Folk Song

Old Farmer Frack! Old Farmer Frack!
What are you carrying in your sack?
I’ve half a dozen weasels in my sack,
Three for Jill and three for Jack.
Are you sure they’re weasels and not stoats?
Or even little baby goats?
No, they’re weasels, of that I’m sure
Now get in the barn and lock the door.
And Old Farmer Frack burns the barn to the ground
And swings his sack o’ weasels round and round
Then he climbs up to the top of Polkadot Hill
And gives the sack o’ weasels to Jack and Jill
Oh thank you, thank you, Old Farmer Frack!
We’ve always wanted weasels in a sack!

Absent-Minded Window-Gazing

What are we to do with these spring days that are now fast coming on? I had not thought I would need to do anything. When I arrived home, I fully expected to find waiting for me, on the desk in my study, the traditional bottle of whisky and loaded revolver. Together, they would take care of the immediate future, after which I need no longer concern myself with the travails of this mundane world. But I came home to find, instead, that Control had left for me a can of Squelcho! and a pencil-sharpener. And so now I am sitting at my desk and gazing absent-mindedly out of the window.

I see the sky, across which clouds lie splattered. It is many years since I read Luke Howard, and I can no longer recall all that stuff I once learned about cumulocirronimbostratus et cetera.

I see grass, upon which birds are hopping and slouching and preening. Ornithology has always confounded me. I could not tell you what manner of birds they are.

I see the backs of buildings made of brick, and their roofs, or is it rooves? Some of the birds move, in flight, between the grass and the roofs, or between the roofs and the grass, and some of them fly away never to be seen again, and others come swooping in, possibly after exceedingly lengthy flights from distant continents. That is one thing I know about ornithology, that certain birds undertake flights the length of which we can barely imagine.

Now I see, lolloping along the lane, Old Halob, the all-too-real coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. He is wearing his trademark macintosh and Homburg hat, and smoking one of his filthy cigarettes, crammed with acrid Serbian tobacco. In one hand is his stopwatch, which he uses when timing the fictional athlete as he runs round and round and round and round and round a fictional running-track. His other hand is holding the hand of his walking-companion, or rather limping-companion, the club-footed plucky Fascist tot Tiny Enid. She is a polka-dot-dressed girl of many adventures. I did not know she was in cahoots with Old Halob.

What are they up to? They stop by a puddle, release each other’s hands, and stand there, like a pair of vases on a mantelpiece. I gaze out of the window at them. They appear to be gazing back at me, though I cannot be sure, because I am myopic, and the window is covered in the grime of umpteen weathers.

I remember reading somewhere that most birds are frightened of Tiny Enid, and this is borne out by the fact that all the birds that were pootling about on the grass have now flown away. Old Halob drops the butt of his cigarette, crushes it underfoot, takes another gasper from the packet in his pocket, lights it, and puffs.

This, then, is what we do with these spring days that are now fast coming on. We gaze out of the window, vacantly, at fictional characters of our own imagining. We hallucinate. Because of course the man is not Old Halob and the girl is not Tiny Enid. Those are just figments in my brain with no purchase in brute reality. Outside, on either side of the puddle, the man is just any man, the girl just any girl.

And then the man has passed by and the little girl’s face is quite bright.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

Hamstrung, Pointy, & Downcast

The rebranding exercise applied to the seven dwarves, of Snow White’s acquaintance, has by any measure been a PR triumph. Everyone is familiar with their names. Would that it were so with Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, a trio now largely forgotten, so much so that even the cleverest brainboxes would be hard pressed to say whether they were a music hall act, a set of cartoon strip characters, or if they occupied some other corner of popular culture. There is uncertainty, too, regarding the identity of the third member, who is sometimes referred to as Downcast and at other times as Mordant.

