On Dobson’s Country Diary

I am enormously pleased to see that an enterprising publisher has issued a collection of Dobson’s so-called nature writings. At some point in the early nineteen-fifties the pamphleteer managed to persuade a harassed and overtired newspaper editor to let him loose on the paper’s Country Diary column. The regular correspondent had been incapacitated in a badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong, and Dobson, weirdly alert to such things, immediately presented himself at the newspaper offices. It is the columns he wrote, in his temporary incumbency, which have now been gathered together and published in a handsome volume. Most of this material will be new, even to the most indefatigable Dobsonist.

Albeit he was only a stand-in, it was a daring appointment, perhaps an act of desperation. For all his undoubted talent as a crafter of sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose, Dobson was profoundly ignorant of the natural world. He was perhaps the least-qualified person ever to write a nature column in a national newspaper. Had the editor not been harassed and overtired, he would surely have sent the pamphleteer packing with a flea in his ear. Instead, Dobson was given a desk and a notepad and a pen and some blotting paper and told to knock together a thousand words in time for the next print-run, in a couple of hours’ time.

Have you ever gassed a badger? he began, and followed it with nine hundred and ninety-four words recounting the badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong which led to the incapacitation of the regular Country Diary columnist and explained why he, Dobson, was sitting at his desk and using his pen and notepad and blotting paper. Not that I will need the blotting paper, he wrote, As so surely do I craft my sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose that nary a blot of ink e’er besmirches them. By the time it was typeset and printed, of course, none among his readers could know that, on the contrary, the pamphleteer’s manuscripts were hideous to behold, a mass of scratches and scribbles and nib-stabbings liberally splattered with blots, of ink and sweat and spit and blood.

Did you gas a badger yesterday? he wrote the next day, and the day after his column began Well, have you gassed any badgers yet? At this point a subeditor stepped in and suggested, tentatively, that Dobson might want to broaden the subject matter of his column. There was more to nature, this chap suggested, than the gassing of badgers, a topic of which, after all, the pamphleteer appeared to know next to nothing. Dobson flew into a temper and accused the subeditor of being harassed and overtired, which was undoubtedly true. But after calming down and smoking a few acrid Serbian cigarettes and doodling a map of Pointy Town on a sheet of blotting paper, he relented, and apologised, and promised to extend his range, as he put it, for the next day’s Country Diary.

The beauty of this new collection is that it includes some of the columns Dobson wrote which were spiked and never appeared in the paper. Among them are the next day’s piece, his fourth, and the first not to fixate upon the gassing of badgers.

Over the last few days, he wrote, I have had much to say about the gassing of badgers. Several letters have landed on my desk from readers, suggesting that I have no idea what I am talking about. Be that as it may, it is time to move on to pastures new. There is more, much more, to the natural world than badger-gassing, or so I have been advised. For instance, have you ever gassed a swan?

These and the following nine hundred and twenty-five words were spiked, or rather set fire to, and their space in the paper taken up instead by a mezzotint of a badger by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Dobson was summoned to the editor’s office and told to avoid, if possible, any mention of gas in his future columns. He asked if the interdiction included marsh gas. Marsh gas, declared the editor, after some thought and pencil-chewing, was an acceptable topic, but only after a week or two. First Dobson would have to show that he was capable of writing a wholly gasless Country Diary column. Seething, Dobson agreed.

The pamphleteer was now in something of a pickle. What on earth was he going to write about? Thanks to this invaluable collection, in hard covers, we know the answer to that question. Dobson somehow managed to string together sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose about voles, spinneys, farm implements, tractors, riverbanks, weasels, owls, canal towpaths, orchards, copses, bogs, ditches, rainfall, slurry, pigs, flocks of Stalins, hollyhocks, mud, lupins, nuthatches, wild rampaging boars, ungassed badgers, henbane, hen coops, Vanbrugh chickens, puddles, ponds, linnets, and a legion of other suitably rustic topics. All of them were addressed in his column the next day, Friday.

Before he sloped off home that evening, Dobson was surprised to learn that in the paper’s Saturday edition, the Country Diary was given double the space. Two thousand words?, he asked, incredulous. Quite so, said the harassed and overtired subeditor. Dobson went away fuming. He decided not to head for home after all, but to seek inspiration by spending the night in the open, sprawled in the middle of a field, out in the countryside. Ignorant as he was of country ways, he did not know that the field in which he chose to sprawl was a haunt of badgers, and that at dead of night, farmers bent on badger destruction came stamping through the muck armed with gas canisters.

When dawn broke, Dobson was sprawled, not in an open field, but in a bed in a clinic for gas victims. Incapacitated, and unable to file his copy, he was told the newspaper no longer required his services. The regular Country Diary correspondent had made a full recovery and was back at his desk, or rather, at a desk alongside it, his own desk, which Dobson had commandeered, having been taken away by the janitor to be scrubbed clean of the stains of ink and sweat and spit and blood with which the pamphleteer had besmirched it.

Several months later, Dobson contacted the editor to suggest he write a daily column about gas. The editor dropped his letter into a waste chute.

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