According to the visitor statistics, someone arrived at Hooting Yard yesterday having searched for the term “macabre folding camp chairs”. I hasten to add that I am not making this up. I suspect what the inquirer was looking for was Dobson’s exceedingly rare Eerie & Macabre Picnic Praxis, a set of practical guidelines which appeared, oddly, as an appendix to his pamphlet A Dictionary Of Squirrels (out of print).
Unusually for Dobson, the Praxis was written in response to a request from a reader. The pamphleteer was notoriously dismissive, even contemptuous, of his audience, such as it was. Marigold Chew recalls the great man stamping about in his study, spitting into the fireplace, shouting his head off at nobody in particular and insisting that his readership was composed of spiteful lickspittles and human wreckage. He had no evidence to back this claim, of course. He just enjoyed his misanthropic ravings, as who does not?
We must wonder, then, why the pamphleteer responded with such alacrity to the letter he received from a correspondent signing himself simply as “JFK”. There are compelling reasons to believe this was the soon-to-be-assassinated thirty-fifth Potus, but that is unlikely to have impressed Dobson, who had a weird animus towards men who wore surgical braces for excruciating back pain. A devotee of the “back quack” Rastus Tebbit, whom he occasionally visited in prison, Dobson swore by the old fraud’s patent back pain remedy of lettuce, toad, and cake.
The letter itself was clear and concise. Dear Dobson, it read, I am planning to organise a picnic outing that will be both eerie and macabre, but I have no idea how to go about it. It has been suggested to me by one of my secret service agents that a pamphleteer such as yourself would be able to bash together some guidelines at the drop of a hat. Thanks in advance.
It has been estimated that throughout his long career, Dobson received no fewer than eight direct requests from readers to address a particular topic. The other seven were binned or burned or torn to shreds or, on one memorable occasion, folded into a paper aeroplane of uncommonly aerodynamic soundness and launched from atop an Alpine peak into the blue empyrean, to the applause of a gaggle of Swiss boy scouts. Yet this one letter stirred something in the pamphleteer’s brain, and he immediately sat down at his escritoire and took a newly-sharpened pencil from his pencil pot and wrote the Praxis, it is thought in a single burst of concentrated picnic prose. The subject, it should be remembered, was one familiar to him, for he had written teeming pages on picnics in earlier years. Indeed, one of the first pamphlets ever to bear Dobson’s name was entitled God Almighty, Is There Anything More Satisfying Than A Well-Executed Picnic? (out of print).
As mysterious as the enthusiasm with which he tackled a reader’s request, however, is the fact that, as soon as the Praxis was written, Dobson shoved it into a cardboard box and forgot about it. Within days, the manuscript was covered with other scribblings, and with biscuit crumbs and dust and spilled talcum powder and a cackhandedly-folded map of guillemot habitats and shells from a packet of brazil nuts and newspaper cuttings and a hiking boot catalogue until the box was full and its lid was fitted and it was consigned to a shelf in the cellar alongside dozens upon dozens of other cardboard boxes filled with a heteroclite jumble of forgotten miscellania. This habitual Dobsonian practice has proved infuriating for scholars. Perhaps it really would have been better if the whole damned lot had been burned to a cinder.
Almost a decade passed. One Thursday afternoon, during a thunderstorm, Marigold Chew remarked to Dobson that his Dictionary Of Squirrels, which she was readying for print, would, in her opinion, be immeasurably enriched by the addition of a few more pages. But Dobson had exhausted his knowledge of squirrels, and had nothing more to say. By chance, he was rummaging about searching for the map of guillemot habitats, in preparation for his next project, A Dictionary Of Guillemot Habitat Maps, and, grabbing at the Praxis, he tossed it over to Marigold, muttering something along the lines of it being a “companion piece”. This was nonsense, of course, for it is nothing of the sort. Squirrels are not even mentioned in its sixteen brief paragraphs. Marigold was skim-reading it, and about to protest that Dobson was fobbing her off with a non-squirrel-related text, when there was an almighty clap of thunder and both the pamphleteer and his inamorata were stricken with sudden terrific clap of thunder shock syndrome. Dazed and bumbling, Dobson then made things worse by insisting they both take Rastus Tebbit’s so-called “curative”, a potion of toad, cake and radish, the only effect of which was to unhinge their reason for a period of forty-eight hours. It was during this time, with her judgement impaired, that Marigold Chew printed all known copies of the Dictionary Of Squirrels, with its wholly irrelevant appendix.
Should we be glad she did so? The Eerie & Macabre Picnic Praxis is a curious work, and it is hard to see how practical the guidelines are if one is actually intent upon organising an eerie and macabre picnic. Paragraph six, for example, the one I think my visitor from yesterday was searching for, reads as follows:
Most reputable stockists of folding camp chairs will be happy to listen to any requests from you regarding eerie or macabre ranges of their merchandise. They will listen happily because they tend, as a tribe, to be happy, even when faced by plague and cataclysm. I know this much because I have seen them laugh hysterically at an approaching swarm of locusts, on more than one occasion.
As Aloysius Nestingbird, that most temperate of Dobsonists, asked, after reading this passage, “What in heaven’s name is he blathering on about?” To date, no one has given a satisfactory answer to that question.