References to them are scattered here and there in the records of the past, in biographies and memoirs, old newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, letters, official and unofficial reports, and salvaged ephemeral bittybobs. Yet Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast somehow refuse to swim into focus. They remain impossible to pin down, each seeming “fact” contradicted, or even erased, by the next.

Consider, as one example, the nature of their living quarters. Based on a glancing and none too clear bit of footnotery in a photocopy of a manuscript by Pabstow, many people are of the view that Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast inhabited a sweatlodge. At least, Pointy is said to have used the word “lodge” when filling in forms, and the three of them emitted copious amounts of sweat, to the extent that they collected it in sealed jars which they then tried to market as some sort of medicinal potion, though the details of that little enterprise are so disgusting that we would best not dwell upon them.

Yet elsewhere (Gobbing, The Vileness Of Seaside Resorts) it is suggested that Hamstrung and Pointy, if not Downcast – whose name is given here as Mordant – lived permanently in the sand and silt and bilge beneath a jetty, and were semi-amphibious to boot. The evidence for this appears to be a scribble in the margin of a police report prepared by legendary copper Detective Captain Cargpan, but whether the scribble is in his hand or that of one of his brutish subordinates is not made clear. Like so much else in the matter of Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast, we are left clutching haplessly at straws, straws that snap or are borne away on a gust of fierce and sudden wind. And wild is the wind. I hear the sound of mandolins.

Of necessity, we have to read between the lines, and sometimes not just between them but behind them, or at an angle to them H P Lovecraft might have described as belonging to an abnormal geometry loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. When we do that, we may come no closer to gaining a proper conceptual grasp of the trio, but we can appreciate, I think, that there was a time when Hamstrung, Pointy and Downcast were as famous as Josef Stalin or Martin Tupper or Xavier Cugat, and as culturally significant.

Perhaps we ought to recall that passage in the Memoirs of Old Halob, the coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, where he writes I went out to the kiosk to buy a carton of high tar cigarettes, and as I clattered along the street it seemed to me the ground, the sky, the air, by Christ every atom in Creation, was somehow shouting out the names of that illustrious threesome, safe and snug in their sweatlodge or under the jetty, in sand and silt and bilge. It is telling that this sentence was expunged from the published version of the Memoirs for reasons never divulged to the hoi polloi.

This piece first appeared in 2010. It has since come to my attention that I clearly had no idea of the dictionary definition of “mordant”. Well, fiddle-dee-dee. When I use it, the word means something along the lines of mournful, downcast, dejected.

A Dream

Josef K. was dreaming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you about it. Other people’s dreams are almost always insufferably boring. My heart sinks when somebody I barely know insists on telling me one of their dreams. It is akin to the horror I feel when buttonholed by somebody who is determined to read to me their “latest poem”. These poems are invariably codswallop. And so it is with dreams.

On the other hand we are, perhaps rightly, fascinated by our own dreams – as, I suppose, we are by our poems, if we are foolish enough to write them. Dreams churn up our memories, distort them, pluck them from where they belong and drop them into new and weird contexts. Because they belong to us, they are endlessly interesting. We try to wring sense from them, to act as our own Viennese quack and work out what the dream tells us about ourselves. Such navel-gazing is very pleasing, but you really don’t want to impose it on anybody else.

Pleasing, yes, but sometimes futile. God alone knows how I have wrestled with the deep, deep meaning of a dream I had a few years ago, in which I attacked the actor Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair. I never met the late Mr Kinnear. It is, to date, his sole appearance in my dreamworld. I still have no idea what that dream meant, if it meant anything.

We might, if we are sufficiently engaged, find the dreams of fictional characters intriguing. I can’t remember the particular dream Josef K. had in A Dream by Franz Kafka, which is another reason I’m not telling you about it. But we ought to remember that fictional characters’ dreams aren’t real dreams – they’re made up by the author. They may well be based on actual dreams the author had, though there is no guarantee of that. In any case, you can bet on your sickly and wizened grandmother’s life that the author embroiders, and shapes the dream-narrative, through art.

