A Talk On Dobson

I have been speculating of late on how Dobson would have fared in the age of blogging. The common view is that the great pamphleteer would have flourished in this medium, but I wonder if that is true. He would not, of course, be “out of print” as is so regrettably the case, and I suppose most of us feel a pang when we imagine how tremendous it would be to log on to our computers to find fresh blog posts from so fecund a writer. And how piquant it would be to be able to add our own comments to whatever he had to say for himself on any particular day, rather than, as we must do, simply scribbling private marginalia in the few battered and dog-eared pamphlets we may have managed to scavenge from junk shops and rummage sales and community hub bazaars and compost heaps.

Yet the more I think about it, the more I remain unconvinced that Dobson would have taken to blogging as effortlessly as a swan to a pond. The reasons for my hesitancy are threefold. As I am sure you are aware, dealing with three folds all in one go can cause nervous overexcitement and lead to the vapours and the jangles, so I am not going to talk about the first two folds. The third fold, however, is something I feel sufficiently robust to attend to this evening.

As it happens, a few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk on Dobson to the inmates of a Crucifix School. It was an outdoor event, taking place in a field adjoining the main block, a building with a base and brickish skirt. Fortunately, the weather held, and we were not rained upon as I had feared might be the case earlier in the day, when I had become distracted and missed the prognostications of Mr Daniel Corbett, the eminent forecaster. Usually on these occasions I like to pick my own topic, whether it be Dobson and clunking noises, or Dobson’s use of novelty pipe-cleaners, or the textual implications of Dobson’s fear of squirrels. Sometimes I make my choice based on what I think will appeal to any given audience, sometimes I act on mere whim, and sometimes I just blather. But this time I had been asked to address the specific question “If Dobson Were Alive Today, Would He Be A Blogger Or Would He Continue To Churn Out Pamphlets?” It was a rather unwieldy title for a talk, but I accepted the invitation, not least because it came from an endearing flibbertigibbet. I speak of the Provostette of the Crucifix School, Maud Sprain, for whom in my youth I once carried a torch.

Arriving at the field, having been debouched from a charabanc, I was somewhat upset to find that Maud was not there to welcome me. In fact, so shredded were my nerves that I let out a great cry of grief. I was hurried into a tent by some sort of aide de camp, who gave me a reviving brain tonic and explained that Maud had been called away to an important meeting. Apparently, there was a to-do about the Crucifix School’s preferred biscuit supplier, with Huntley & Palmer’s and Peek Frean’s locked in unholy combat. Maud had gone to parley with representatives of the two titanic biscuit makers, although I have to say that from my memories of her I did not think it was a role to which she was suited. As well as being a flibbertigibbet she was given to going doolally and throwing breakable items, such as jugs, against walls. I wondered if the biscuit people had been warned.

Having swallowed my second helping of brain tonic, I was led by the aide de camp back out of the tent and across the field to where my audience of sparky tinies was waiting. It was a terrific field. Apart from mud and grass, it was rife with field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, with its pink and white flowers, with wayfaring trees, Viburnum lantana, deciduous shrubs – not trees, despite the name – close to wild guelder, all red and black berries, with common or redleg persicaria, Polygonum persicaria, a weed with blotches on its leaves, allied to the bistorts, and with lady’s smock, Cardamine pratensis, a white or lilac flower often found in damp meadows and fields such as this. Those, at least, were the four plants I was able to identify before I was bundled, none too gently, down into a ditch and from there into a subterranean tunnel. Most tunnels are subterranean of course, it goes with the territory, but I am using the words of the aide de camp, who, as she shoved me in the small of my back, hissed “Come! Come! We must enter this subterranean tunnel!”

I was perplexed, for as far as I was aware the pupils eagerly awaiting my Dobson lecture were sitting on a tarpaulin in the field above. Equally perplexing was to see that the tunnel was lit by lanterns dangling from hooks hammered into its ceiling, and that interspersed with the lanterns dangled birdcages in which perched blind thrushes and sparrows. I stuck my heel into the muck underfoot and rounded upon the aide de camp, demanding an explanation.

