Archive for the 'Characters' Category

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.

Pirouette And Volte Face

One foul sunlit morning in the late 1950s, Dobson sat at the breakfast table gazing into space, like a man whose head was entirely vacant.

Whatever is the matter, Dobson?” asked the out of print pamphleteer’s inamorata, Marigold Chew, between mouthfuls of boiled cornflake ‘n’ duck’s liver mush, “You are gazing into space like a man whose head is entirely vacant.”

On the contrary, my darling dearest pippety-poppet,” said Dobson, “My head is a teeming maelstrom of almost inhumanly complicated thought process doo-dah.”

Oh? And of what are you thinking?” asked Marigold Chew.

Well, my little pumpkinetto, as you know I have recently been reading – or rather rereading – or rather rerereading – the Memoirs of the plucky club-footed fascist tot Tiny Enid, and I have been struck by the passage in which she recounts how she taught herself to execute, simultaneously, a pirouette and a volte face.”

The pirouette must have proved tricky with that club foot of hers,” said Marigold Chew.

Oh, that was the least of her worries,” said Dobson, “And as I am sure you recall, Tiny Enid was a preternaturally agile tot in spite of her infirmity. No, the difficulty she had to overcome was to succeed in rotating her physical body 360 degrees at the very same time as making a mental rotation of just 180 degrees, for if you think about it for a moment, or, as I have been doing, if you think about it throughout breakfast, the volte face is but half a pirouette. If the volte face continued through 360 degrees, one’s mental position would be identical to what it was at the start, just as, in a pirouette, one returns to one’s original physical position. You see?”

Yes, Dobson, I grasped that much immediately. That is why I have continued tucking into my breakfast while you are prattling. You should eat your mush before it goes cold.”

I am quite partial to cold mush,” said Dobson, “In fact I think I will leave my bowl and tuck into my breakfast after I have paid a visit to Old Ma Brimstone’s Ballet School next to the post office, where I can brush up on my pirouetting skills.”

And without another word, the out of print pamphleteer donned his Uzbekistani Yak Herder’s boots and crashed out of the door into a sudden and unexpected downpour, the bright battering sun having vanished behind thunderous black clouds sweeping across the sky, terrible as an army of Corbynistas marching with placards.

Trudging along the towpath of the filthy canal, Dobson turned his mind to considering a topic upon which he might attempt to perform a volte face while practising pirouettes. He ran through a series of subjects in his head. Aztecs, bleach, corrugated cardboard, dingly dells, eggs, funk music, geese – geese! Geese made him think of swans, and sure enough, just ahead, upon the canal, elegant yet savage, he saw a swan. Dobson had always hated swans. Well, perhaps he could force himself, while spinning round and round at Old Ma Brimstone’s Ballet School next to the post office, to spin his mind round, but only halfway round, through 180 degrees, so that by the time he completed his physical 360 degree pirouette, he would love swans, adore them. It was worth a try. Resolute, he pressed on through the mud.

Several hours later, Dobson crashed through his front door, sopping wet, just as the clouds dispersed and the sun reappeared in the sky, as bright and battering as Felix Randal’s great grey drayhorse’s sandal.

Oh hello Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “How did you get on?”

Remind me never to go near that Ballet School next to the post office ever again!” cried Dobson, “Even if I have to go to the post office! I do not know what qualifications Old Ma Brimstone possesses, but I very much doubt she ever gained a diploma in the teaching of pirouetting technique. Each time I attempted a pirouette – while thinking about swans – I lost my balance and toppled over, and each time I toppled over I bashed my head on a hard jutting solid something-or-other, beside which Old Ma Brimstone insisted I practise. My bonce has suffered so many thumps that my wits are quite, quite bedizened and I cannot remember what I was doing at that confounded Ballet School in the first place. I am going to go and lie down in a darkened room and wallow in self-pity.”

As Dobson turned away, Marigold Chew reminded him that he had an uneaten bowl of boiled cornflake ‘n’ duck’s liver mush, gone cold.

The out of print pamphleteer spun round, through a full rotation of 360 degrees.

I hate cold mush!” he declaimed.

From whatever perch in an ethereal plane she was looking down upon Dobson, the plucky tot Tiny Enid applauded him.

You see?” she whispered through the aether, “It can be done!”

