Between now and Christmas, we are celebrating ten years of the Hooting Yard website by reposting an item from each calendar year. Today, The Bilgewater Elegies, a thrilling episode from the annals of Dobson, which first appeared on Tuesday 26 July 2005.
Like the Arctic tern, which is neither from the Arctic, nor a tern, Dobson’s famous Bilgewater Elegies are emphatically not elegies about bilgewater. I’m sorry, I have begun that all wrong. The Arctic tern is from the Arctic, and it is a tern. I was thinking of some other bird of misleading nomenclature, or perhaps not a bird, but an animal, at any rate, which is not what its name indicates. I will try to remember what it was I was thinking of. The central point remains true, however, that the Bilgewater Elegies are not elegies and not about bilgewater, except in passing.
Dobson wrote these magnificent pieces in a wintry month or two while living in a far distant land whence he had gone to escape having to pay his gas bill. Keen students of Dobson’s life know that gas in many forms seems to take on a quite bewildering importance. In one biography, for example, there are three times as many index entries for “gas” as there are for “pamphlets”. Marsh gas, in particular, permeates much of Dobson’s middle years, almost as if it were what he was breathing instead of oxygen. Perhaps it was.
The out-of-print pamphleteer had a deep and abiding reluctance to pay for gas, and often considered living somewhere powered entirely by electricity, or by the wind or the sun, or indeed existing without being dependent upon any source of energy whatsoever. But, as Marigold Chew has noted, rail as Dobson might, he was drawn inexorably to the blue, blue flames of burning gas, a man mesmerised.
I was thinking about guinea pigs, of course, which are not from Guinea and are not pigs. Why I confused them with birds, particularly Arctic terns, is beyond me.
That winter season, then, determined to outwit those who provided him with gas, Dobson decamped to that far distant country, mountainous and cold, remote yet populous, a land of which he knew nothing except the design of its flag. On arrival he discovered that even this minimal knowledge was redundant, as there had been a revolution. The old flag had been ditched, and a new one – pink, black, green – flew from flagpoles wherever he looked. Between the seaport and the chalet where he was to live for two months, Dobson counted at least seven hundred flags.
In the chalet, Dobson closed the traditional butcher’s drapes and placed his canister of calor gas in a cubby hole. Gnawing on a nut, for he was forever nut-gnawing, he considered his surroundings. It was a small chalet, with no hidden chambers, false walls, or concreted-over ancient wells. Dobson was perplexed at the absurd number of metal coat-hangers in the master wardrobe, and the equally numerous drawing-pins in the drawer atop the cubby hole. The cubby hole itself was just the right size for his canister. He was looking forward to burning the portable gas as the evening drew in, but it was still morning, so he curbed his impatience by exploring the outcrop on which the chalet perched. Knowing nothing of geology, and caring less, this took Dobson about five minutes, or about the time it took him to gnaw one of his brazil nuts to nothing. Later in life, of course, Dobson wrote a number of pamphlets on geological topics, as an exercise. Curiously, he never wrote about brazil nuts.
Temporarily out of reach of his gas-creditors, Dobson decided to spend his first afternoon in the chalet on the outcrop in that faraway flag-mad land writing. But he was by turns listless and restless, and irritated that his new domain failed to inspire him. By four o’ clock, having scratched a mere dozen words in his notepad, then torn out the page and set fire to it, he went for a walk. Turning his back on the outcrop, he headed downhill, towards the nearest village, through which his taxi had taken him that morning. He had paid it no attention, for his eyes had been shut, as they often were in taxis. Dobson used such rides for reverie rather than observation.
Marigold Chew once put her hand to a story about Dobson’s walk that day. It was called The Village That Lacked Basic Sanitation, and she refused ever to allow it to be published. All we know for certain is that Dobson returned to the chalet that evening astride a massive, ungainly horse, of chestnut complexion, called Tim. He seems to have been convinced that mice were scurrying uncontrollably about the chalet, and that they would be frightened away by the sight of a big horse. In truth, there were no mice. Dobson had fallen victim to delusional visions because of the high altitude. Nevertheless, the presence of Tim, snorting and stamping his hooves, becalmed the pamphleteer, and the next morning he dragged a wooden table and chair outside the front of the chalet and sat down to compose the Bilgewater Elegies.
Here is a list of buckets of bilgewater I have seen, he wrote, the famous opening words of what was to be his own favourite among his countless pamphlets. He spent whole days in the crisp open air, scribbling away, occasionally filling Tim’s nosebag with horse-food. In the evenings he sat in the chalet staring at the blue glow of burning calor gas. His nights were untroubled by nightmares. Every few days a panting cadet from the insanitary village would deliver a metal tapping machine message from Marigold Chew, keeping Dobson abreast of events at home.
Dobson wrote the final words of the Elegies on a bright day in October. On the same day, there was a counterrevolution in that cold distant country. The pink and black and green flags were torn down and stamped into the muck, swiftly replaced by red and blue and yellow flags. The panting cadet delivered Marigold’s latest message, his cap askew and bloodstains on his sleeves. The look in his eyes told Dobson it was time to flee. He made the cadet promise to look after Tim the massive horse, packed up his things, and headed off for the seaport on foot. The gas canister was empty, and his work was done.
Don’t forget that you can make a donation to the Hooting Yard Fund For Distressed Out Of Print Pamphleteers. Doris X. of Cuxhaven says: “I made a donation and doing so warmed the cockles of my heart!”