together. It included two extracts from Emily Brontë's, Wuthering Heights. After reading the passages, Colin asked if I had read the book. I confessed that Wuthering Heights had been a set text when I had taken O level English Literature five years earlier. He asked if I had enjoyed the book; I hadn’t. He asked if I understood the passages we had read; I didn’t. Colin then began to explain what Emily Brontë was saying in these passages and how they related to the book as a whole. I don’t recall exactly what he told me, but I know that it inspired me to reread Wuthering Heights and this time I did enjoy it.

I enjoyed these discussions to such an extent that once I knew which novels would feature in future papers, I would read them in advance. I’m sure I had nothing enlightening to say about them but none-the-less, Colin wanted to hear what I thought of the characters, plot, and themes of each and every book. My mother taught me how to read letters and words, but Colin Dexter taught me how to read books.

Yesterday, I attend a Memorial and Civic Reception in Colin Dexter’s honour. Among those who share memories of Colin was the author Philip Pullman. He said that he had found it hard to believe that “last Bus to Woodstock” was Colin’s first novel because the characters of Morse and Lewis were so fully formed and well rounded. Colin had a genuine interest in people; when you spoke with him, he listened intently to what you were saying. After he retired from UODLE, I would sometimes see him walking along the Banbury Road and would offer him a lift. He always accepted and spent the short journey to Summertown asking after me and some of our colleagues at UODLE. Latterly, though his eyes twinkled as mischievously as ever, I no longer saw that spark of recognition in them, but he still smiled warmly and said “Hello, my dear. How are you?”.

Norman Colin Dexter OBE
29 September 1930 – 21 March 2017

It was an honour and privilege to have known Colin Dexter, not because he was the internationally acclaimed bestselling author that created Inspector Morse, but because he was, quite simply, a lovely man.