But Dobson’s brain was shattered, and he remained oblivious. And then he toppled over for the umpteenth time that day.

Seething Dobson

Dobson was seething. The twentieth century’s great out of print pamphleteer was sitting at his breakfast table absolutely seething. Pausing before spooning a dollop of marmalade-style pipless jellied-eel goo into her mouth, Dobson’s inamorata Marigold Chew observed “You appear to be seething, Dobson”.

“Indeed I am, oh light of my life,” said the pamphleteer, “I have a lengthy list of exasperations which I would happily recite to you, the better that you may understand the multifarious sources of my seething.”

“Perhaps not, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Instead, I would rather that you seethe elsewhere than at the breakfast table. Have you considered going to Seething to seethe?”

“I have not,” said Dobson, “And where in the name of high heaven is Seething?”

“Seething is a tiny village in the county of Norfolk,” said Marigold Chew, “About nine miles south-east of Norwich. Its church, St Margaret’s, has a round tower, though that is not strictly relevant. I am told that the villagers of Seething often seethe, about all sorts of exasperations, and I feel sure you would find a welcome there.”

“Then seethe in Seething I shall!” shouted Dobson, and he rose from the table, pulled on his Ivory Coast crop-dusting co-pilot’s boots, and crashed out of the door into the teeming downpour. So heavy was the rain, so thick the mist, so broken his pocket compass, that the pamphleteer became almost immediately lost. When, eventually, he came to a halt, he was not in Seething at all. Dobson had wandered as far as the county of Cornwall, and found himself in the tiny village of Splat.

Dobson was splatting.

seething

Dobson, Preoccupied

“You seem preoccupied, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew to the out of print pamphleteer one morning over breakfast. It was a thunderous day of thunder and thunderclaps and the couple were tucking into boiled suet ‘n’ marzipan à la Metternich, a dish extolled in a footnote in Dobson’s pamphlet Breakfast Favourites Of The Austrian Empire Foreign Ministry 1809-1821 (out of print).

Dobson did not reply, for he was preoccupied.

The following morning, over breakfast, Marigold Chew became so perturbed at Dobson’s seeming residence in la-la land that she resorted to the Dusty Springfield method to snap him out of it. Named after the 1960s popstrel’s hobby, this involved the systematic smashing of crockery by throwing plates and dishes one by one with great, indeed hysterical, force against the wall. Several smithereens lay scattered on the floor before Dobson was of a sudden unpreoccupied.

“Ah, good morning, my buttercup of unparalleled gorgeousness,” said Dobson, through a mouthful of steamed shredded hyacinth stalks in syrup.

“You have been terribly preoccupied, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Whatever is going on in that brain of yours?”

“I am inwardly tussling,” said Dobson, “With my latest pamphlet, to which I have given the working title Andy Martin, The Tyrannical Leader Of UNIT, And Why He Is The Most Fantastic Person In The Visible Universe”.

“I have no doubt your inner tussle will prove as productive as ever,” said Marigold Chew, “But may I make one small point, a point which I suggest is germane to your tussle and preoccupation?”

“And what would that be, oh daffodil of my dreams?” said Dobson.

“Well, as you and I and your optometrist know only too well, Dobson, you are severely myopic. Thus, for you, the visible universe does not stretch very far. Indeed, it stops just a few inches away from the front of your head. I do not see Andy Martin, tyrannical leader of UNIT, in the vicinity, and I feel sure I would spot him were he within a few inches of, or indeed sitting at, my breakfast table.”

“I am going to go and chuck pebbles at swans,” said Dobson, getting up from his chair and putting on his Swabian Bus Ticket Collector’s boots and crashing out of the door into the downpour which, as on the day before, was accompanied by thunderous thunder and thunderclaps. Marigold Chew had raised a sticky problem about his pamphlet, one he did not wish to discuss, indeed could not discuss. Hence his sudden departure, leaving his breakfast unfinished.

Unfortunately, so sudden was his departure that Dobson neglected to put on his specs. Unable to see more than a few inches ahead, he blundered towards where he thought the duckpond was, only to take a wrong turn and find himself hopelessly lost in a patch of bracken and rustic filth. He found himself, too, once more preoccupied, but this time on a wholly different subject. Why, he wondered, was the duckpond, populated as it was mostly by swans, called the duckpond rather than the swanpond? It was true that ducks were occasionally to be found dabbling upon it, but any such ducks tended to scarper pretty quickly when ganged up on by the savage and violent, yet indubitably elegant, swans.

