The Joke Pamphlet

One of the more startling works of Dobson was the text often called “the joke pamphlet”, dubbed such because its opening lines are almost identical to one of those gags that begins “There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotchman…” It is the least-read of Dobson’s pamphlets by a long chalk. Some think this may be due to the work itself being thought a joke, perpetrated by an anti-Dobsonist, and thus not part of the canon. Equally, it could be argued that the very rarity of the pamphlet has led to it being neglected. Most estimates conclude that only three copies were bashed out on Marigold Chew’s Gestetner machine in her crumbling shed.

The pamphlet begins thus:

There was a thnetopsychist, a psychopannychist, and an annihilationist, and they were loitering in a graveyard. The thnetopsychist held that the souls of persons and beasts perish along with their physical bodies, and that both body and soul are resurrected at the Last Judgement. The psychopannychist believed that the soul sleeps in the grave, to be awoken at the End . The annihilationist, as his name indicated, said that there was no resurrection at all, for either the body or the soul.

Clearly, any sensitive reader would not be expecting Dobson to follow this with a comic punchline. This is a serious pamphlet by a serious pamphleteer. There follows a lengthy conversation between the trio, written in stilted, artificial, and highly-wrought prose, which Dobson disastrously tries to render in a variety of regional accents, choosing regions where he had never been, and of which he knew nothing. Indeed, it may be that the pamphlet has attracted so few readers because it is virtually unreadable.

But, as ever with the out of print pamphleteer, persistence pays off. Ted Cack has gone so far as to claim that it is Dobson’s finest, bravest, most valiant work, but he is probably just showing off.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the conversation between the thnetopsychist, the psychopannychist, and the annihilationist, which makes up the bulk of the pamphlet, consists of each arguing their case against the other. But it swiftly becomes apparent that this is not Dobson’s purpose at all. Well, it becomes swiftly apparent once one gets to grips with the tortured prose, but if one has to struggle it becomes slowly apparent. (In my case, it took about seven years hard slog, sitting up all night reading by the light of tallow candles, shivering in a blanket, to reach a vague understanding of this mighty text.) Rather than a standard mortalist debate about the fate of the body and soul after death, we are treated to a sequence of what can only be called rants by the three protagonists upon familiar Dobsonian themes – shipping timetables, foreign boot manufacture, breathtaking ornithological ignorance, and so on – interspersed with passages in which ghouls rise from the tombs in the graveyard and dance a sort of tarantella.

Obviously, the pamphleteer is playing with his readers here in a quite un-Dobsonish manner. Our moorings are loosened, and we are set adrift. We wonder, or at least I wondered, by about page 44, if we were heading for a maelstrom, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. We cling on, though, trusting in Dobson to rescue us. And rescue us he does.

In the final pages of the pamphlet, the dancing ghouls harry the thnetopsychist into one of the graves, chop up the psychopannychist with their ghoul-axes, and hoist the annihilationist up a gum tree which just happens to be growing in a corner of the graveyard and which we have glimpsed, briefly, earlier in the text, when one of the protagonists – it is not clear which, given the stultifying density of the prose – shins up it and taps it for gum to make a point about tapping gum from gum trees. The ghouls then do a final little dance – more a hopping about, in truth – before returning to their tombs. But of course, one tomb is newly occupied by the stricken thnetopsychist, leaving a single ghoul with nowhere to rest. This ghoul wanders out of the graveyard, through the grim iron gates, past the cake shop and the colonic irrigation theme park and the butcher’s and the performing pinhead person’s plinth, and then vanishes into a mist, a mist reminiscent of the one that swallows up Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The ghoul is bound we know not where, and nor does Dobson tell us.

It is, in short, a tour de force, albeit one that is maddeningly difficult to make sense of. Oddly, not one of the giants of prog rock ever adapted it for a concept album. One can only imagine what a terrific gatefold sleeve would have been designed for the original vinyl release, and with what vim adenoidal youths would have carved Dobson’s name into their school desks with a penknife. Is there, one wonders, a parallel universe where such things came to be? And is there a piece of boffinry that could take us there, away, away… away from the sludge and gristle of our hapless hell?

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