17 Years In An Alpine Mist

One of the more curious episodes in the life of the out of print pamphleteer Dobson is recounted in his autobiographical pamphlet 17 Years In An Alpine Mist (out of print). It begins as follows:

One day in the 1950s I was hiking in the Alps, researching all things goaty for a pamphlet I planned to write, provisionally entitled All Things Goaty In The Alps. All of a sudden I found myself engulfed in an Alpine mist. It was thick and swirling, the sort of mist one might find enswathing the three witches in a production of Macbeth, or in a film by Guy Maddin. Unable to see ahead of me, I blundered about, hopelessly lost.

I had my Alpenstock, and a flask of vitamin-enhanced boiled buttercup ‘n’ watercress water. Treading carefully, I tried to make my way down from the mountains. But no matter which way I turned, I seemed always to be going uphill, up, up, and up. The mist grew thicker and swirlier.

In prose that grows increasingly hysterical, even hallucinatory, the pamphleteer reports that several hours pass, with him plodding ever higher into the Alps. He can barely see more than an inch or two in front of him, so dense is the Alpine mist. Eventually, he comes to a halt when his path is blocked by a doorway.

The door was wooden, mahogany by the looks of it, and set within a base and brickish wall. I could see very little of the latter, in the thick and swirling Alpine mist, so I had no idea how high it was, nor how far it extended on either side. Nonetheless, I gained the distinct impression that I was standing outside a sort of half-size replica of the Winnipeg evaporated milk factory where, long long ago, I had worked as a junior janitor. This was most perplexing.

Dobson takes a glug from his flask, and then thumps his Alpenstock on the door, thrice. As if in a scene from a Hammer horror film, the door slowly opens, with an eerie and ominous creak. The pamphleteer steps inside, and is disconcerted to note that the mist is even thicker, though a bit less swirly. The door, of course, swings shut behind him, as in one of those films.

My bafflement that the indoor mist was even more engulfing than the mist outside was leavened somewhat by the fact that, after hours toiling uphill, the stone floor beneath my feet was level. But I was still lost, in silence and invisibility. And then, ahead of me, I saw emerging from the mist, a human, or semihuman, or inhuman figure. Though it was blurry and weirdly shimmering, I sensed that it was ancient, aeons-old, older perhaps than time itself. I did not yet realise that I had come face to face with a Blavatskyite Being Of Unutterable Esoteric Wisdom.

The mysterious figure beckons Dobson to follow him – her? it? – and leads the pamphleteer to a room within a room within a room within a room within a room within a room, an inner inner inner et cetera sanctum, still enshrouded in thick Alpine mist. In the centre of the room stands a stone slab, an altar, upon which are carved inscriptions in several different unknown alphabets. Otherwise, the room is bare, save for an escritoire, an armoire, an arras, a sideboard on which stands a cassette player and a pile of cassette tapes, a much-becushioned sofa bed, a pair of matching musnuds, a two-bar electric fire, a treadmill, a Toc H lamp, a Bakelite figurine of Charles W. Leadbeater, a second stone slab altar without inscriptions, an empotted pugton tree, several vases and basins, a jelly-making kit, a mysterious blue carton, a chemical toilet, a grandfather clock, a drumkit, an easel, a taxidermised weasel, a waste paper bin, an espresso machine, a doormat, a rug, a cat-litter tray, and a few other bittybobs. In one corner there is a mop and a pail.

This was to be my home for the next seventeen years. In all that time, the Alpine mist never dispersed. It remained thick, and occasionally quite swirlyish. So, when I sat in one of the musnuds, I could not see the other one, nor any of the other appurtenances. Moving about my sanctum, I kept bumping into things. My shins were a mass of bruises.

I learned to operate the cassette player, and grew fond of the music recorded on the tapes. Each of them contained ninety minutes of skiffle, performed by Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band. I also learned to make jelly.

Once a week, I received a visit from the Blavatskyite Being. It explained that it was going to initiate me into the secrets of the cosmos. To do so, it would read a few paragraphs from The Collected Witterings of Madame Blavatsky, and then quiz me on what I had heard. The questions were put in multiple-choice format, which I found helpful. It had a curious speaking voice, sometimes sounding exactly like the star of stage and screen Jack Hulbert, and at other times like his wife and musical comedy partner Cicely Courtneidge. It might yoyo between the two voices within a single sentence.

Every year, on St Bibblybibdib’s Day, it took me to its own domain, even higher in the Alps. Up there, the air was so thin it could not form a mist, and we had to wear oxygen masks to breathe. All day long we played ping pong on its full-size ping pong table. Oddly, every single game we played over those seventeen years ended in a draw, which is technically impossible when playing ping pong in the mortal world. I hoped one day to find an explanation for this in one of the Madame Blavatsky readings, but it remained a mystery. As did the blue carton in my sanctum, which I was forbidden to open.

Dobson notes that he marked the passage of time, at first by cutting notches in his Alpenstock and later by ticking off the days in an Esoteric Reader’s Digest 17-Year Pocket Diary which he found in the sideboard. Then, one Thursday, the Blavatskyite Being makes an unscheduled appearance. The mist is thicker and swirlier than usual. The pamphleteer is told that he has learned all there is to know, plus a bit more, and is now an Adept Of The Secret Order Of Alpine Blavatskyite Beings (Cadet Class). It is time for him to leave, and to return to the mundane world of mortal men. He is bundled out of his inner inner inner etcetera sanctum none too gently, and given a shove, and skitters down the mountain, through the mist, down and down, until of a sudden the mist clears, and he can see clearly, and to his astonishment, there, sitting on an Alpine municipal bench at the foot of the mountain, waiting for him, is his inamorata and poppet, Marigold Chew.

Marigold my dearest darling dear!” I cried, “I have returned! I am agog to know what has been going on in the world these past seventeen years. Did the Vietnam War escalate after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ? Did the Busby Babes win the European Cup? Was it ever proven that Alger Hiss was indeed a Communist spy? Did Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band top the hit parade? Uncle Joe Stalin – does he yet live? Are Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge still high-earning stars in the musical comedy firmament? Has Vice President Nixon published his book Six Crises? I have a million questions to which answers are not vouchsafed even by the secret knowledge I have acquired high, high in the Alpine mist!”

Marigold Chew looks at Dobson as if he has gone mad.

What on earth are you blathering on about, Dobson?” she says, “You vanished into the mist saying you were going to research all things goaty, and here you are back again, ten minutes later. You can’t have learned much about Alpine goats in that time. And what is that lump on your head? It looks very much as if you have been struck on the bonce by a very large pebble hurled by a mischievous and miscreant young Alpine goatherd boy from the nearby orphanage. We must make a complaint to the beadle to ensure the ne’er-do-well mite is given no jelly for his pudding tonight.”