“I wonder,” said Dobson to himself, aloud, in the mist of his own myopia, “Whether I ought to abandon the Andy Martin, tyrannical leader of UNIT, business for the time being and instead turn my propelling pencil to the question of duckpond nomenclature?”

And there was then a terrifically thunderous and thundery thunderclap, which Dobson chose to interpret as the Gods replying to his question in the affirmative. Turning in the direction he thought would take him home, he wrapped his Stalinist scarf tighter round his neck and squelched through the muck. But alas!, the pamphleteer’s sense of direction was as pitiful as his eyesight, and several weeks passed before he found his way home, by which time he had completely forgotten about duckponds and swanponds.

“What is the subject of the pamphlet you are working on?” asked Marigold Chew over breakfast on the morning after Dobson’s return.

“It is called Fortune-Telling By Interpreting The Patterns Created By Crockery Smithereens Smashed According To The Dusty Springfield Method,” said Dobson, “And I expect to be able to dot the final i and cross the final t this very afternoon.”

And he did, though the pamphlet itself is currently out of print.

An Important Question

An important question was posed this morning on BBC Radio Four’s Farming Today:

How do you find wheat?

I am afraid I was not paying close enough attention and so did not learn the answer. Readers may perhaps wish to give their own replies in the comments.

Hiking Pickle Revisited

A further nugget from the archives. One In A Series Of Hiking Pickles first appeared on this day eight years ago.

Dobson lived in the era before mobile phones, of course, so when he found himself imperilled in an isolated spot he had to harness every last scrap of ingenuity to summon help. You or I would simply make a call on our mobile – well, you would, but I wouldn’t, because I do not own a mobile phone and never shall, for they are an abomination unto me – but this was not an option for Dobson, so what did he do?

Let us take a closer look at the circumstances. It was a Tuesday in February. Football fans were grieving the loss of the Busby Babes in the Munich Air Disaster, Pope Pius XII had declared that Saint Clare was to be the patron saint of television, and little blind David Blunkett was just eleven years old. Meanwhile, Dobson got lost on an ill-advised hiking expedition and found himself exhausted, in a spinney, menaced by feral goats. The out of print pamphleteer had also managed to get himself hopelessly entangled in a thicket of thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles. That’s the kind of spinney it was, at least twenty miles from the nearest village, and with no paths nor country lanes leading anywhere close to it. There was, it is true, a big pylon a couple of dozen yards away, but it was a lone pylon, unconnected to any kind of electrical grid or other wiring system, a pylon the purpose of which was unknown, and it was a pylon of rust, suggestive of abandonment and disuse.

This was not the first time Dobson had been in a hiking pickle, and it would not be the last. Indeed, late in life he had enough material to furnish a pamphlet entitled An Anthology Of Disastrous Hiking Mishaps Cobbled Together From A Lifetime Of Ill-Starred Rustic Pursuits (out of print). What was significant about this particular pickle was the manner in which Dobson succeeded in extricating himself from it.

This was the period during which he had joined an experimental knitting circle, and as luck would have it he had in his noddy bag that day his latest project. It was an interpretation, in wool, of The Wreck Of The Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dobson realised that, when fully unravelled, the yarn would stretch for miles. He sat down in the brambles, lit his pipe, took the scrunched-up woollen masterpiece out of his noddy bag, and unravelled, unravelled, unravelled. Two hours later he was still unravelling. The sun was setting by the time he was done, but Dobson had no fear of the night, for he was sanguine.

Frequently Asked Question : Why didn’t the pamphleteer use his portable metal tapping machine to call for help?

Answer : He was unable to use his portable metal tapping machine because there was no ground-level pneumatic hub within reach.

