The Man Who Would Be Dobson

Dobson was a great collector of coupons. Almost all coupons are redeemable in one form or another, but not in Dobson’s world. “Do not even think of urging me to redeem any of my coupons!” he shouted, more than once, when it was gently suggested to him that he was sitting on a fortune in unredeemed coupons. Curiously, for a man so attached to the written word, the pamphleteer preferred coupons with minimal or no wording, and those which were beige in colour. Another thing he used to say, or to shout, was “I cannot be doing with flimsy coupons made of paper!” He never said so explicitly, but for Dobson the Ur-coupon was a small, blank, beige, rectangular piece of cardboard.

A few years ago I was sitting in a snackbar when something curious happened. Some would say the mere fact of me sitting in the half-civilised air of a snackbar is curiosity enough, given that I am more usually to be found sprawled in a ditch or languishing louchely in a damp and derelict farmyard outhouse, but stay with me on this one, if you will. I would rather not explain what I was doing tucking into a snack in a snackbar in mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, togged out in what I have to say was a rather fetching Lord Summerisle yellow polo neck and drainpipe trousers combination. Granted, I do not have the bouffant sported so majestically by Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, and perhaps there was rather a lot of straw snagged in my hair, together with the odd beetle, but all I can say is that I cut a pretty dashing figure. My surroundings probably had something to do with it, as it was a bloody fantastic snackbar, all things considered.

Anyway, I was chomping my way through my snack when the man behind the counter began to sing. It was not a song I knew. The verses seemed to consist mostly of extracts from the Book of Isaiah. There was a bit that went “he is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep; Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba” which I recognised, but it was when the snackbar tenor got to the chorus that my ears really pricked up. “Yea, and I shall wash myself in the blood of the Lamb, and plead with the Lord, to get me a small, blank, beige, rectangular piece of cardboard,” he sang.

This was extraordinary. This was a song about the out of print pamphleteer’s Ur-coupon! Could Dobson have written it himself? I choked on my potted paste pie and leapt to my feet. For a second I wondered if the gasps from an adjoining table meant that I was not the only Dobsonist to frequent this snackbar, but then I realised that my neighbours were gazing awestruck at my winklepickers. Who can blame them? I flashed a rakish smile, a beetle dropped from my hair, and I lolloped elegantly over to the counter.

“I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,” the man was singing now, but I held up my hand and stopped him.

“Tell me,” I drawled, not wanting to sound too excited, “What is that song you are singing?” The man held up a little sign informing me that he was deaf as a post, so I repeated my question using the only sign language I know, which is a version of the Blötzmann system that I learned as a youth in the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift movement. Luckily the stone deaf singer knew it too. Later, he was to explain to me that he had not learned the system in the Kibbo Kift, but, to my astonishment, directly from Blötzmann himself, shortly before that towering figure was blown up in the Hindenberg.

If one can jabber in sign language, we jabbered. Ten minutes in, by which time I was leaning as insouciantly as I could against the counter, the better to show off my poise, the snackbar singer broke off from our conversation to harry the rest of the snackers out into the wind and the rain. He slammed the door shut as the last one left, locked it with a surprisingly enormous key, and pulled down the blinds. Then he took me into a back room, beyond the kitchen and the pantry, and we settled ourselves in for what I can only describe as a Dobsonathon. It’s not a pretty word, but I can’t think how else to describe a discussion that continued, virtually uninterrupted, for the next four days.