And with that, Marigold Chew takes Dobson by the arm, and they walk away from the Alps, never to return in this lifetime.

NOTA BENE : Thanks to my old mucker Max Décharné for alerting me to the existence of Emile ‘Stalebread’ Lacoume & His Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, here.

ANOTHER NOTA BENE : Max has kindly provided a snap of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, taken in 1896 or 1897. As he says, they were proper New Orleans street urchins.

The Raid On Entebbe

The Raid On Entebbe (disambiguation).

The Raid On Entebbe can refer to :

a hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israeli Defence Force at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on 4 July 1976;

a 1977 film dramatisation of the incident starring Peter Finch (whose surname is also the common term for medium-sized passerine birds in the family Fringillidae);

the given name of a pet hamster kept by the potboiling paperbackist Pebblehead.

Pebblehead was once asked in an interview why he had named his hamster The Raid On Entebbe. This is what he said by way of reply:

I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t got a pet hamster. I grant you, there is a small cage over there, fitted with a wheel for a small mammal to run around on like a mad thing, and lined with excelsior, or wood wool, for the comfort of such a small mammal, and, yes, there is a strong hamstery odour in the vicinity of the cage. But I challenge you to show me an actual hamster.”

Thus challenged, the journalist interviewing Pebblehead pointed to what looked undoubtedly like a hamster, nestling in the corner of the cage, almost covered in excelsior, and fast asleep.

Blimey!” said Pebblehead, “Where did that come from?”

A press statement was later issued on Pebblehead’s behalf by a crack team of brain-doctors.

For some time now, Pebblehead has been suffering from what the medical profession terms intermittent hamster-blindness. The condition is debilitating and incurable, although the symptoms can be alleviated with a combination of intravenous drugs, eye drops, and frenzied activity, for example, bashing out potboilers on a typewriter at the rate of several novels a week. Incidentally, all of us have previously served as commandos in the Israeli Defence Force, so if you know of any hostages who need to be rescued from African airfields, do drop us a line.”

Pebblehead’s latest potboiler, Invisible Hamster Mayhem!, is now available from all good petshops.

Dobson Goes Doolally

Dear Dr Fang, wrote Marigold Chew, I am writing to you, as the most eminent brain-quack I can think of, to ask for your help. Dobson has gone doolally. Yesterday he was as right as rain – a curious phrase, I grant you, but let us not dwell upon it – sitting at his escritoire scribbling away, then trudging along the towpath of the filthy old canal in the pouring rain, chucking pebbles at swans.

He remained reassuringly Dobson-like at breakfast this morning, tucking into a bowl of boil-in-the-bag koala bear brains ‘n’ mashed plums and blathering inconsequential poltrooneries, just as he always does. It was only when he drained the last dregs from his tumbler of post-breakfast Squelcho! that I noticed something amiss.

Instead of putting on his Uruguayan Notary Public’s boots and crashing out of the door into the teeming downpour, as I expected him to do, he stayed sitting at the breakfast table, a thin smile playing about his lips, a fat beetle scuttling through his bouffant, a blob of marmalade on his cravat.

Look! Can you see it, O my cherished bundle of utter loveliness?” he said, pointing at a corner of the room.

I could see nothing, save for some dust.

It is my little man, my homunculus. He has been following me about, in his satin and tat, in his frock coat and bippety-boppety hat. He whispers words I can never quite hear.”

I asked Dobson what on earth he was talking about. He continued to prattle.

Even were I able to hear him, I am not sure I would be able to understand his whisperings. Not only is he a foreign little man, from remote and distant parts not shown on any map, but he always whispers with his mouth full. He is forever stuffing his gob with smokers’ poptarts, of which he seems to have an endless supply. Have you noticed any packets missing from the larder, O my buttercup?”

You mean the pantry, Dobson,” I said, “No, I have noticed no such thing.”

Larder, pantry, pantry, larder,” he went on, excitably, “Sofa, cushions, chaise longue, pouffé. Lay me place and bake me pie, I’m starving for me gravy. Leave my shoes and door unlocked, I might just slip away. If I slip away, perhaps I can escape my little man. But it’s likely he will follow me. God knows, I haven’t been able to shake him off these past seventeen years.”

It was at this point that I asked Dobson if he had taken leave of his senses. But he ignored the question.

He came seventeen years ago, and to this day he has shown no intention of going away,” he said, “Sometimes he moves his arms as if they were the propellers on a seaplane, the Gnome Omega-powered Fabre Hydravion, for example. I have to place extra paperweights on my escritoire when he does this in close proximity to it, to prevent my papers being blown away. Are you sure you can’t see him?”

I assured Dobson that I could not.

I think the propelling of his arms is an attempt to dry his hands,” he continued, “His palms are horribly moist. Indeed, for such a tiny man he is surprisingly moist in every particular. Yet whenever he follows me into the bathroom, he shuns the towels. They seem to frighten him, as nothing else does. Imagine that, being frightened of towels! Tea-towels, too, especially those of a souvenir variety, bearing depictions of important buildings and tourist attractions. Once he vomited all over the tea-towel we bought in the gift shop at St Bibblybibdib’s Cathedral. When I tried to launder it he snatched it away from me and tore it into strips and fed it to his chaffinch.”

What chaffinch?” I could not help but ask.

There, perched on his shoulder, tiny but weirdly luminous. It is the only chaffinch I know that glows in the dark. Or eats linen. Or monkeys. It ate the little man’s little monkey, which he kept at the end of a length of string, during the Tet Offensive. It ate the string too. It is quite a chaffinch!”

By now I was convinced that Dobson had gone doolally. Thinking a violent bash on the head might bring him to his senses, I went to fetch a hammer. When I returned, there was no sign of him, and the front door was ajar. I looked in the shoe cupboard, but all of his many many many boots were lined up neatly along the bootesquade. Had Dobson done the unthinkable, and left the house in his socks?

Indeed he had. Towards midday, also known as noon, when the hands of the clock both point upwards in an uncompromising vertical, I received a call from the seaside police. Dobson was sat on a pier, bootless, cradling in his arms the limp body of a strangled eel, and staring out to sea. His socks were wet, his cravat was awry, and there were traces of choc ice around his mouth. A ring of lumpenproles had gathered to taunt him. I rushed out and jumped aboard a charabanc heading for the seaside.

The police had removed Dobson from the pier and installed him in a cubby within the seagull sanctuary. I had to use all my powers of persuasion to get past the armed security guards. I found Dobson sprawled on a bunk looking bewildered.

Wincklemann is gone!” he cried.

Wincklemann?” I asked.

My little man, my homunculus,” he said, “He followed me at a trot all the way to the seaside, and while I was at the kiosk on the pier buying several choc ices he lost his footing and fell from the pier into the sea, the sea, the terrible vast wet sea. I fear he drowned therein, my little man.”