The wool fully unravelled, Dobson tapped out his pipe on a stone and beckoned to one of the feral Toggenbergs. The goats were still gathered in a gang on the edge of the spinney, and it is a mystery why they had not attacked the bramble-trapped pamphleteer. In the Anthology, Dobson suggested that a combination of acrid pipe smoke, unravelled wool, and his sanguine nature had deterred the goats, but it seems that for once he was being modest. Almost certainly, the decisive factor was Dobson’s eerie ability to mesmerise goats, especially Toggenbergs. It is a skill which has not been much remarked upon, possibly because Dobson himself made light of it, and – curiously – never devoted a pamphlet to it. But he had been practising goat mesmerisation since he was a babe in arms, and now his expertise paid off. Beckoning a Toggenberg, as I said, Dobson tied one end of the length of wool around one of its Satanic horns, then whispered goat-language into its ear. We do not know what he said, but presumably it was something like “Scamper away, goat, in a straight line, and do not stop until you reach a village”.

It was not a village that the goat scampered to, however. Three hours after being entranced, it came to a wire fence, chewed its way through, and, in so doing, set off a hideous caterwauling alarm system. The night was filled with noise, and the Toggenberg was caught in the white glare of a Kleig light. Within seconds, it was surrounded by a clomping troop of visored commandos armed with Simon & Garfunkel rifles. Inadvertently, the mesmerised capricorn had stumbled into a top secret military intelligence compound. A commando with a captain’s badge bundled the goat onto a bauxite cradle chained to a winch, while a second commando, this one with a cadet’s badge, untied the wool from its horn.

Miles away, Dobson was smoking his pipe and lackadaisically paying out the wool, hand over hand. Suddenly, he felt it jerk, and held on tight. And then he was yanked free of the thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles and dragged across a wasteland of fields and gravel pits and sumps and countryside filth until he fetched up at the feet of the commandos who reeled him in, just as midnight struck.

That is how Dobson got out of a hiking pickle, only to find himself in a very alarming dilemma indeed, slap bang in the middle of a military intelligence compound that was top secret for very good reasons – reasons which, even at a distance of fifty years, I am far too terrified to divulge. He was placed in a holding cell with the feral goat and interrogated at length. The wool was returned to him and he asked for, and was given, a pair of knitting needles. Between interrogations he was able to re-knit The Wreck Of The Deutschland, although much of his woollen reimagining of the lines about the Tall Nun was gnawed into scritty by the Toggenberg. By the time the commandos released the pamphleteer, having scrambled his brainpans so thoroughly that he remembered nothing after the spinney, Richard Milhous Nixon had published his book Six Crises, Pluto and Neptune were in alignment for the first time in 403 years, and little blind David Blunkett was no longer so little.

Dobson returned home even more sanguine than before the hiking pickle. As for the feral goat, it stayed with the commandos. They adopted it as a pet, and called it Flopsy.

Soup Anniversary

Today, unbelievably, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hooting Yard Soup Committee. That is to say, it is precisely ten years ago today that this piece, entitled Soup Committee, first appeared at Hooting Yard:

Dobson rarely sought collaborators in his pamphleteering work, preferring to plough his furrow alone. Occasionally, however, his schemes were so ambitious that it was necessary to call in help. One such plan led to the formation of what became known as the Soup Committee.

Dobson woke up one wintry morning with an idea in his head. This was not uncommon, but usually his ideas could be – and were – dashed off in a brief pamphlet. Not so the gigantic multi-volume work he pictured in his mind, a compendium of every known soup recipe ever conceived, throughout human history, from the dawn of time to today’s date, across all cultures and civilisations. Even Dobson realised that he could not accomplish so mighty a project single-handed, so he asked Marigold Chew to draw up a list of likely contributors. The Soup Committee was her idea. Reasoning that if she invited people to take part in a Dobson plan they would probably decline, and thus shatter the pamphleteer’s already shattered nerves, she used her usual hardline tactics. The letter she sent out to over eight hundred unsuspecting souls is preserved in the Dobson Archive.

Dear Soup Person, it read, This is to inform you that you have been empanelled on to the Soup Committee. Your empanelment is effective from today’s date and remains in force until such time as you die. The full implications of your membership of the Committee will follow by separate post, but you had better start gathering soup recipes right now. Yours decisively, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.

The pamphleteer himself decided to begin by garnering soup recipes from the Old and New Testaments, and set about rereading his Bible with pencil and notepad in hand. He was distraught, at the end of this exercise, to discover that the word “soup” appears nowhere in the Authorised Version, or King James Bible, which was the edition he swore by. He went back to the beginning and realised that “pottage” was possibly a synonym for “soup”, although it might also mean what we know as “stew”. Undeterred, Dobson was able to fill a couple of pages of his notepad.