“This is where we bring the blind birds,” she said.

I accepted that at face value, and she persuaded me to continue ahead until we reached a cavernous underground storage facility. It was enormous and chilly. I do not think I have ever seen so many packets of biscuits stacked so neatly in one place. There were piles and piles and piles of them, creating a narrow passageway in the centre. I noted that to one side, all the biscuits were Huntley & Palmer’s, and to the other they were Peek Frean’s.

“You may pick a packet as your payment,” announced the aide de camp.

Now, Maud and I had not discussed my reimbursement for talking to the tinies about Dobson and blogging. There are some people – there are even, I regret to say, some Dobsonists – who insist upon cash when delivering talks upon the great out of print pamphleteer. Naturally, I am not averse to a fistful of readies, but it seems to me that spreading the word about Dobson is too urgent an activity to depend necessarily upon the receipt of grubby banknotes. Thus it is that, in the past, I have accepted payment in various kinds, including a plastic siphon, a pochette stuffed with the hair of a hanged criminal, a torn and besmirched copy of Old Cackhead’s Almanack, a share in the ownership of a lame pig, several towels and rags, glue, pips, lemon curd, a picture postcard from Innsmouth, and a cake fork. You might think, then, that I would happily snatch a packet of biscuits from this vast underground pantry and return to the surface ready and willing to give my talk. On any other day, I may well have done so. But now I was overcome with pangs of pity for the blind birds in cages dangling from hooks in the tunnel, so I told the aide de camp that I would forego my Huntley & Palmer’s or Peek Frean’s, and instead wanted her to release the thrushes and sparrows and to return them to the blue overarching firmament.

She looked at me as if I were bonkers and explained that, being blind, the birds would surely be savaged by other, bigger, predatory birds, such as hawks and vultures and modern pterodactyls within minutes of being allowed to flap away into the sky. This sounded like a pretty cogent argument, but I questioned her about the so-called “modern pterodactyls”, birds I had not heard of before and ones I felt sure she had made up on the spur of the moment as a way of persuading me to take a packet of biscuits as Maud originally intended. The aide de camp told me something new to me, that the British actor Richard Attenborough ruled as a potentate over a remote island where he reared modern pterodactyls and other primeval beasts, and should any of the blind thrushes or sparrows manage to get that far before being pecked to pieces by hawks or vultures, they would surely come a-cropper in the fierce razor-sharp talons of one, or more, of Attenborough’s avian brood. I happened to have the numeric protocol co-ordinates for the aged thespian embedded in my portable metal tapping machine, and considered directing a transmission requesting confirmation of this startling yet somehow credible information from him, until I recalled that Maud Sprain had deliberately sited her Crucifix School in a so-called “metal tapping machine mufflement zone”. She could be such a caution! I was left with no alternative but to accept, graciously, that the savagery of nature outweighed my sentimental impulses, and plumped for a packet of Peek Frean’s Bite-Size Oaty Choc Marzipan Water Biscuits. As we made our way back along the tunnel, the aide de camp pointed out to me the gleaming tungsten piping system through which birdseed and nutritionally-enhanced water were supplied to the blind birds. I felt reassured.

For some reason I could not fathom, the tunnel’s exit opened upon a different part of the ditch from where we had entered. As we emerged, I saw that in order to get back to the surface we would have to fight our way through a tangle of gooseberries, goosegrass, and goosefoot. The gooseberry is a low, spiny bush with globular green fruits. Goosegrass, also known as cleavers, is a close relative of bedstraws, which straggles over vegetation, clinging to it and to clothing with the tiny prickles on its stems, leaves, and fruits. Goosefoot is a genus of weeds with tiny green flowers in leafy or leafless spikes, the commonest being Fat Hen, Red Goosefoot, which often has reddish leaves, Many-seeded Goosefoot, and Good King Henry. The ditch, though, was entangled with Stinking Goosefoot, which smells repulsively of stale fish. Earlier, when I told you about the field bindweed, the wayfaring trees, the persicaria, and the lady’s smock in the field, I gave you the Latin names. But time presses on, so if you want to know the Latin for the gooseberry and goosegrass and goosefoot you will have to look them up yourself. I recommend a reference work such as The Penguin Dictionary Of British Natural History by Richard and Maisie Fitter (1967). As well as telling you about plants named after geese, this invaluable book is packed with hundreds of entries on birds, butterflies, fish, flowers, fungi, insects, moths, reptiles, and trees. It even tells you the difference between a stoat and a weasel, if that is the kind of thing you need to know.