It occurred to me that if Wincklemann were as tiny a man as Dobson claimed him to be, it was likely that he was so light in weight that he would bippety-bop, like his hat, upon the water, rather than sink. Then it further occurred to me that Dobson had gone doolally, and that this purported homunculus was nothing but a figment of his fuming brain. I was still carrying the hammer, so I gave Dobson a smart crack on the head with it, hoping to restore his reason.

Alas! The hammer blow had quite the opposite effect. While rubbing his bonce, Dobson gazed into the corner of the seagull sanctuary cubby and let out a joyful yell.

Wincklemann! You have escaped from the clutches of the wild wet sea! Where once you were moist, you are now soaked to the skin. Were you not fearful of towels I would dab you dry. But I am so happy to see you. What is that you are whispering to me in your foreign guttural tongue?”

Of course, there was nothing in the corner except for some dust and a stray seagull feather. After signing some papers, and feeding cream crackers to an injured seagull, I was allowed to bring Dobson home. It is now early evening, and he has insisted on setting a third place at the dinner table, and carefully portioning out a helping of jellied hare ‘n’ jugged eels ‘n’ jagged shards of frozen celery for his invisible little man. I am at my wits’ end, Dr Fang, or at the end of my tether, whichever end is likely to snap first, and I need your help. Please come at once.

*

Dear Mrs Wincklemann, wrote Dr Fang, At your request, I have conducted an examination of the brain, for which my fee is forty-five panes, ten soilings, and sixpins. Please pay in cash by midnight, or I will confiscate the brain and place it in a jar in my cupboard o’ brains, cackling as I do so.

It is my considered opinion that you are suffering from a common malady, viz. indulging a phantasy that you are a personal friend and confidante of the twentieth century’s titanic, if out of print, pamphleteer. In your case, there is an intriguing level of displacement, where you imagine it is not you, but your husband, who is bosom pals with Dobson. Incidentally, your husband is indeed an extremely tiny little man who could easily be mistaken for a homunculus. Perhaps that is what caused the illusory vapours in your brain.

As I say, it is not unusual for insignificant riffraff such as yourself to attach themselves to illustrious figures such as Dobson. I know of another patient who spent many years convinced she was on intimate terms with octogenarian Francophile pop songstress Petula Clark. If you take the pills I have given you, six per day for seventeen years, your symptoms will surely alleviate. I also recommend close reading of Dobson’s pamphlet At No Time Did I Ever Cradle In My Arms The Limp Body Of A Strangled Eel Upon A Pier While Taunted By Lumpenproles, And I Have Signed A Legal Affidavit To This Effect; And Other Essays, Together With A Spirit Photograph Of Petula Clark Holding Hands With A Homunculus (out of print).

Dobson In A Mosh Pit

I think,” said Dobson, at breakfast one foul and rain-sodden Tuesday morning, “It is time we had our own mosh pit.”

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

Do you actually know what a mosh pit is?” she asked.

Not exactly,” replied the twentieth century’s greatest out of print pamphleteer, “But I suspect it would be a good use of that part of the garden overhung by laburnum and sycamore and larch. You know that patch o’er which hangs leafage so dense that it is forever in shadow, and is home to brambles and nettles and dockweed. I cannot even remember the last time I sat or stood in it nor even walked through it, nor can I recall ever seeing you doing so, O cherished one. It is unused ground, and no ground ought to be unused on this earth, according to some authorities.”

Which authorities might they be, Dobson?” asked Marigold Chew.

I think there is a maxim to that effect in the Maxims of Bombastus Dogend, or I could be thinking of Listerine Optrex, also a great one for maxims. I can check later.”

So let me get this straight,” said Marigold Chew, marshalling with her fork the last few caraway seeds on her breakfast plate, “You intend to dig a pit in a shady arbour in the garden, and dub it a mosh pit, without any clear understanding – without any understanding at all – of what a mosh pit is?”

I shall look it up in a thick and exhaustive reference book,” said Dobson, mad with cornflakes.

So you will be going to the mobile library?” said Marigold Chew.

That is my plan,” said the pamphleteer, and he got up from the table and proceeded to don his Andalusian Sewage Inspector’s boots.

Today is Tuesday,” said Marigold Chew, “So the mobile library is in quite a different, and distant, bailiwick.”

And you think I am going to let that stop me?” shouted Dobson melodramatically as he crashed out of the door into the downpour.

Untold hours later, Dobson came crashing back through the door, sopping wet, with a gleam in his eye and a thin, pained smile playing about his lips, as if he were Ronald Colman shooting a scene for Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942).

Well, Dobson, what news?” asked Marigold Chew.

Dobson took his pipe from his pocket, crammed into it a thub of Rotting Orchard Fruit ‘n’ Conkers Pipe Tobacco from his other pocket, lit up and puffed, and said:

I had a deal of difficulty finding the thick and exhaustive reference book I sought. Actually, before that I had a deal of difficulty finding the mobile library itself. There is a new mobile librarian, of wild and untrammelled mien, with an unruly beard, whose grasp of the schedule is weak. He had driven the pantechnicon to quite an unsuitable bailiwick, near cliffs, where the native peasants, having never seen the mobile library before, stood in a ring around it, holding aloft their pitchforks and sticks tipped with tarry burning rags, gawping. I think they may have had it in mind to sacrifice the mobile librarian on a pyre.”

Gosh!” said Marigold Chew.

Be that as it may,” continued Dobson, “I barged my way through the seething peasant throng and climbed into the pantechnicon. The wild unruly beardy person was engaged in some sort of haphazard reshelving exercise, oblivious to the peasants outside. The mobile library holdings, including several thick and exhaustive reference books, one of which was critical to my research, lay scattered about higgledy-piggledy. Oh! I was sorely vexed. But I found what I wanted eventually, under a pile of paperback potboilers by Pebblehead. And – “

You have created a puddle on the floor, Dobson,” interrupted Marigold Chew, “So soaked you are from rainfall. Finish your pipe and mop up the puddle and then you can continue your tale over a nice piping hot cup of ersatz cocoa substitute.”

And it was during the subsequent conversation that the out of print pamphleteer revealed to his poppet that he had indeed discovered the nature of a mosh pit.

Apparently,” he said, “A mosh pit is an area where gaggles of frenzied teenpersons hurl themselves about in an uncoordinated and rambunctious manner to a soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket played from an adjacent stage or platform by persons not dissimilar to the denizens of the mosh pit.”

Yes, I know,” said Marigold Chew, “I could have told you that this morning over breakfast. I assume that now you know what a mosh pit is you no longer want one in your own back garden.”

Quite the contrary, my sweet!” shouted Dobson with unnerving zest, “I am all the more determined to dig one! Hand me that spade!”

