Jug o’ Paraffin

A curious tale attaches itself to the shortest pamphlet Dobson ever published. Of a light-hearted, even frisky, disposition one foul winter’s day, he wrote as follows:

Obtain a large jug of paraffin. Remove the cap from the jug and slosh the paraffin over a pile of something dry and brittle in a public place. Toss a lighted match onto it, stand back, and watch the resulting blaze. This will warm your cockles and provide a pleasing spectacle to pass the time of day.

Having nothing further to add, the pamphleteer persuaded Marigold Chew to set these four sentences in a particularly decisive and heroic typeface, and issued it under the unambiguous title Fun With Paraffin! For the cover, Marigold Chew chose a mezzotint by the mezzotintist Rex Tint, depicting his sister Dot Tint hand-tinting one of his mezzotints with a paraffin-based colourant. Before doing any typesetting or production work on the pamphlet, however, Marigold Chew had a fractious to-do with Dobson over his use of the word jug. She insisted that a jug was by definition an open-necked container, and that he should prefer the word canister, for a canister would have a cap, and be a more likely receptacle for paraffin, than would a jug, which, though it may be fitted with a plug or stopper, would never have a cap.

Dobson never took kindly to having his errors pointed out to him, believing that the sheer force of his prose, even in so short a pamphlet as this, ought to silence his critics. He was fond of quoting Christopher Smart’s line from Jubilate Agno, where the poet says “For I pray God for the ostriches of Salisbury Plain, the beavers of the Medway, and silver fish of Thames”. Sorry, wrong line. I was distracted there for a moment by a freshly-laundered dishcloth flapping in the breeze. The line Dobson liked to use to defend himself against detractors was “For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ‘em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made”.

Marigold Chew, though, was a stickler, and challenged Dobson to produce, in the real world rather than from the skewed universe inside his skull, a jug sealed with a cap. Characteristically, the pamphleteer tried to shirk this by muttering some nonsense about his urgent need to examine a nest of stints in a shrubbery over by the pond. Why on earth he persisted in his lifelong delusion that ornithology could rescue him from any pickle he found himself in is a question for wiser heads than mine. Marigold Chew made short shrift of his stinty babblings, of course, and Dobson was left with no choice but to head off to Hubermann’s in the hope that somewhere on the shelves of that unutterably gorgeous department store he might pounce upon a capped jug.

And therein lies the strangeness of this tale. For as he approached the plaza where Hubermann’s loomed enormous, he found the building enshrouded in a weird mauve mist, like the purple cloud in M P Shiel’s novel of that title, and he wandered into the mist, and through the doors of Hubermann’s, and there in the foyer he came upon a tottering tower of jugs, all with screw-top caps, and all filled to the brim with paraffin, and he was convulsed by a desire to toss a lighted match upon them, and to pass an entertaining time watching the blaze, just as he had described in his yet-to-be-typeset pamphlet. But as he reached into his pocket for a box of lucifers, he was felled by an eagle-eyed Hubermann’s security guard, a titanic monster of a man whose epaulettes glistened in the mist and whose buttons glistened in the mist even more than his epaulettes so glistened. And Dobson was kept under lock and key in a broom cupboard in the basement of the department store until bailed by an eerie, cadaverous magistrate who roved the land on horseback, following the mauve mist wherever it settled.

Home again, fuddled and with mysterious mauve stainage upon his clothing, the pamphleteer told his tale to Marigold Chew, who, despite raising a skeptical eyebrow, skipped at once to her shed and cranked out Dobson’s pamphlet with the text as Dobson wanted it, the world once again cast from the mould his words had made.

One thought on “Jug o’ Paraffin

  1. Frank, as a regular at Hubermann’s I am concerned by the injustice implied by this store: It is clear that Dobson was incarcerated for the crime of reaching into his pocket. Nowhere in this story do you describe any court-trial, jury of twelve good-men or even the most rudimentary jurisprudence. Since when did the management of this department store acquire the right to imprison their customers?

    I intend to write to George Galloway MP and request that his Respect party institute a boycott of Hubermann’s.


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