On Mountains And Suitcases

There was a review in today’s Grauniad of a concert by a popstrel called Emeli Sandé, which included the following observation…

Excuse me a moment while I interrupt myself. A splendid feature of The Listener, which I extolled the other day, was that it did not concern itself with popular culture, or if it did, only very rarely. (I think in its latter days John Peel wrote an occasional column, but that was about as “pop” as it got, i.e., not very far.) The same was of course true of the broadsheet newspapers, until about twenty years ago. They did not deign to notice the existence of pop pap, and would certainly never have sent a reviewer to the 1970s equivalent of an Emeli Sandé concert. Now, I am not Peter Hitchens. I did not stop listening to pop and rock music at the age of 22, and I retain a keen interest in certain corners of popular culture. But I cannot help thinking that it was a more edifying age when coverage of young persons’ music was left to the young persons’ music press, and did not invade every cranny of the media. If, when I was a teenperson, you had told me that the NME‘s Charles Shaar Murray would one day write for the Daily Telegraph, my jaw would have dropped. As, I suspect, would Charles Shaar Murray’s.

Anyway, back to that review. It reports that

Although Sandé’s lyrics can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to her credit, she has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.

Reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if something similar could be said about Dobson, the titanic out of print pamphleteer of the twentieth century. If we swap “Dobson” for “Sandé”, and “pamphlets” for “lyrics”, can we say, with even a hint of accuracy,

Although Dobson’s pamphlets can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to his credit, he has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.

(followed, to be grammatically correct, by) ? Well, can we?

That first phrase is almost unarguable. We might question how “refreshing” the daftness is, but of the daftness itself there can be no doubt. In his definitive categorisation of the pamphlets, the greatest of all Dobsonists, Aloysius Nestingbird, divided the canon into Daft, Valiant, Coruscating, Sensible, Shoddy, Hysterical, Majestic, Ornithological, Searing, and Illegible. “Daft” is by far the largest group, by a long chalk. And even if we wish to cavil with the scholar, we have Dobson’s own judgement. In Things To Shove Through A Funnel Into A Jar (out of print), he wrote, in an aside,

Some say many, if not most, of my pamphlets are daft. They may well be right. Who am I to argue? But just because I do not argue, and indeed largely accept the view, that does not mean it does not cause me untold grief. Only the other day, for example, as I trudged along the towpath of the filthy old canal on my way to the newsagent’s, I recalled that James Cake, in a review of one of my pamphlets, described it as ‘”irredeemably daft”, and my heart burst with misery and I began to sob. So copious were my tears that my vision was occluded. I was so overcome with dejection that I had to sprawl on a canalside bench until the weeping subsided. It was pouring with rain.

This is an interesting passage, in that it plainly shows the pamphleteer crying in the rain. It is not, then, something he has “managed to avoid”. But what about mountains being moved, mountains being climbed, and lovers packing suitcases? Can we find instances of these, dotted here and there, in the collected works? As Barack Obama used to say, so mystifyingly, “Yes we can!” Indeed, we can find so many instances that, extracted from their sources and cobbled together into a separate text, the passages would form a huge fat book rather than a mere pamphlet.

Dobson is forever prattling on about mountains, in spite of the fact that as far as we know he never actually climbed one, nor indeed lived anywhere near one. And he certainly never moved one, though if pamphlets such as A Few Tips On Mountain-Moving, With Shovel And Bucket (out of print) are to be believed, it was something he busied himself with every Thursday afternoon during the 1960s. We must be grateful, again, to Aloysius Nestingbird, who demonstrates conclusively that Dobson was either hallucinating or lying.

As for lovers and their packed suitcases, the pamphleteer does not seem as preoccupied with them as he is with mountains, but one must not overlook his curious pamphlet A Searing, Coruscating Analysis Of Paul Simon’s Song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, With Particular Attention Paid To 50 Different Techniques Of Suitcase-Packing, Each Illustrated With Instructive Diagrams With Pointy Arrows And Diagonal Lines (out of print). The pamphlet is curious in that it is one of the few occasions when Dobson turned his attention to popular culture. The story goes that he was sitting on a canalside bench, weeping – this was a different bench/weeping incident to the one alluded to above – when he was joined by a passer-by, a hairy young man who took pity on the aged pamphleteer and gave him a somewhat grubby napkin with which to wipe away his tears. They fell into conversation, during which the young man babbled excitedly about rock and pop music, of which Dobson knew nothing. He was intrigued, however, and accepted the young man’s gift of a cassette tape containing the Paul Simon song, to which he then listened when he got home.

Diligent research has recently revealed that the young man was present-day Daily Telegraph music writer Charles Shaar Murray. Murray has always denied meeting Dobson, and shudders at the mention of his name. Mind you, the same could be said for lots of people. Do not forget that the pamphleteer was a very “difficult” man.

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