And though it was now dark, and the rain was pouring down more heavily than ever, Dobson was soon enough out in the garden, under the dripping leafage of laburnum and sycamore and larch, digging a pit. Positing that he had taken leave of his senses, Marigold Chew retired to her boudoir to listen to Xavier Cugat And His Orchestra on the wireless.

At some point in the small hours of the morning, Dobson came back indoors. He was covered in mud, as if he had been toiling in the trenches of Flanders fields during the Great War, the cause of the shellshock suffered by Smithy, alias Charles Rainier, the character played by Ronald Colman in Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942). Marigold Chew was fast asleep, but she was woken by a repetitive dull thumping noise, as of bone cushioned by flesh bashing against wood, over and over again. She went downstairs to find Dobson slumped at the kitchenette table, repeatedly thumping his forehead against its polished wooden surface.

Whatever is the matter, Dobson?” she asked.

Dobson looked up.

The mosh pit is dug, my dear! It needs but a complement of frenzied teenpersons to be deposited within it. That is my quandary, that the reason for my despair.”

Please explain Dobson, you have me utterly befuddled. Though it be the middle of the night I am going to put the kettle on for a nice piping hot cup of powdered milk slops enriched with filbert nut flavouring. Pray continue.”

Well,” said Dobson, “It was only when I had finished digging the mosh pit, and clambered out of it, and stood back to admire my work in the brilliant illumination of Kleig lights, that I realised the fatal flaw at the heart of my design.”

Which is?” asked Marigold Chew.

We have not space in the garden sufficient to erect a stage or platform next to the mosh pit,” moaned Dobson, “Thus nowhere to assemble a grouplet of persons to provide the necessary soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket to which frenzied teenpersons so minded will mosh.”

Look on the bright side,” said Marigold Chew, “We may not have our own mosh pit, but now we have an all-purpose pit. There is a myriad of usages to which it could be put. I can think of several immediately, but I will refrain from telling you right away. I think you need a disinfectant bath and a good night’s sleep.”

Perhaps you are right, buttercup,” said Dobson, “And in any case there may be such an activity as moshing for the deaf, or moshing to the sound of a lone piccolo, or other types of moshing yet unimagined by frenzied teenpersons, and by unfrenzied teenpersons too. Tomorrow I shall go to the mobile library again, assuming it has not been shoved over the cliffs by the baffled and menacing peasants, and I shall undertake further and more rigorous research..”

That is an excellent idea, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “But before plunging into your disinfectant bath, just tell me one thing. Why on earth did you want to have frenzied teenpersons hurling themselves about in an uncoordinated and rambunctious manner to a soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket in your own back garden in the first place?”

Alas, whatever Dobson said in reply was drowned out by the piercing shriek of the now boiling kettle.

Some days later, Marigold Chew hoicked the spade and filled in the pit under the leafage, still dripping with rain, of laburnum and sycamore and larch, and strewed over it brambles and nettles and dockweed. Never again did the word “mosh” ever pass Dobson’s lips. Other matters had attracted his attention, as related in his pamphlet How I Witnessed The Sight Of A Wild And Unruly Bearded Mobile Librarian In Hand To Hand Combat With A Snarling Gaggle Of Brain-Bejangled Peasants (out of print).

Originally posted in 2011.

Dobson In A Pickle

Let us never forget the time Dobson got into a pickle. Hold your horses, you say, Dobson got into multiple pickles over the years, which particular pickle is it I am enjoined never to forget? To which I would reply that I do not have any horses, so cannot hold horses, as you would have me do. After scratching your head for a moment, you suggest I go lolloping off across several fields to some kind of farmstead where I might encounter a flock of horses, some of which I could then corral together with a cowboy-style lasso, and thus hold them in place, as you bid me do.

A what of horses?, I ask, in a tone which imparts both amusement and incredulity, a flock? You are muddling horses with birds, two creatures which could not be more different.

Flock, huddle, gang, murmuration, you snap back, what does it matter? Too much is made of those bestial collective nouns, they are linguistic fripperies, and I abjure fripperies of all kinds, as is my wont.

At which point, enter Robert Fripp, the Dorset-born guitar-plucker. He takes umbrage at being abjured. He flicks a plectrum at you, which strikes you on the cheek, causing you to cry ouch! I stand by, saying nothing, waiting for this altercation to play itself out. For the time being, the Dobson pickle is put on the back-burner.

Are you challenging me to a duel, sir?, you fume at Robert Fripp, likening his flick of the plectrum to the slap across the face of a glove or gauntlet, a common signal of challenge in the golden age of duelling, long past.

By way of reply, Robert Fripp executes some intricate noodling on his guitar, employing a second plectrum he had tucked into the cuff of his shirt. You hoist a shovel, unnoticed until now, which had been leaning against the trunk of a mighty cedar. Shovel held aloft, you run screaming at Robert Fripp in a manner akin to a blood-drenched homicidal maniac. The terrified guitar-plucker ceases plucking, turns on his heel, and scampers away in the direction of Dorset.

Now, where were we?, you ask.

Keen as I am to pursue the topic of Dobson’s pickle, and not merely keen but avid, I remain so amused by the flock of horses hoo-ha that I cannot let it drop. Accordingly, I chortle, and there is mockery in my chortle.

You mock me though I am armed with a shovel and quite prepared to use it, as you have just witnessed, you say, giving me pause. I have been bashed with a shovel in the past, on a number of occasions, and I have no wish to repeat the experience. My knees buckle, and I struggle to remain upright.

You reach out with your free hand, the unbeshovelled one, to help me steady myself. I am moved by this unexpected gesture of amity, and tears well up in my eyes. But I am easily moved. One of my parents, the poetic one, observed that I was as easily moved as a mote of dust in an autumnal gale. When I was old enough to think about this simile, I wondered why my poetic parent employed the image of a mote of dust rather than of a leaf, for leaves are what we commonly see being moved and blown by gales in autumn time. This thought occasioned in me an inferiority complex, or what would now be called low self-esteem. Was I nought but a mote of dust in my parents’ eyes, or at least in my poetic parent’s eyes, or rather eye, for Ma had but the one, following a cocktail party calamity at which a cocktail stick became detached from its sausage and a succeeding series of events rendered her eyeless, in one socket. Ma’s remaining eye, fortunately, was gimlet, and it was said she could spot a mote of dust at fifty paces. This was said, in my hearing, by her optician, and it served to assuage my self-esteem, so I no longer suffered, moping, weedily, in the shadows.

You invite me not to further mock you and I accede readily, dabbing at my tears with a rag from my pocket. You put down the shovel, leaning it against the trunk of a different tree, a binsey poplar. We have reached an accommodation. You no longer fear my mockery, and I no longer fear being bashed with the shovel. Now, God willing, we can embark on an agreeable conversation regarding that pickle Dobson got himself into which ought never be forgotten.