In Genesis 25, for example, we have, 29 And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint, 30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom, and 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. This is elsewhere translated as And Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, of course, a resounding phrase we would all do well to remember.

Moving on to the second book of Kings, chapter four, after having soup for lunch, Dobson read 38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets, 39 And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not, and finally 40 So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.

Towards the end of the Old Testament, Dobson found one last mention of soup, or stew, in Haggai 2: 12 If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No.

Seven verses, but presumably only three different soups, the most interesting to Dobson being the one in Kings which has “death in the pot”. What was this poisonous potion? We know that Dobson was a vain, even arrogant pamphleteer, but he did have some small shred of humility. He recognised that if his great work on soup was to be definitive, every single recipe would have to be authorised by an expert. Marigold Chew sent a second letter to the members of the Committee.

Dear Empanelled Soup Committee Person, she wrote, As a matter of urgency, further detail is required on the wild gourds which were shredded into the pottage mentioned in 2 Kings 4:39, as well as the ingredients already in the pot, which, as you know, contained death. Send your reply by courier. Yours tenaciously, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.

Not a single one of the recipients ever replied. Dobson himself soon lost interest in soup recipes, filed his notes away, and embarked that very same winter on a series of pamphlets about sodium, postage stamps, the manufacture of church bells, loosely-fitting cardigans, gutta percha price fluctuations and Plovdiv. One by one, over the years, the Soup Committee members died out. It is thought that only three of them are still alive, one in Bastwick, one in Cleves, and one, now 104 years old, fit as a fiddle, plying a ferry across an inlet at an unidentified seaside resort battered by gales, battered by storms, battered by gales, battered.

Film Still

A rare film still from the even rarer documentary film Tiny Enid – Plucky Tot, never, so far as we know, ever screened, anywhere, ever, and almost certainly lost.

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Dobson’s Invitation

In the autumn of his years, Dobson received a letter asking him to contribute to a symposium. Such invitations were rare for the out of print pamphleteer, and he became unreasonably overexcited. Unable to think clearly, he wolfed down his breakfast and went for a brisk walk along the towpath of the old canal, shouting and chucking pebbles at swans. When he arrived home, sopping wet from the torrential downpour, he reread the letter. Apparently, what the sender called his “unique insight” would be welcomed for a symposium on The Importance Of The Cummerbund As A New Romantic Signifier, With Particular Reference To Spandau Ballet.

Dobson had questions, but unfortunately his inamorata Marigold Chew, who he felt sure would know about these things, was off on a week-long gallivant. The pamphleteer had a vague idea what a cummerbund was, but that was about all of the symposium title he understood. He knew a bit about the Romantics, but what was a “New Romantic”? What exactly was meant by a “signifier”? And, most befuddling of all, was there really a ballet troupe resident at Spandau prison in Berlin, and if not, what on earth did the two words, thus conjoined, refer to? These were his questions.

As he pored over the invitation, Dobson felt his excitement bubbling up again. He could barely recall when last he had been invited to anything, let alone an important symposium. Leaving the unanswered questions to waft in the mists of fuddle, he dashed off a letter of acceptance, not forgetting to ask that his bus fare be paid and a cup of tea provided. Then he crashed back out into the rain to buy a stamp at the post office and to plop his reply into a letterbox.

On his way home along one of the less salubrious boulevards of Pointy Town, it occurred to Dobson that the answers to his questions could conceivably be common knowledge among the riffraff. It would not be the first time he discovered that things of which he was wholly ignorant were known by the most wretched and unsightly specimens of the lower orders. A gruesome little twerp, for example, had once vouchsafed to the pamphleteer not only the names of the four Liverpudlian moptops, but also told him which one wore spectacles and was married to an avant-garde Japanese performance artist. This information had proved invaluable when Dobson came to write his pamphlet Several Anagrams Of OO NOOKY, Informed By My Unique Insight Into Popular Culture (out of print).

So it was that the pamphleteer buttonholed a number of hoi polloi in the street, shouting at them about romanticism and signifiers and ballet in German prisons. But by now the torrential rain had grown rainier and more torrential, and all those whose help Dobson sought swept past him, pausing only to curse or spit or kick. When eventually he made it home he was none the wiser.