It turned out that my new pal was an autodidact who had, for the past decade, devoted himself to getting to the bottom of this thing Dobson had about coupons. It was a narrow speciality, to be sure, but the world needs people like him. He confessed that he was completely uninterested in the bulk of the pamphleteer’s pamphlets, had never read them and never intended to, and indeed could not care less about any aspect whatsoever of Dobson’s activities save for his coupon mania. I wondered if Guido – I learned his name eventually, on day three, I think – was himself a coupon collector. I put this to him, in my best attempt at a Terry-Thomas voice, and it was the only time during the whole Dobsonathon that he laughed. At least, I think he laughed. He gurgled, caterwauled, hooted, made noises similar to those of an enraged badger, shrieked, and spat all over the table. Something in his demeanour signalled that he expected me to fetch a mop and wipe down the formica, but I have pride as well as poise, so I spat on the table myself, repeatedly, though I forebore from the gurgling and caterwauling etcetera. That gave him pause, so much so that it was like sitting opposite a life-size wooden effigy in the back room of a snackbar. Although this was not an experience I had ever had before, or not precisely, I knew instinctively how to deal with it. I reached with a certain deftness into a pocket of my drainpipe trousers, uncapped the lid from a tiny bottle of Dr Baxter’s Cranium Agitator, wafted it under Guido’s nose, and was rewarded by the sight of him twitching back to life, just as I had suspected. And so our conversation was able to continue, though I never did find out the answer to my question. To this day, I have no idea if Guido too was a coupon enthusiast in his own right. I saw no evidence that any coupons had been amassed within the snackbar, and I had a damned good search when my host took a toilet break, but of course he may have been one of those collectors who keeps his cargo in the safety deposit box of a large and important foreign bank, just as Dobson did, if we are to believe the janitor of a large and important foreign bank who contributed a letter to the Quarterly Digest Of Dobson Studies, Volume XIV, Number 2, a letter which the editor authenticated as genuine after subjecting it to a battery of forensic tests. Such is the dedication of those who take these matters with due seriousness. It is a trait I admire, and I admired it in Guido, just as he admired my yellow polo neck sweater and my effortless social graces.

Now. Guido’s song, which had so transfixed me, and forged a bond between us, was self-penned. Dobson, it appeared, had had nothing to do with it. I can’t say this surprised me. We all know that the pamphleteer’s few attempts at songwriting were absolutely pathetic, hardly the kind of thing to worry proper songsmiths such as, to pluck a name at random, Leo Sayer. Others have written about the horrors of hearing such Dobson dirges as the godawful Drink Ye Every One The Waters Of His Own Cistern, Until I Come And Take You Away, so I needn’t add to the brickbats. What intrigued me was why Guido, robbed of hearing by that kindergarten firework mishap, had chosen to compose a song about Dobson’s couponophilia, and not only that but a song which aped the pamphleteer’s own wailings in many respects. Of course, Guido’s work was a thing of melodic loveliness, so in that sense it differed, but even so, the whole business struck me as a bit fishy.

Over a dish of shredded cabbage and bloaters, towards the end of our long talk, my pal told me that what he was trying to do was to somehow become Dobson, the better to understand him. This was such a startling admission that I am afraid I banged my knee on the underside of the table and let out a yelp, which, let me tell you, is an unforgivable breach of etiquette when one is sharing a meal with a snackbar counter man of Guido’s eminence. I was mortified. I knew he had not heard my yelp, but he had seen it, and had probably felt its vibrations in the air around his impossibly handsome head. I let fall my napkin, with as much daintiness as I could muster, stood up leaving my bloaters half-eaten, and swept out of the room, through the pantry and the kitchen and the snackbar itself, wrenched the strangely enormous key in the lock, flung open the door as if I were at a vital moment in a Terence Rattigan drama, and hit the grimy streets of this hepcat town, wishing I had a muffler to muffle me against the wind. What I was muffled against, for weeks afterwards, was shame at my own lack of table manners. Unable to face up to the enormity of my conduct, I retreated to my usual haunts, the ditches and barnyards, and tried to blame the fiasco on Guido. On the rare occasions I was approached by a peasant of those parts, I would beseech them not to go anywhere near the snackbar, thinking to smash asunder what today would be called its customer base. I used some of the straw snagged in my hair to fashion a Guido-like voodoo doll and stuck it with pins innumerable.

But came the day I found myself first whistling, then humming, then, boy oh boy, singing lustily, from a mountaintop, that stirring chorus about Dobson’s small, blank, beige, rectangular piece of cardboard, his Ur-coupon, and tears streamed down my face as I understood how fortunate I had been to spend four days with the Man Who Would Be Dobson. He wasn’t, of course. No one could be. But Guido came closer, I think, than anyone else ever has to being imbued with the pamphleteer’s true spirit. It was a privilege to know him. I am still on that mountaintop, still singing, dressed now in the apparel of a beatnik, but minding my manners more than ever, and still attracting gasps from passers-by.

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