In the course of an arduous hiking escapade, somewhere far far away Salim Fadhley stumbled upon this mysterious monument.
I have never been able to decide whether I prefer a sop or a fillip. To be given a sop can be immediately gratifying. But when you are able, at leisure, to consider what you really wanted, and then to be thunderstruck at the realisation you have been fobbed off with a sop, gratification can curdle swiftly into frustration, resentment, and, in certain circumstances, psychopathic violence. A fillip, on the other hand, can come out of nowhere, unbidden, and set you up for the day, or at least for a few minutes, until your innards are once again gnawed at by whatever gnaws at them. That differs from person to person.
The tonic effects, then, of both the sop and the fillip tend towards the ephemeral. One could argue that, notwithstanding, the fillip is preferable. This is because, when it wears off, and you are again plunged into remorseless misery, there is not the concomitant dejection you get with the wearing off the sop, viz. the knowledge that you have been fobbed off. You can’t be fobbed off with a fillip. That is not in the nature of fillips, though it is part and parcel of the sop.
We can perhaps grasp this more firmly by considering a concrete example. Here is Dobson, from his pamphlet What I Have To Say, In Toto, About Sops And Fillips (out of print):
It was a day in that blue month September, silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade. A nice juicy Carlsbad plum, I thought, would be just the fillip I needed. It so happened that I was plunged in remorseless misery and my innards were being gnawed at by their intractable enemies, a legion of mental and emotional horrors it would take far too long to list. Yes, the more I thought about it, sprawled beneath the plum trees’ slender shade, the more I craved the fillip I would get from munching one of those plums.
I have never been the sprightliest of tree-climbers, but on that day in that blue month September it so happened that I was wearing my Bolivian Rain Forest Warden’s Tree-Climbing Boots. What a happy accident! I stood up, dusted the duff from my duffel coat, and prepared to clamber a little way up the trunk of the plum tree, just high enough to pluck a plum. It was a strangely tall plum tree, as were all its fellows in this orchard.
Just as I was about to begin my climb, I was disconcerted to see, striding towards me, aiming a shotgun, the orchardist. I knew he was the orchardist because of his proprietorial manner of striding across the loam, and the badge affixed to his duffel coat, over his heart.
“Oi!” he shouted, “Do not think for one minute you can climb and pluck a plum of mine from my plum tree!”
“Nothing was further from my mind,” I lied, “I am not the plum-eating type.”
He shoved the barrel of his shotgun into my belly.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” he said, “Often I find picnickers and other reprobates lurking in my orchard who think the munching of a nice juicy Carlsbad plum is just the fillip they need to wrench them, albeit temporarily, out of their misery and horrors.”
“Don’t you fret about me on that score,” I said, “I am as happy as a lark.”
This ornithological sally was a blatant fib, as my countenance was downcast and gloomy. It served, however, to bamboozle the orchardist. He hoisted the shotgun over his shoulder and mumbled something about the nesting habits of larks.
I thought it best to skedaddle out of the orchard and find somewhere else to slump on that day in that blue month September. As I trudged along the towpath of the old canal, past the cement works and the marmalade factory, I still craved the fillip of a plum to munch. Pausing to sit on a canalside bench placed there in honour of Robert Fripp, I took from the inside pocket of my duffel coat the Gazetteer of Fruiterers which, in those days, I always carried with me. If I could not steal a plum from an orchard, I could buy one from a fruiterer! I was young then, you see, and my brain was in proper working order.
Having ascertained that the nearest fruiterer was a short bus ride away, I made my way to the bus stop and waited for a bus. When the bus arrived, I boarded it. I sat down. The bus conductor took my fare. Peering out of the window at the sky, I became lost in thought about my imminent plum. I could almost taste it. What a fillip it would be!
Shortly afterwards I alighted from the bus at another bus stop and crossed the road to enter the fruiterers’. He was a curiously monkey-like man, though his manners were polished.
“How may I be of assistance to you on this day in that blue month September?” he asked.
“I would like to buy a nice juicy Carlsbad plum, please,” I said.
“I am afraid I sold my last plum, Carlsbad or no, just fifteen minutes ago to a communist German playwright,” he said, “So may I recommend instead a conference pear?”
There would be no fillip for me. Instead, I was being fobbed off with a sop!
Careful study of this passage will reward the reader with a dazzling insight into the fillip and the sop, and this in spite of the fact that Dobson does not tell us whether he accepted the fruiterer’s offer of a conference pear. It was long thought that he addressed this in his pamphlet The Blue September Of Conference Pears (out of print), but recent textual exegesis by hot-headed young Dobsonist Ted Cack demonstrates pretty damn conclusively that the September referred to in that pamphlet was after, not before, the Tet Offensive.
News comes in that the entire western half of the United States has been shut down due to the presence in Los Angeles of a plague-infected squirrel. Something along those lines, anyway. While I do a spot of fact-checking to ensure I haven’t exaggerated the threat, it seems apposite to repost this piece from nine long years ago.
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 Foxe’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 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.
