I discovered how easy it is to get a book dedicated to you when I was about 13. All you have to do is gather your sisters, and gang up on his best mate at your grandfather’s funeral. And hey presto, The Secret of Annex 3, by Colin Dexter, for Elizabeth, Anna and Eve.
Everyone owns Colin now, but when I was small, I thought he was ours. Every summer the family made the long pilgrimage by train from St Andrews to Oxford, to 51 Carlton Road, in Summertown. I thought they named it for us, too, because for us it only existed in the Summer. Dr Grandpa would have warned Colin of our impending arrival and, soon enough, we would see him barrelling up the street from his house round the corner. We would run to the door because we knew what he had: a box of jelly babies. He would bestow these on the three small girls with the same solemn instruction each year: don’t bite their heads off; don’t bite their feet off. We argued about this typically sphinx-like utterance a lot in between visits, and decided probably it meant you had to bite them in two lengthways, or suck them until they dissolved.
My father would also rush to the door, because the main purpose of Colin’s visit was to collect the weary Dundee schoolteacher and take him and his father to the Friar Bacon for his first holiday pint. As you’ll know from Morse, the pint was sacred to Colin. We have a brilliant black and white photograph of us all sitting cross-legged on the grass in the back garden, Colin in the middle clutching his pint of Flowers; us his acolytes holding up orange squash in poor imitation.
Colin was also a spy. When we were allowed to accompany the grownups on their trips to the pub, to eat Walkers crisps in the garden and drink lemonade, he would dart ahead, hiding behind trees and post boxes, and checking that the coast was clear for us. He would hold us hard by the elbow, and tell us dreadful classical jokes full of groanworthy puns, and always he was laughing. He beamed like a turnip lantern – he was like our own personal Lincoln imp or Cheshire cat.
He was also an extremely loyal friend to my Granny, the nurse his friend had married, who was thus addicted to Dr and Nurse Mills and Boons. After she was widowed, he visited regularly, to scandalize her with tales of his new-found fame, and to drink her favourite tipple, gin and cinzano, drunk from the tumblers Dr Grandpa got free with his mustard. Colin even sneaked it into the nursing home for her – quite the kindest thing anyone could have done to brighten up her last days.
You know my Grandpa, too. Dr Grandpa was a pathologist. He, the Ancient Historian James Holladay, and Colin would meet up in the Kings Arms every night. Service of All the Dead is dedicated to him, because he was the churchwarden at Mary Mags where it is set. Max is very like him, down to the milk-bottle specs and nasal hmm-ing. Lugubriousness personified.
So I loved it when I realized that everyone owned Colin, not just us, because that meant they KNEW. They knew about Dr Grandpa and crosswords and pubs and Wagner and classics and Oxford, so the rhythm of my childhood summers is forever preserved in the pages of his books. Thank you, Colin, for giving us Morse, and for the jelly babies.