But all of a sudden, Robert Fripp reappears. He is accompanied by his wife, the diminutive warbler Toyah Wilcox. You and I shift positions, almost imperceptibly, so we are closer together, forming a united front. This is a stand-off. Nobody knows how it will end. Then, at precisely the same moment, you and Toyah Wilcox lunge for the shovel …

Cut.

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic plays over the closing credits.

Dobson On An Atoll

Dobson once found himself marooned on a remote atoll. The circumstances were inexplicable. He had a vague memory of toppling from the deck of a barquentine, but could not recall what he was doing aboard the boat in the first place. Nor did he remember how he came to be washed up on a barren sea-girt rock. But there he was, and he had to lump it.

As a mostly deskbound pamphleteer, Dobson had never found cause to undergo rigorous training in basic survival skills, so the first few minutes on the atoll were emotionally wrenching, to say the least. In fact Dobson could not recall such an emotionally wrenching experience since he had attended a performance of Binder’s third symphony. The conductor on that occasion was the psychotic maestro Lothar Preen, and his approach to that piccolo and glockenspiel business in the final movement caused in Dobson the welling up of the most wrenching emotional experience he had ever had. He remembered the music as he sat slumped on the atoll, staring at the sea, though the sound in his head was of an LP recording conducted by Binder himself, where the piccolos and glockenspiel were slightly less emotionally wrenching than in Preen’s hands. Dobson was not overly fond of what he considered Binder’s somewhat clinical treatment of his own symphony. He once wrote an intemperate letter to the composer, insisting that he rerecord all the LPs of his music with more oomph, but tore it up before sending it, not from second thoughts but because he did not have Binder’s postal address and did not at the time have the energy or wherewithal to hunt it down.

Energy and wherewithal, however, were precisely what he needed to call upon if he were to survive his maroonment on a remote atoll, and to his credit Dobson did not shilly-shally. His first thought was of food, and then of water, and then of shelter. It was almost as if he had undergone rigorous training in basic survival skills! He wondered briefly if he had attended a course of instruction in a dream. Dobson often had vivid dreams, and wrote down the details upon waking. He fossicked in the pockets of his overcoat for his notebook, thinking that perhaps he might find a list of hints and tips on basic survival skills scribbled down one dawn before the dream faded. As he rummaged, his fingers fell upon something unfamiliar, and taking it from his pocket he found he was clutching a packet of frozen crinkle-cut oven chips.

The food problem, then, was solved, at least for the time being. Or so Dobson thought. He could either suck the chips as he would ice lollies, or he could lay them out on the atoll and let them thaw in the sunlight. Stupidly, he decided on the latter. No sooner had he torn open the packet and laid the frozen chips out in neat rows upon the barren rock than a formidable flock of seagulls came swooping out of the sky and snatched up every single chip in their terrible beaks. Thus Dobson experienced a third wrenching of the emotions, perhaps the most emotionally wrenching to date. Such was its intensity that Dobson leapt to his feet and shook his fist at the sky and screamed his head off at the seagulls. But the seagulls had already flown far far away, perhaps to another atoll, where they would perch awhile and scoff their crinkle-cut chips. Seagulls will eat anything.

A little sprite within Dobson’s head told him that he was wasting his energy, so he sat down and gazed about him. This was when he noticed that there were various creatures, such as barnacles and limpets and mussels, clinging to the rock. They were not frozen and did not need thawing. He wrote the word “Food” in his notebook and placed a tick next to it.

Dobson had read a number of books about atoll maroonment, and it was the memory of these he now drew upon. He could collect rainwater in his upturned hat, for example. It was not raining, but Dobson was wearing a yachting cap, so he took this off and placed it, upside down, on as level a patch of rock as he could find. As he did so, he felt a pang of great perplexity, for he could not remember ever seeing the yachting cap before. How had he come to be wearing it? It must be connected in some way to the barquentine from which he had a vague recollection of having toppled into the sea. It was not the sort of headgear he would normally choose to wear. He was a Homburg man through and through, except for those occasions when he sported a floppy and shapeless thingummy or a battered leaden crown. But stylish or not, the yachting cap would catch rainwater, if and when rain fell. Dobson looked up at the sky, and saw a cloud. It was quite white, and very high above him. It only bloomed for minutes, and when he looked up again, it vanished on the air. He took his notebook, wrote the word “Water”, and placed a question mark next to it.

The last item on his agenda was shelter. It was a particularly wrenching emotional moment when he admitted to himself that there was no sign either of foliage or of a tatty tarpaulin abandoned by a previous maroonee. Dobson was at the mercy of the elements. He thought of that passage in Binder’s tenth symphony when the four elements are evoked by mordant bassoon toots, and he began to weep.

Then he remembered something else he had read in one of those books, that always, sooner or later, a ship full of Jesuits would appear, and one need only dance and hop like a mad thing, waving one’s arms, and they would sail in to the rescue. Or perhaps it was the Jesuit who was marooned, and the ship’s crew were just ordinary sailors. Whichever way round it was, the dancing and hopping and waving was the important thing. And so he practised those disciplines, with great vim and vigour, while munching thirstily on barnacles, until a ship hove into view on the horizon. It was the HMS Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it took him home at last.

Originally posted in 2012.

Ogre

We all know that God spelled backwards is Dog, but it is not commonly pointed out that Ergo spelled backwards is Ogre. This insight can lead us to faff about with Descartes’ famous dictum cogito ergo sum so that, instead of stating I think therefore I am, we say instead I think I am an ogre.

It could be argued that this is actually a more profound statement than Descartes’ original. It could be, and it has. In a new book, the paperbackist Pebblehead takes cogito ogre sum as his starting point, and weaves a tale staggering in its implications.

I am known for my potboilers” said Pebblehead, speaking from his chalet o’ prose high in the Swiss Alps, smoking his pipe, “Fat paperbacks with garish covers sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like. With my new book, I like to think I have created an entirely new genre, which I have dubbed the ‘potboiler of profundity’. This is a fat paperback with a garish cover sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like which, in terms of deep mind-numbing profundity, can stand alongside the deepest and most mind-numbing and most profound works in the canon.”

Bashed out in just two weeks of frantic typing, Pebblehead’s potboiler of profundity tells the story of a man who thinks he is an ogre. It poses questions which delve into the core of the human soul. If I think I am an ogre, am I an ogre? If I think I am an ogre but I am not an ogre, what, then, am I? Why would I think I am an ogre in the first place? Am I hairy and brutish and savage? Do I grunt rather than speak articulate words? If so, how do I manage to narrate this potboiler of profundity in such punchy prose, daddy-o? Answer me that, or I’ll tear your head off with my bare hands, or rather paws, yes, great hairy paws, suitable for an ogre. And when I’ve torn your head off I’ll carry it back to my lair, a dark dank cave, full of bats, where I lurk, grunting and slobbering, ogreishly.

