Meeting Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse

dexter_-_the_wench_is_deadIt’s impossible for me to think of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter‘s fictional middle-aged Oxford detective, with a penchant for booze, attractive but dangerous women and classical music, and not think of the late, great John Thaw, who played him so brilliantly in the acclaimed BBC television series.

And so it was John Thaw’s face – penetrating stare, roman nose and white mop of hair – that became Morse in my head as I sat down to read The Wench is Dead.

It’s an unusual introduction to the literary  Morse – nearly all of the detective action takes place from Morse’s hospital bed, where he lies recuperating from a burst ulcer.

The case too is unusual, to say the least, involving the murder in 1859 of a married woman called Joanna Franks who is found drowned in the Oxford Canal whilst travelling to meet her husband in London. Two of the drunken and lustful boatmen are found guilt of killing her and executed, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon.

But something does not gel for Morse, who reads about the case in a small booklet given to him in hospital. Bored and harassed by the nursing staff, he sets his great mind to work to solve the ancient crime, aided by his dutiful sidekick, Detective Lewis.

It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with Dexter skillfully shifting the story between the murky waters of the Oxford Canal in 1859, as the boat carrying Joanna Frank takes her to her doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities:

The thought of drink had begun to concentrate Morse’s mind powerfully, and with great circumspection and care, Morse poured a finger of Scotch into his bedside glass, with the same amount of plain water. Wonderful!. Pity that no one would ever believe his protestations that Scotch was a necessary stimulant to his brain cells! For after a few minutes his mind was flooding with ideas – exciting ideas! – and furthermore he realised that he could begin to test one or two of his hypotheses that very evening.

The Wench is Dead, published in 1986 was the eighth out of 13 Inspector Morse books that Colin Dexter, a former grammar school teacher, wrote over a period of more than 25 years.

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The late John Thaw as Inspector Morse

Dexter came up with idea of Morse in 1972 while sitting at the kitchen one rainy day on a family holiday in Wales with nothing to do. He recounted this is in an interview with strandmag.com:

I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized.

Later on, in the same interview he talks about the traits he shared with Inspector Morse, these being: a love of classical music, especially Wagner, sensitivity to the arts, music and literature, the enjoyment of alcohol, particularly single malt Scotch and real ale, “a bit too much” and a confession to being a bit of pessimist “with not much faith in the future of the planet”.

Of those traits Dexter says he did not share with Morse were Morse’s incredible mental capacity for crime solving, Morse’s fondness for attractive but deadly women and his perennial bachelor status  (Dexter was married and had children) and Morse’s meanness with money.

All of these traits make up the wonderfully complex character of Inspector Morse, who is surely one of the finest fictional detectives in modern literature ranking right up their with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennyson and modern greats like Luther.

Morse’s great powers of problem solving are in full display in the The Wench is Dead, a brilliant ‘whoddunnit’ cold case  that is short enough to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with a decent glass of Scotch and classical music – possibly Wagner – playing in the background.

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Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”

I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.

At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.

And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.

Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.

Instead,  Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.

Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.

Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).

Justine Sacco

Among Ronson’s  “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book  (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.

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Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.

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Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.

The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.

In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.

However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.

Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.

For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.

As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.

So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco  for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.

And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.

Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.

Remembering a lionhearted friend

13626405_160511671019245_6888735082524876778_nI had a dream the other night about my close friend Darren Serebro, who passed away on July 27, 1997 from leukemia. We were both 23.

I was working as a camp counselor in Mid-west America near Milwaukee when he died in a Johannesburg hospital after an incredibly brave two year battle with the horrendous disease. At the time, he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant that might have saved his life.

Incredibly, just over a week before he died, on July 19, I received a long, letter from Darren via fax. Hand written in his neat, compact style, it ran to eight beautiful pages.

I still have the letter. It has survived numerous overseas trips and relocations to London, Sydney, Brisbane and now Melbourne, and miraculously, a water spillage, that turned the pages brown. (I have since scanned it and saved a digital copy.)

I thought, after all these years, I might share some of what Darren wrote and pay tribute to a lionhearted friend whom I have never forgotten.

From the confines of his isolation ward, because his cancer was no longer in remission, Darren began by apologising for the delay in writing back to me:

Dear La

I do apologise for not writing sooner. I am aware that this is an extremely cliched expression with which to start a piece of correspondence and can comprehend that while time is pretty much the same for us, you life has been altered radically for the moment and more regular correspondence from S.A. would be re-assuring.

