My attention was drawn to a letter in today’s Grauniad:
Brian Simpson (Obituary, 2 February) was indeed a gifted raconteur. At a British legal history conference many years ago, his presentation on 19th-century case law on liability for reservoir maintenance wasn’t just learned and lucid, it was also one of the best stand-up comedy routines I’ve ever seen or heard. – Dr J B Post, Castletownbere, County Cork, Ireland
The good doctor Post does not give the precise date of the legal history conference to which he refers, which is a pity, as it leaves us unclear whether the late Brian Simpson was inspired by the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, or vice versa. For nineteenth-century case law on liability for reservoir maintenance was, as any Dobsonist knows, a pet subject, even a Shandean hobby-horse, of the pamphleteer’s. His antipathy to public speaking meant that he would never have had an audience rollicking in the aisles, as Simpson did, and not even the most enthusiastic Dobsonist would call his many pamphlets on the subject funny, or even mildly amusing. If anything, the Dobsonian brow was beclouded by a mist of deathly seriousness whenever he addressed the issue of reservoir maintenance, from any angle. For he was fascinated not just by nineteenth-century case law on liability, but by the minutiae of reservoir maintenance in other centuries, and in fields other than the legal, such as general water management, engineering, geography, geology, history, archaeology, and the by-ways of fanatical and hysterical religion.
It has been said that Dobson’s interest in reservoir maintenance began after he toppled from a dam into an ill-maintained reservoir one St Mungo’s Day in a year no scholar has ever been able to pin down with any certainty. What he was doing atop the dam in the first place is one of those ineffable mysteries that drives sensible persons to the brink of madness if they cannot be persuaded to drop the matter. One is reminded of the tragic case of F X Spray, who lost his wits after thirty years of increasingly monomaniacal research, without ever having ascertained which dam Dobson toppled from, in which country, on what date, in what year, and whether the boots he was wearing at whatever time it was had any role to play in his topplement.
Adding to the tragedy of the Spray case is the possibility that the pamphleteer’s interest in reservoir maintenance was not occasioned by his own experience at all. New research into his benighted infancy suggests that among the few periodicals to which his parents subscribed was Annals Of Reservoir Maintenance, bound copies of which were found in a dustbin about a mile from the pamphleteer’s childhood home, at least one volume carrying on its reindeer-hide cover a thumbprint almost certainly belonging to Dobson père. But these are matters of conjecture, and conjecture is the enemy of blinkered certainty, as well we know.
Wearing our blinkers, we are able to assert that Dobson wrote no fewer than a dozen pamphlets on the subject of reservoir maintenance, each of them, alas, now out of print. With equal certainty, we can say that the most important of these pamphlets, the one which will be read a hundred, nay, two hundred years hence, if of course anybody sees fit to reprint it, is the one in which Dobson posits a correlation between the types of ducks disporting themselves in a reservoir and the number of criminals drowned in the same reservoir, after being convicted of their crime or crimes, bound hand and foot with hemp, inserted into a burlap sack, and flung into the reservoir by a pair of executioners each paid in poultry for their services. Such were the ways of judicial mercilessness, at one time, in certain districts. One might think that drowned wretches from the past and present-day ducks had no connection whatsoever. One might even continue to think this after reading Dobson’s pamphlet. For it must be said that, for all its statistical tables and graphs and bold illustrations, Ducks And Criminals And Well-Maintained Reservoirs (out of print, as previously indicated) is written in a sort of hysterically overwrought prose, possibly inspired by hypnagogic visions, which make the thrust of Dobson’s arguments extremely difficult to grasp. There is also the point, of course, that the pamphleteer could hardly tell one type of duck from another, even when armed with an illustrated field guide suitable for nippers. His ignorance does not deter him, and he makes what one gathers, if read several times to wring some sense out of them, are sweeping pronouncements about matching tallies of pickpockets and pochards, forgers and mergansers, murderers and teal.
The other eleven pamphlets on reservoir maintenance are somewhat easier to understand, written in plainer prose, and were collected together in a sort of überpamphlet entitled Eleven Essays On Reservoir Maintenance, By One Who Knows (out of print). The cover featured a spectacular mezzotint by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint, showing a mezzotintist sitting on a camping stool atop a spectacular dam, executing a mezzotint of a spectacular reservoir, in which pochards, mergansers and teal bob about on the surface, while patches of shading and cross-hatching hint at a number of soaking wet sacks many fathoms deep, containing the soaking wet corpses of pickpockets and forgers and murderers, bound with soaking wet hemp.