An exceedingly rare snap of august Dobsonist Aloysius Nestingbird trying to locate a particular title among the crammed shelves of the out of print pamphleteer’s teeming archive.
Or possibly the old Cincinnati Library.
I put some sphagnum in a pot.
I boiled it ’til it was hot.
I spooned it out onto a plate.
And then I sat me down to wait.
I waited ’til the moss was cold.
I did precisely as I’d been told
In a book of recipes for sphagnum meals,
Dining Well On Moss And Eels.
Rather, a pamphlet, not a book.
By Dobson, who claimed to be a cook
In the prefatory piece
He’d written to these recipes.
This poem, by F X Urg, is the sole reference in all world literature to Dobson’s semi-mythical recipe book. The titanic pamphleteer of the twentieth century always denied having written it, and not even the most indefatigable of Dobsonists has been able to find any trace of it, in either printed or manuscript form.
It would thus be simple to dismiss the poem as one of F X Urg’s lurid phantasies, were it not that Dobson is on the record as having eaten both sphagnum moss and eels for breakfast on innumerable occasions. In his pamphlet A Tally Of All The Breakfasts I Have Tucked Into Over The Past Sixteen Years (out of print), Dobson regularly mentions sphagnum and eels, sometimes in combination, as in this extract:
15 June 1954. Breakfast today was eels stuffed with boiled and shredded sphagnum, washed down with dandelion and burdock spiked with runny egg.
It is quite plausible, then, that the out of print pamphleteer might at some point have turned his hand to such a recipe book. But if he did, why did he so vehemently deny it? And his denials were certainly vehement. A hot empurpled face, spitting, screeching, and the jabbing of his fists at his interlocutor were common responses whenever Dobson was asked about the existence of the book. Russell Hartyplus, for one, wisely steered clear of the topic when he interviewed Dobson for an episode of his TV series Interviews With Pamphleteers, contenting himself with questions about hot air balloons, moles, and gas giants, the subjects of Dobson’s three most recent pamphlets, all now out of print.
An answer to the puzzle possibly lies in ferreting out further information about the lurid phantasist F X Urg. This could prove problematic, however, as the poem reproduced above is the only known trace of him in all world literature.
One of Dobson’s more ambitious projects was The Complete Anatomy Of Birds, Described In Majestic Sweeping Prose In Several Hefty Volumes. Uncharacteristically, he kept this one under his hat, and did not discuss its progress with his inamorata Marigold Chew over breakfast.
“I am puzzled,” said Marigold one morning, smearing compacted gunk on to a wafer of dough, “Your usual practice is to babble incontinently to me over breakfast about whatever it is you are writing, yet for the past week or so you have either been silent or have spoken of quite other matters. Is everything hunky dory in the Dobson head?”
“’Hunky dory’ does not begin to describe it,” said Dobson, after swallowing, with some difficulty, a mouthful of runny egg ‘n’ cheese-straw bap, “I have embarked upon what may be my greatest achievement, the one I will be remembered for after I am gone. I have not spoken of it to you because I fear you will dissuade me from tackling a work of several hefty volumes, advising me instead to stick with mere pamphlets.”
“Well, you are a pamphleteer, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, dallying with a stray pea on her plate, “But I have every confidence in your ability to write several hefty volumes, so long as you choose a subject you know something about. I might throw up my hands in horror, however, were you to be so delusional as to think you could write sensibly at length on a topic of which you are blitheringly ignorant.”
“Such as?” asked Dobson, who was ever loth to admit that there just might be one or two things in the universe that he knew nothing about.
“Birds,” said Marigold.
As she spoke, there was a thunderclap. Rain lashed against the windows, and the sky grew dark.
“As it happens,” said Dobson, “I am at work on chapter one of book one of The Complete Anatomy Of Birds, Described In Majestic Sweeping Prose In Several Hefty Volumes.”
Marigold Chew threw up her hands in horror, inadvertently upsetting a tumbler of unaerated potato juice.
“God help us,” she said.
“Volume One is entitled The Beak, and my plan is to devote at least four hundred pages to that fascinating topic,” said Dobson.
“May I ask,” said Marigold, “How much you have written thus far?”
“Just a couple of lines,” said Dobson, “I admit it is slow work. But I am kept busy with my research.”
“And those two lines are . . .?” asked Marigold.
“All birds have beaks, I think,” quoted Dobson, “Commonly, they are located on the lower front part of a bird’s head.”
“Would it be fair to say,” continued Marigold Chew, mercilessly, “That you have turned to your research, whatever that might be, because you have exhausted your knowledge of the beaks of birds?”
But answer came there none, for Dobson, pretending to a sudden but delayed terror of the thunderclap, had scurried under the breakfast table, as if he were James Joyce during a thunderstorm in Scheveningen.
Later that day, he abandoned his bird book, and wrote instead that timeless classic among his pamphlets, How I Hid Under A Table During A Thunderstorm And Ruined My Trousers By Kneeling In A Puddle Of Unaerated Potato Juice, And What This Tells Us About The Human Spirit In Extremis (out of print).