Consider, as an example, the story in which fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has a dream while taking a pre-polevaulting nap. As readers, we know that the dream has been planted in his (fictional) sleeping brain, probably by his coach, the cantankerous, chain-smoking, enovercoated, Homburg-hatted, and all too real Old Halob, a non-fictional character if ever there was one.

In the dream, Bobnit Tivol and Old Halob have somehow swapped identities. Thus, it is the coach who is polevaulting, an image so absurd and preposterous it is the epitome of dream-bizarrerie. This is what I mean by art. Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, meanwhile, in the persona of his coach, has gone to visit Old Halob’s sickly and wizened grandmother in her hovel. He explains to her, by thumps on her head, that he is going to gamble on her life in a sordid wager. The grandmother then takes off her thrum nightcap, and is revealed to be a large, fierce wolf, with gleaming and razor-sharp fangs.

Fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol screams. In real life, this is the point where a dreamer would be shocked awake. But in the story, the dream continues. Bobnit Tivol runs out of the hovel, runs and runs, and finds himself on a familiar running track. He runs round and round and round, in pursuit, now, of another runner, just ahead of him. Eventually the fictional athlete catches up with this runner, and they sprint across the finishing line at exactly the same moment. Panting, they turn to face each other, and Bobnit Tivol recognises his fellow-runner as the late actor Roy Kinnear.

Arm in arm, they repair to a sort of supersonic milk bar, where they order a couple of sort of supersonic milk-based drinks. They sit at a table. All of a sudden, the writer Frank Key comes charging in and attacks Roy Kinnear, bashing him over the head with a chair.

Frightened, Bobnit Tivol runs into a sort of supersonic milk bar pantry, locking the door behind him. He mops his fevered brow, first taking off his Homburg – remember, he is still in the guise of his coach Old Halob, who we assume is making up this dream. We might ask, then, at this point, whether the dream tells us more about (fictional) Bobnit Tivol or (non-fictional) Old Halob. We might ask the question of a Viennese quack, who would surely know the answer. But none is available, so instead, growing bored, we ask “how did the dream end?”

Having removed his Homburg, Bobnit Tivol, or Old Halob, looked down, and saw that his trouser-cuffs were dirty and his shoes were laced up wrong. Bending to retie the shoelaces, he bumped his head on a headbumper. So severe was the bump that stars appeared revolving around his fictional, dream head, as in an illustration in a children’s comic. They were such pretty stars! Oh, how they twinkled! Enchanted by the sight, he woke up.

The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.

Jejune

In her “Mind Your Language” column in The Spectator, Dot Wordsworth turns her attention to jejune. It is one of those words (like fulsome) where an erroneous usage is now so common that the correct, original meaning may be lost entirely. Because of its similarity to juvenile and French jeune, jejune is misused to mean childish, naive, callow. (Dot Wordsworth suggests George Bernard Shaw may be to blame.) This is the (wrong) sense given in the finest use of jejune in cinema history:

What jejune actually means is thin, meagre, unsatisfying. Thank heavens there is at least one man who uses the word correctly. Blockbusting potboilerist Pebblehead has embarked on a new series of gaudy paperback potboilers which purport to be sequels, or prequels, or simply complete rewrites, of acknowledged classics. The first title to appear is Pebblehead’s take on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley. Recalling the privations of his childhood in Pang Hill Orphanage, Pebblehead’s book is entitled How Jejune Was My Gruel. It begins:

How jejune was my gruel. Oh, how jejune it was. I remember so vividly how, when given my bowl of gruel in the orphanage dining hall, I was struck by its jejunosity. Has ever a poor orphan child, who grew up to become an internationally successful bestselling paperbackist, been faced with gruel so jejune? I think not.

A film adaptation of How Jejune Was My Gruel is currently in production, starring anybody the producers can find whose career is not in tatters following allegations of sexual misconduct.

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.