With your head torn off and tossed on to the pile of other torn-off human heads in the corner of my cave, you won’t be able to continue reading my fat paperback with a garish cover sold in bulk at airport bookstalls and the like, will you? You won’t be able to read, and you won’t be able to think. And if you can’t read and you can’t think, can you still call yourself civilised, or are you, too, now merely an ogre, albeit one without a head? Ultimately, are we not, all of us, wandering the world like headless ogres, searching for our torn-off heads, tossed onto piles of other torn-off heads in the corners of dark dank caves? Is one of those caves Plato’s cave? Was Plato, too, an ogre? And if Plato was an ogre, what of René Descartes? And what of you?

The latest news from Pebblehead is that his own brain has been so bedizened by the writing of his potboiler of profundity that he is currently languishing, exhausted, on the balcony of a sanatorium even higher in the Swiss Alps. His book is available at all good airport bookstalls. We wish him well.

Lint

Once upon a time Dobson decided to write a pamphlet on the subject of lint.

Thus begins Ted Cack’s mammoth new book The Lint Pamphlet : An Enduring Mystery. It is the latest in a series of mammoth books, each one devoted to a single work by Dobson, including those which the twentieth century’s titanic pamphleteer abandoned, or planned but never wrote, or were mere fugitive throbs within his cranium.

By the time my work is done,” announced Ted Cack at a press conference held at the end of a dilapidated seaside pier, buffeted by squalls, earlier this week, “The number of words I will have devoted to Dobson’s works will dwarf the number of words in all those works put together, however you add them up.”

Quite what he meant by this last phrase is unclear, as there is only one way to add things up, as most of us understand the process. Granted, we are not all students of advanced mathematics, but then nor is Ted Cack. His profile on the online network MyBoast lists several qualifications from several dubious or unimportant institutions, most of which appear to be in frankly absurd fields such as Hermeneutic Ornithology or Unapplied Faffing.

As a Dobsonist, however, Ted Cack is peerless. Once the hot-headed enfant terrible of Dobson studies, as the years have passed his head has become far less hot. Indeed, last time its temperature was measured, his head proved to be so cold various medics pronounced him clinically dead. Ted Cack shocked them all by springing up from his head-temperature-measuring-bed, cutting two or three capers around the room à la James Boswell of a morning, dancing either a quadrille or a gavotte depending from what angle you viewed it, and singing, with unnerving boisterousness, the chorus from “More Than A Feeling” by Boston (Scholz, 1976).

I’m afraid I must interrupt this riveting narrative. The console is beeping with an incoming query. Let me decode it.

Q – If Ted Cack is peerless, how do you explain his press conference taking place on a pier, albeit a dilapidated one?

The question is more sensible than it seems, much, much more sensible, so sensible it takes my breath away (Moroder/Whitlock, 1986; performed by Berlin. Berlin ought not be confused with Irving Berlin. The former was an American New Wave band formed in Orange County, home of Richard M. Nixon, in 1979. The latter, born Israel Beilin, wrote the kinds of songs which would knock anything written by the band into a cocked hat.)

My breath having been taken away, I am unable to answer the question right now, but can only pant and wheeze as I struggle to remain conscious. You may be familiar with such a struggle, for example when listening to Hooting Yard On The Air, broadcasts of which have been known to lull even the most alert listeners into a deep and profound sleep, or at least a catnap.

I should point out here that enquiries, such as the one about peerless Ted Cack on a pier, are always welcome, even if I do not always – oh, wait, here is another one beeping on the console already!

Q – I could not help noticing that you have mentioned two pop music combos today, both of which take their names from cities beginning with the letter B, that is, Boston and Berlin. Are there any other groups with similar nomenclature, for example Bridlington, Basingstoke, Biggleswade, Bognor Regis, Broadstairs, Budleigh Salterton, or Bungay, to list only a few towns in England?

If anything, this is an even more sensible question, and one I would be prepared to answer here and now were my knowledge of pop music combos more exhaustive than it is, but for heaven’s sake, I’m meant to be talking about lint!

Perhaps the most startling revelation of my mammoth new book”, said Ted Cack at that press conference held at the end of a dilapidated seaside pier, buffeted by squalls, earlier this week, “is that Dobson seemed to be wholly ignorant about his proposed subject matter.”

This is not half as startling as Ted Cack thinks it is. It was the out of print pamphleteer’s common practice to write endless screeds on topics of which he knew nothing whatsoever. The word for this is perpilocution, and Dobson was a master of it. Sometimes he liked to pretend he was following the dictum that the best way to learn about something is to write a book about it, but this is rather belied by the resulting out of print pamphlets, which rarely tell us much about anything except the baffling innards of the author’s brain.

Startling or not, however, Ted Cack paints a compelling picture of Dobson and Marigold Chew at breakfast on the morning when the lint spark was lit. The couple were tucking into bowls of reconstituted partridge livers in a mustard ‘n’ milk of magnesia froideur when the pamphleteer suddenly banged his spoon against his forehead and burst into unnervingly boisterous song.

I want to know what lint is. I want you to show me, Marigold my sweet. I want to feel what lint is. I know you can show me.””

He sang to the tune of “I Want To Know What Love Is” (Jones, 1984; performed by Foreigner. Interestingly, all the members of the group actually were foreigners, except for those periods when they were present in their home countries.)

I think you had better write a pamphlet on the subject, Dobson”, said Marigold Chew.

The “enduring mystery” of Ted Cack’s subtitle is that Dobson never did.

Pillow Pamphlets

I have a terrible memory. I sometimes wonder if my inability to remember things might have something to do with the ruinous debauches of my Wilderness Years, but I suspect my forgetfulness preceded them, and that my memory was never much cop in the first place. I barely recall much of what I have written and posted here over the years. This morning, casting about in my puny brain for a topic, I thought “Aha! I know! I will write about Dobson discovering the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and deciding to write a Pillow Book of his own!”

I got as far as writing an opening line about Dobson and Marigold Chew sitting at breakfast one fabulously dreary morning in the early 1950s when a faint ping! within my bonce halted me. “I’ve already done this, haven’t I?” I said, to a nearby sock, for want of any other interlocutor. The sock did not reply, but a quick search confirmed that, yes, six years ago I wrote about this very thing. Maybe you lot had forgotten about it too. Here it is again:

Capacious and pulsating it may have been, but Dobson’s brain contained many, many pockets of ignorance. He was in his mid fifties, for example, when he first came upon the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a work of which he had no previous inkling. He did not read it, merely noting the title on the spine of a copy lodged on the bookshelf of his friend Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp, the Sino-Dutch artist and mountaineer.

Back at home later that day, he mentioned it to Marigold Chew.

Did you know that an eleventh century Japanese bint wrote an entire book about pillows?” he asked.