Of course this was the kind of man Darren was. Even gravely ill, he could put himself in someone else’s shoes. (Studying law at the time, he would have made a brilliant lawyer in the Atticus Finch mold).

As for my life being “altered radically” it was nothing in comparison to the challenges he had faced everyday since learning of his cruel diagnosis, about two years prior.

Darren was softly-spoken (except after a few glasses of good whiskey), but also someone who laughed easily. He was extremely polite but equally capable of being cheeky, hilarious and crude.

He was quite brilliant, a straight A student. I remember he had an amazing ability to absorb and retain information , was intensely curious and interested in other people and places, loved travelling and eating out at good restaurants and was generous to the point of always putting others’ needs before himself. He was a true “Mensch“.

In the first few pages of the letter, Darren describes his current medical situation, the two treatment options available to him and his decision to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The other option, he writes, of receiving small doses of chemotherapy would “inevitably result in my death within approximately two years”.

His candidness about his own mortality is painful to read now.

I try to picture him back then, in his isolation ward, no doubt feeling awful and yet writing in a concentrated manner. Perhaps from time to time he looks out the window, at the leafy northern suburbs of Jo’burg or pauses to think about how best to describe things to me.

Darren had a brilliant mind and intellect. This he put to full use to explain complex medical terms and procedures in relation to his illness he had sadly become an expert on. He goes into great detail explaining the procedure for undergoing a bone marrow transplant, enumerating the risks like ‘Graft versus Host’ disease and the treatments that would follow. He ends this part of the letter by saying:

Hopefully, a realistic and hopeful outlook on my part, combined with God’s will, will see me survive and will carry me through this trying time, into a long, healthy, happy and successful future.

The rest of the letter is full of wit, charm and lashings of wicked humour as he describes the ‘goings on’ among the Jo’burg scene and his limited interactions with hospital visitors.

A hilarious part of the letter is when Darren dutifully lists all the experiences, he believed I was going through, thousands of miles away at Summer Camp in Wisconsin.

These he believed included meeting some international students of similar age, some of of whom are “extremely attractive”. He adds, in brackets a succinct description: “6 foot tall, 34 inch bust, great legs, pretty face”.

He also reminds me:

“You have seen more of the state of Wisconsin than any Jewish Jo’burger knew exists. The average kugel or bagel tour through the States never comprehended ‘such far off places’

(For those not of Joburg Jewish descent, a ‘kugel’ refers to a Jewish princess, while a ‘bagel’ is the male equivalent.)

Later, he talks about how some of our friends are making a long weekend of the following weekend and going to the Game Reserve. Some of the guys have girlfriends, other not. Darren writes:

Paul says he has told Craig to dress up in drag because neither of them is going steady with a girl at the moment. HA HA. Join the club!

These jokes take me back to the numerous cups of coffee we – Darren, myself and our third musketeer, Jason – would share at ‘Carlos’, the Italian cafe on Grant Avenue, Norwood (also the preferred place for first dates) where we would talk about our lack of girlfriends, the latest arty movie we had seen in Rosebank, discuss politics, art and music interspersed with lashing of local Jo’burg gossip, personal slights and other social faux pas.

Some of the humour in the letter is decidedly black, but who could blame Darren, given his situation.

Talking about a girl he liked and who had visited him a number of times he remarks that wearing a mask is “not conducive to long, wet kisses. HA! HA!”.

Also, he remarks after not hearing from her for a few days: “She knows where to find me.Unfortunately, I have more critical life issues to deal with at the moment.”

I had no idea this letter would be the last I would here from him – or maybe being so far away I pushed the idea to the furthest corner of my mind. It was certainly difficult to comprehend Darren’s passing, thousands of miles a way among people who did not know him.

Many months later, when I returned to South Africa and visited Darren’s family, it came as a profound shock that he did not come down the stairs to greet me.

The saddest part of his letter, is that I missed his last birthday on May 25th by a single day. I wish I had been there. Darren writes:

About 30 people came over for coffee – it was the day after your left. (Thank you for the present by the way).

He ends the letter:

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Rest in peace my friend. You remind me never to take life for granted and to actually count my blessings, of which there have been many.

I only wish you had had that “long, healthy, happy and successful future” you hoped for and deserved.