Dobson sat at his escritoire for hours, pencil poised over a blank sheet of paper. He was at a loss. Then he had a brainwave. He would go to the symposium and extemporize! So long as he included the key words, repeatedly, in whatever he said, he felt sure he could carry it off. Had not Laurence Olivier done the same when performing Shakespeare, babbling nonsense occasionally just to amuse himself and to disconcert the rest of the cast? And after all, this was an academic symposium, when nothing anybody said would make the slightest bit of sense anyway. Dobson tossed his pencil aside and went to slump in an armchair, gazing out of the window at crows in the rain.

The day before the symposium, a further letter arrived from the organisers.

Dear Dobson, it read, I am afraid we are unable to pay your bus fare and cannot provide you with a cup of tea. We are therefore withdrawing your invitation. Toodle pip.

In the spring and summer of his years, a younger Dobson would have parlayed this crushing disappointment into a pamphlet of sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose. Now, he merely slumped at his escritoire, moaning and weeping, for days on end, until Marigold Chew came home.

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If you have chuckled slightly while reading this piece, you may wish to make  a donation to the Hooting Yard Fund For Distressed Out Of Print Pamphleteers.

A Gift

Although it is not compulsory (yet) for devoted readers to shower Mr Key with gifts, it is certainly advisable. I was very pleased to find this lapel accoutrement in my Christmas sock, and would encourage all of you to spend the best part of 2015 considering carefully how you might demonstrate your fealty next time Yuletide comes around.

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Birdseed Folderol

Several years after Sirinuntananon & Bewg published Dobson’s birdseed folderol, a second edition was issued by Ladybird Books.

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Sirinuntananon & Bewg

The vast majority of Dobson’s pamphlets were self-published, printed on a Gestetner machine in the garden shed by Marigold Chew, the bindings stitched by hand. On one occasion, however, the pamphleteer felt impelled to seek commercial publication.

“I feel impelled,” he announced to Marigold Chew over a breakfast of kippered sprats and marzipan brulé one desolate winter’s morning, “To seek commercial publication for one of my pamphlets.”

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

“I shall be most distraught, or is the word distrait?,” she replied, “To leave the Gestetner idle while you go swanning off to large important buildings. But I nevertheless think it a good idea, albeit foolish, and I wish you well.”

Twenty minutes later Dobson went crashing out of the door into the winter horrors, vowing not to return until he had persuaded a publishing concern based in a large important building to issue one of his pamphlets in an edition of millions.

His first port of call was Semi-Collapsed House, a large important and semi-collapsed edifice on Slobber Lane, just along from the railway sidings and the hamster pound. Its lower floors housed the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg, an ancient and distinguished publishing company. Best not to dwell on the doings on the building’s upper floors, which had been rented out, for many years, to Babinsky, the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer.

Icicles dangling from the brim of his Homburg, Dobson crashed into the reception area. It was deserted, save for a stray cobweb and a scurrying beetle. Dobson stamped on the beetle, and the thud of his Cambodian Actuary’s boot upon the linoleum (and the beetle) brought a hobbledehoy skittering into the room from a dark interior somewhere-or-other. The hobbledehoy tugged his forelock, which was greasy, greasy and vile, greasy and vile and repellent.

“How may I be of assistance, good sir?” he whimpered.

“I am Dobson!”, shouted Dobson, as if that were all the world need know.

Several hours later, having managed to persuade the hobbledehoy to allow him beyond the reception area, the pamphleteer was ushered into the office of Mr Sirinuntananon, or possibly Mr Bewg.

“I understand,” said the publisher, “That you have been impelled to seek commercial publication for one of your pamphlets.”

“To whom am I shouting?” shouted Dobson.

The hobbledehoy loomed behind him and spoke barely audible words into his ear.

“That is Mr Bewg, sir. He is boisterous and brilliant and barbaric. You can tell them apart, when they both occupy the same space, because Mr Sirinuntananon is saturnine and scruffy and savage.”

No sooner had he stopped speaking than a saturnine and scruffy and savage fellow slid into view from behind an arras.

“See?” said the hobbledehoy.