Yes, Dobson, of course,” said Marigold Chew, “I have borrowed it from the mobile library more than once, and read it from cover to cover.”

Speaking of the mobile library,” said Dobson, and he embarked on a long-winded and pettifogging digression upon the mobile library, which in that place at that time took the form of a cart pulled by an elegant yet tubercular drayhorse, the cart piled high with hardbacks covered in greaseproof paper jackets, the drayhorse chivvied on its way by an equally elegant and equally tubercular librarian-carter, a man of grim countenance and terrible personal habits who bore a distinct resemblance to the actor Karl Johnson, noted for his roles as elderly peasant Twister Turrill in Lark Rise To Candleford and as Wittgenstein in Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. In fact, it may even have been Johnson himself, moonlighting as a mobile librarian to supplement his thespian earnings. Dobson posited this possibility, but doubted it was true, as we, too, must doubt it until all the evidence is in.

So implacable was the pamphleteer’s babbling that Marigold Chew was unable to get a word in edgeways, and was thus given no opportunity to point out to Dobson that the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, like all pillow books, was not actually a book about pillows, but a collection of lists and aphorisms and observations and jottings and poems and opinions and anecdotes. Had he ceased prattling for but a moment, Dobson would have learned this, and not, when eventually he exhausted the topic of the mobile library and the greaseproof paper jackets and the drayhorse and the librarian-carter and the actor and the fictional peasant and the non-fictional philosopher, gone scurrying off to his escritoire to sit and scribble the following:

I have learned that a thousand years ago, a woman from the land of Yoko Ono wrote an entire book about pillows. Such is human progress that in the intervening millennium there must be much, much more to be said on the subject. Clearly I am the pamphleteer to take on this daunting task. I shall set to work on the Pillow Book of Dobson as soon as I have taken a nap. NB: The nap will of course be research for my Pillow Book, as I shall be resting my head upon a pillow while I nap, and present my findings as soon as I wake up.

As far as we know, the promised “findings” were never written down. So refreshed was Dobson by his nap that, upon waking, he immediately put on his Iberian duck hunter’s boots, grabbed an Alpenstock in his fist, and set out for a jaunty hike that took him past the electricity pylons and the abandoned swimming pool and the badger rescue station and the allotments. All the while he hiked, he concentrated his mind on pillows – a thousand years of pillows! His brain reeled as he struggled to comprehend the sheer amount of material he would have to marshal in the making of his Pillow Book. What advances mankind must have made in the field of pillows since the eleventh century! How many heads had rested on how many pillows in that time? How many dreams dreamt during pillow-assisted dozes and naps and even comas? Pausing for a breather outside the bolted and shuttered off licence, Dobson suddenly felt intimidated by the scale of the task before him. He watched the skies for swifts and sparrows and starlings and other birds beginning with S. He rattled the bolts on the off licence door. He chucked his Alpenstock into a ditch. And then he turned for home, resolved to write, not a Pillow Book, but a whole series of Pillow Pamphlets, each to tackle a single, manageable subsection of his vast unwieldy subject matter.

Marigold!” he announced, bustling through the door, “I have had a brainwave with regard to my working methods on the pillow project!”

I did not know you had embarked upon a pillow project, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “And what have you done with the Alpenstock?”

Oh, I chucked it into a ditch,” said Dobson, “I shall go and retrieve it later. But first I must write out the plan for my Pillow Pamphlets, updating a thousand years of pillow history since Sei Shōnagon wrote her book about pillows long long ago in far Japan!”

But so exhausted was the pamphleteer by his hiking and his brain activity that before sitting at his escritoire he took another nap. He thus set a pattern for what was to follow. Every time he determined to set to work on the Pillow Pamphlets, he convinced himself that further practical pillow research was necessary, and lay his head upon a pillow, and fell asleep.

The project was eventually abandoned when the pamphleteer’s attention was distracted by cataclysmic world events, and he turned his energies to writing his famous pamphlet On The Inadvisability Of Taking Daytime Naps During The Unfolding Of Cataclysmic World Events (out of print).

181 Pamphlets (Out Of Print)

From his banishment in a pompous land, Hooting Yard devotee Mike Jennings keeps tabs on the out of print pamphleteer Dobson. Specifically, Mr Jennings acts as Dobson’s bibliographer, maintaining a catalogue of all known pamphlets, and adding to the list whenever previously overlooked titles come to his attention in these pages.

Here is his latest update. You can find links to all the earlier lists, comprising pamphlets numbered 1 to 168, here. Please note that, like the previous 168, all the pamphlets listed below are out of print.

169. A Magisterial Exegesis Of My Resounding Failure As A Novelist, With A Surfeit Of Adjectives And A Ham-fisted Watercolour Plate Of Ida Lupino.

170. Parp. Toot, Hooter, Tooters, Parpers And Tots : A Complete Guide For The Bewildered.

171. Several Potentates Of The Ancient World With Collapsed Lungs & Their Concubines.

172. How To Make Your Own Packet Of Half A Dozen Smokers’ Poptarts For Tuppence-Ha’penny.

173. A Comparative Study Of Speckles And Splodges And Smudges.

174. Half A Dozen Reasons Why Birds Sometimes Become Encrusted With Filth.

175. Everything You Ought To Know About Hay, And Words Beginning With Hay-.

176. Several Anagrams Of OO NOOKY, Informed By My Unique Insight Into Popular Culture

177. Dictionary Of Fruit- And Nut-Related Jazz And Blues Nomenclature

178. Fortune-Telling By Interpreting The Patterns Created By Crockery Smithereens Smashed According To The Dusty Springfield Method.

179. Breakfast Favourites Of The Austrian Empire Foreign Ministry 1809-1821.

180. Arithmetic For The Blind.

181. Marmalade : Does It Come In A Jar Or A Pot?

Marmaladeless Mornings

Dear Mr Key, writes Tim Thurn, I was intrigued, when reading your piece Fear Of Squirrels, to come across the phrase “marmaladeless morning”. I have not encountered this particular conjunction of words before. Could you tell me what it means?

I am only too happy to oblige, Tim. We may define a marmaladeless morning as a morning without marmalade.

For many people, marmalade is an essential and intrinsic part of their morning, when, for example, their breakfast menu includes toast, and after the toast is buttered it is then spread with marmalade. Greedier people, and those without table manners, may just spoon marmalade straight from the jar into their mouths. We may tut at this practice, but cannot deny that it happens, regrettable as it may be. The point is that, whether consumed spread on toast (in a refined manner) or straight from the jar (in a disgusting manner), marmalade is present at the breakfast table, and the morning is patently not marmaladeless.