The tinies were sat upon their tarpaulin, awaiting my talk, but getting to them was clearly going to be a struggle. According to the bells clanging from the old bell-tower, I was due to speak in five minutes time. The aide de camp was fossicking in her pippy bag, so I asked her what she was looking for.

“One of two things,” she said, “Either a scented linen rectangle to hold over my nose to counter the overwhelming stench of stale fish, or a big sharp slicing implement, as sharp as the talons of one of Richard Attenborough’s modern pterodactyls, with which to slice and hew through these plants named after geese. I am sure I must have one or other in my pippy bag, if not both.”

I could see why Maud had made so resourceful a woman her aide de camp, and wondered what else might lurk in the pippy bag, but I was far too polite to ask. I drummed my fingertips against my temples as the rummaging continued, conscious that time was ticktocking away on the clock on the old bell-tower, and that we were in grave danger of being late for the tinies. Maud had stipulated that I had to begin my talk on time, for only by doing so could I hope to placate the strange gods who loomed over the Crucifix School, always quick to anger and, in their anger, to smite the building and blast it to ruin. Much good would my packet of Peek Frean’s do me if I allowed the cataclysm to occur. Like the weeds choking the ditch, the looming gods were goose-gods, aggressive, webbed of foot, and with feathers of whitish hue, differing from mortal geese in that they were doubly aggressive, doubly webbed, doubly white, of immense size, and spectral. I watched them now, looming with menace over the school, ready to strike, to be assuaged only by my talk to the tinies on the tarpaulin. And still the aide de camp was scrabbling in her pippy bag, like a badger in bracken.

There were scarce forty seconds to go when she shrieked a triumphant cry, slapped a scented linen rectangle over her nose and sliced at the gooseberry, goosegrass and goosefoot with a big sharp slicer, and with one bound we jumped free of the ditch and pelted towards the tinies. A second aide de camp had given each of them a tumbler of purple pop and a radish to keep them quiet, so I was met with absolute silence as I took my place on the speaking mat. I glanced up, and allowed myself a small wrinkly smile as I saw the goose-gods flock away into the aether, and then I tapped my fingertips upon my cuff and cleared my throat.

“Greetings, tinies,” I boomed, my spine straight and my bouffant unruffled, “I am here today to talk upon the topic If Dobson Were Alive Today, Would He Be A Blogger Or Would He Continue To Churn Out Pamphlets? I am sure some of you think you know the answer. Well, I have thought long and hard about this question, and my conclusion may surprise you. You see, I don’t think Dobson would ever have become a blogger, for one simple reason. Bloggers type on computer keyboards, but Dobson always wrote in a little notepad, with a pencil. I rest my case.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of the third fold in my threefold argument. If you are avid for the details of the first and second folds, I may be tempted to tell, but only if you send me some biscuits. I leave it up to you whether you send Huntley & Palmer’s or Peek Frean’s.

One thought on “A Talk On Dobson

  1. A profound and persuasive argument. But would there be anything to stop Dobson from employing, say, a cack-handed, hirsute crone to take his jottings and by her own labours transmit them to the electro-aether? It is not infeasible that he might remunerate her by nutshells, which would at least during autumn months freely available, although the crone herself might imaginably have a peculiar aversion to gathering nutshells herself. Somewhat resembling a large, pink-limbed, reverse-squirrel, Dobson might gather copious nutshells at the appropriate season, and keep them in storage in order to meet his payroll during times of scarcity.

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