We might usefully pause here to consider a potted history of Sirinuntananon & Bewg. It is a history not only potted but illustrious, redolent with terrific books and equally terrific authors, with terrific mezzotints tinted especially for the covers of those terrific books, and with terrific hairstyles sported by those terrific authors. Unfortunately, from somewhere upstairs there comes the ungodly din of Babinsky, wreaking his usual blood-splattered chaos. It is a din which deafens as it distracts, so we shall have to postpone the potted history for a more opportune time. I have pencilled in next Tuesday lunchtime, incorrigible optimist that I am.

Instead, let us watch as winter sunlight glitters on the semi-collapsed roof of Semi-Collapsed House. Let us ponder its broken chimney-pots in which adventurous birds have built their nests in which tatterdemalion fledglings screech, their beaks opened wide awaiting mama or papa to come swooping in from foraging to drop juicy wounded worms into their gullets. Let us watch as clouds scud across the winter sun and the first flurries of snow begin to fall. And now, below, we see the pamphleteer, ejected into the street. Dobson has left the building.

“Hello Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, later, as her snow-covered inamorato came crashing through the door, “How did you get on?”

“It was like this, Marigold my poppet,” said Dobson, “I visited the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg the ancient and distinguished publishers where I met saturnine and scruffy and savage Nuttawood Sirinuntananon and boisterous and brilliant and barbaric B. Bewg also their hobbledehoy who acts as a kind of factotum and after some shilly-shallying into the details of which I shall not go now or evermore for it pained me exceedingly and I do not wish to relive it the hobbledehoy made a pot of tea for three and we sat in armchairs the publishers and me and Bewg began to speak but I could not hear a word he said for from above on the upper floors of the building came such a din as can only have been the sound of a psychopathic serial killer committing an enormity perhaps with an axe and when eventually it subsided after a final blood-curdling scream I asked Bewg to repeat himself but instead his colleague spoke and there was savagery in his voice as he explained that the previously independent publishing firm founded by Sirinuntananon’s grandfather and Bewg’s grandmother so long ago had now through what he called market forces whatever they might be been sold to a new owner of untold wealth and influence and this fellow generously allowed Sirinuntananon and Bewg to cling on to their positions in the offices in Semi-Collapsed House but that all decisions about what was published or not published were his the new owner’s and his alone and if I told them something about my proposed pamphlet then they would ferry he used the word ferry that to the owner and he would consider my proposal there and then for he liked to make snap decisions so I said that I had an idea for a pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet but if that was not deemed commercial enough I also had up my sleeve an exciting science fiction yarn entitled Attack Of The Jellyfish Monsters From Planet Googie Withers and would they run both of those past the new owner and Bewg and Sirinuntananon looked at one another and gulped down their cups of tea in somewhat barbaric and savage fashion as if they had never drunk out of dainty china cups before and then they told me to wait and they both left the room and I sat and peered out of the window and saw that snow was falling and I fell into a daze and dreamed of dust and I woke when the door opened and it was neither Sirinuntananon nor Bewg but the hobbledehoy and he gave me a wolfish grin and took my empty teacup and smashed it against the wall like Dusty Springfield liked to do with crockery and then there was a puff of smoke and the hobbledehoy vanished in a cloud of fuming vapour as black as the blackest thing in the universe and beyond and a minute or so later he stepped out of it towards me only it was no longer him the hobbledehoy but a transfigured version with horns and a forked tail and eyes that burned and it was Beelzebub himself I swear it as sure as eggs is eggs and he roared at me that he had given due consideration to my suggestions and made a snap decision that the world was absolutely ready for a million-selling pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet and he had already had his minions Sirinuntananon and Bewg draw up a contract and he brandished it at me a single sheet of paper on which the words seemed to have been scratched in gore by a wild beast and he continued to roar saying I must understand that by signing the contract in return for commercial publication of my pamphlet I would be selling him my immortal soul and did I understand him quite plainly my soul would be his for eternity and did I realise that eternity never came to an end and if I wanted to comprehend the unimaginable duration of eternity I ought to read the sermon by the priest in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce and I said I had already read it and I understood and he said here is your chance to back out you can leave Semi-Collapsed House and forget everything that has happened here and continue with your puny and curdled life churning out unread and out of print pamphlets until you drop dead but if you sign the contract I will publish your birdseed folderol and I will have your soul and I said alright alright you don’t need to repeat yourself I get the idea and he shoved the contract into my hands and gave me a biro and said so will you sign Dobson will you sign and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”