We speak of marmaladeless mornings when the jar of marmalade is not present. This can occur for several reasons. The jar may be languishing unloved on a shelf in the pantry. Or the jar may be brought to the breakfast table, only for it to be discovered that it is empty, or as near as dammit. In some circumstances, the pantry, and related larders and cupboards, might be entirely innocent of marmalade. This happens in what is known as a marmaladeless house.

If I may speak for a moment of my own experience, I can say with some certainty that I have lived through thousands of marmaladeless mornings. This is because toast and marmalade is not one of my regular breakfasting items. As far as I know, it is not compulsory to include toast and marmalade in one’s breakfast, and thus I choose not to.

Of course, we can imagine a state or regime which makes it compulsory. In this nightmarish situation, a marmaladeless morning would be a criminal offence. There would be patrols of marmalade enforcement goons going door to door, barging into homes, demanding evidence of marmalade. Woe betide the marmaladeless outlaw!

Fortunately, this remains a dystopian fantasy. We are free to include or to exclude marmalade from our breakfasts. We are even free to eschew the toast and scoff the marmalade straight from the jar. We need not even make use of a spoon. We might simply dig the marmalade out of the jar with our bare hands, stuffing our marmaladey fingers into our mouths and licking and sucking until every last atom of marmalade is shovelled down our gullets. Such a practice is visually arresting, if barbaric, and one feels that a marmaladeless morning would be a small but necessary mercy were we to witness it.

The twentieth century’s greatest pamphleteer, Dobson, wrote a fascinating essay entitled Marmalade : Does It Come In A Jar Or A Pot? (out of print). Maddeningly, he fails to give a conclusive answer to his own question. Instead, he veers off, over several hundred pages, into a frankly incoherent diatribe, taking potshots – or jarshots? – at a variety of seemingly unrelated topics, including aniseed, bleach, corrugated cardboard, dentists, egg-timers, flip-top lids, gas, hags, ink, jam, kaolin (pig iron), loopy persons, Madagascar, nettles, oxygen tents, passementerie, quips, rhubarb, sandwiches, talc, ullage, vipers, weasels, xylophonists, yobboes, and zookeepers. We might concede that both jam and sandwiches are somewhat relevant to the ostensible topic – that is, in case you have forgotten, marmalade – but not in the way Dobson approaches them. Believe you me, I have read the pamphlet from cover to cover, twice, and I can make head nor tail of what he is going on about. But ’twas ever thus.

Fear Of Squirrels

The piece I am babbling on the soundtrack of the Creekside Artists film is Fear Of Squirrels, which first appeared here on Thursday 2nd September 2004. Here it is again:

Dobson was afraid of squirrels. Here’s why. It was a damp and ruinous Thursday and he had not had any breakfast. He slapped his hand on the table and shouted “I must have marmalade! I must have some marmalade!” There was nobody to hear his complaint except for an ant which was making its way across the floor of his hovel, and the ant didn’t care, being an insect. Dobson had not even noticed the ant, in any case. He leapt out of his chair, put on his big reindeer-hide anorak brought back from one of his Arctic expeditions, and trudged outside, muttering now instead of shouting.

Have I ever told you there were several important trees on the path outside Dobson’s door? There was a sycamore and a yew, a larch and a pine. Dobson was fond of trees, usually, although he was unable to tell the difference between them. Gone were the days when he would festoon his hair with fallen leaves and twigs, inviting ridicule from the local whippersnappers. Dobson in the days of which I write had adopted a sober mien, indeed a gloomy one.

Dobson, Dobson, don’t look so dismayed,” his acquaintances would say, to which the out of print pamphleteer’s response was to look heavenward, as if in great pain, adopting the air of an early Christian martyr, one lined up for some particularly bloodthirsty persecution. Dobson often skimmed through the pages of Fox’s Book of Martyrs to pick up tips. But I digress.

On this damp marmaladeless morning, Dobson walked past the sycamore, the yew, the larch and the pine, onward past a repulsive ditch, past the post office and the pig huts and the vipers’ nest and the glue factory, up the lane towards the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill. The wind howled. It always did. Back in the hovel, the ant had vanished into a crevice in the wainscot, just as Dobson arrived at the gates of the Building. These gates were enormous and forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary, for there was a wooden door set in the base and brickish wall which skirted the building, and it was only a few feet away to the left of the gates, or to the right, I cannot remember precisely, I have never been there myself, I am only reporting this as it was told to me by Marigold Chew on the day after Dobson’s death, after she had had her bath, and was sipping tea from an inelegant tin mug in the shabby parlour of a horrible hotel hard by the banks of the River Wretched in Sibodnedwabshire.

Dobson knew all about the wooden door, so why did he tarry by the strange rusty gates? Was he confused, was his mind a jumble due to lack of marmalade? Or did he have a tryst? We do not know. We do know that Dobson stood at those gates on that damp Thursday, peering intently through them, for a full quarter of an hour before turning around and heading off to Old Jack Blothead’s Foodstuffs Tent, where he bought a jar of marmalade and some pastry and a pot of some kind of edible paste which Old Jack Blothead had left unlabelled. The year was 1952. Dobson and the vendor of foodstuffs had their usual argument about the pamphleteer’s promissory note, a page torn from his notebook on which he had scrawled words to the effect that sooner or later he would do right by Old Jack Blothead, and if he did not then may the heavens smite him and may all his days be leavened with woe. It was advantageous for Dobson that Blothead was a man of great charity and puny intellect, and after a few minutes he left the tent through its great grimy flaps, armed with his jar and pot and a paper bag for the pastry. They would not fit in the single pocket of his anorak, so he carried them in his ungloved, unmittened hands.

What pangs led Dobson back to the strange enormous rusty gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill? There was a fallen log, a log fallen from a trembling poplar, slap bang next to the gates, and Dobson sat on it and ate the pastry, and he stayed sitting there despite the fact that it began to rain heavily. He didn’t even bother to pull up the hood of his anorak, although that may be because it was rife with holes made by starving moths and his head would have got wet anyway. Wet, but surely not as wet as it did get, as he sat on the poplar log in the downpour eating pastry with his pot of paste and marmalade jar beside him outside the forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill on that Thursday morning in 1952 when he first became terrified of squirrels.

Why,” I asked Marigold Chew as she sipped her tea in the shabby hotel parlour, “Why did Dobson become so fearful of squirrels on that particular day?” She glanced at me briefly, and I was disconcerted by the weird look in her eyes. “Those bushy tails….” she began, then fell silent, turning to stare out of the window. I followed her gaze, and saw the gravedigger walking across the lawn, toting his spade jauntily over his shoulder. “Those bushy, bushy tails…” Marigold Chew repeated. She drank the rest of her tea, put the mug down on the floor by her feet, and stood up. “I must go and have a few words with the gravedigger,” she said, and swept out of the room as breezily as a bereaved woman on crutches can sweep breezily from a hotel parlour on the day after the death of her one true friend on this magnificent and baffling planet.