In spending the weekend just gone in Amsterdam, I was of course following in the footsteps of the twentieth century’s most illustrious out of print pamphleteer. But whereas I went to the Dutch capital in the cause of art, Dobson’s visit was occasioned by a challenge. Let me tell you all about it.
It so happened that one wet and windy morning in the 1950s the pamphleteer was on his usual trudge along the towpath of the old canal, when a man sprang out at him from behind a splurge of cuckoopint. The man was rotund and diminutive and dressed all in green, with a little green pointy hat. He looked like a figure from a fairy tale, and though his name was not Rumpelstiltskin, it was similar, with the same number of syllables but a slightly different combination of vowels and consonants.
Such was the suddenness of the strange little man’s springing that Dobson was disconcerted, and would have toppled over, sploshing into the canal, had he not had the presence of mind to deploy a Goon Fang technique he had recently mastered. In this exercise of the ancient mystic art, one is able to fix one’s feet to the ground, as if magnetically, for just long enough to avoid topplement. Dobson swayed slightly.
“Drat and heaven’s hounds a-gubbins!” screeched the little fellow dressed in green, “You were meant to topple over into the canal with a splosh that would cause me much mirth!”
“Then you are confounded!”, shouted Dobson.
“What I do,” said the little man, “Is to present those who confound me with a challenge. I challenge you to go to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, a city with a magnificent network of seventeenth century canals, and I further challenge you to walk alongside each and every canal in Amsterdam, from end to end, on both banks, trudging along back and forth, and to complete the task without once toppling into one or other of the canals. Do you accept my challenge?”
“I do,” said Dobson immediately, without thinking. But he was not being unduly impetuous. He realised that a trip to Amsterdam could provide the opportunity for important research,
“It so happens,” he explained, “That I am currently at work on a pamphlet devoted to the study of mariners with an exclusively fish-based diet. I have heard that in the port of Amsterdam, where the sailors all meet, there’s a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails, and he’ll show you his teeth that have rotted too soon, that can haul up the sails, that can swallow the moon. And he yells to the cook, with his arms open wide ‘Hey, bring me more fish, throw it down by my side’ and he wants so to belch, but he’s too full to try, so he stands up and laughs and he zips up his fly, in the port of Amsterdam, in the port of Amsterdam. I would like to meet that sailor, and interrogate him on his diet.”
“I have often wondered,” said the little man dressed all in green, “If the port of Amsterdam is the port to which Emily Dickinson was referring in that magnificently sensual poem ‘Wild Nights!’, where she writes Futile – the winds – To a Heart in port – Done with the Compass – Done with the Chart!”
“Perhaps that is something else I can research while I am there,” said Dobson.
The little man chuckled horribly.
“You will be too busy wringing out your clothing, sopping wet from repeated topplings into one canal after another,” he said.
“We shall see,” said the pamphleteer.
“Meet me again by this splurge of cuckoopint in a week’s time,” said the little man, “While you are in Amsterdam I am going to sit in my Reichian orgone accumulator and recite ‘Wild Nights!’ over and over again. So impassioned is the poem that I hardly dare think to what explosive pitch the orgone energy levels will rise!”
It was Dobson’s turn to laugh.
“Reichian methods would not stop me from toppling into the many canals of the port of Amsterdam,” he said, “But I have mastered the magnetic bootsole technique of Goon Fang, and will practise it with great assiduousness!”
A week later, on a wet and windy morning, Dobson returned to the splurge of cuckoopint on the towpath of the old canal. But of the strange little man dressed all in green there was no sign. It was not until many weeks had passed that the pamphleteer learned, from an article in The Emily Dickinson Orgone Energy Digest (Vol XXI, No. 9) that a lethal concentration of what Wilhelm Reich called DOR, or “deadly orgone”, had caused a massive explosion in the vicinity of the canal, at precisely the time Dobson was in Amsterdam.
Although he never completed his work on mariners with exclusive fish diets, Dobson did write a pamphlet entitled On Not Toppling Into Any Of The Many Canals Of Amsterdam (out of print).
In spite of my mastery of Goon Fang, he wrote, I took the extra precaution of smearing the soles of my Ruritanian Bellringer’s boots with an extremely viscous substance composed of glue and egg yolk and sand and gum and gunk and goo and powerful magnets, retailed under the trade name Gosh! It’s Very Sticky! ®. This proved a boon, for though no funny little men dressed all in green with green pointy hats sprang out at me as I trudged alongside each and every canal in Amsterdam, I was not prepared for the dazzling number of Dutch cyclists whizzing at high speed along those very same paths. I would certainly have toppled into canal after canal after canal had my boots not been riveted to the ground.
I count myself fortunate that I had read a rare copy of this pamphlet before my own weekend in Amsterdam. Had I not, I feel sure I too, surprised by cyclists, would have toppled into many canals, and returned home sopping wet. It just goes to show how valuable it can be to gain a familiarity with Dobson’s more obscure works.
I did not, incidentally, seek out the sailor who eats only fish heads and tails. Perhaps I should have.
One of Dobson’s more preposterous follies was his attempt to rewrite Charles Montagu Doughty’s mad, massive classic Travels In Arabia Deserta (1888).
“What do you mean, ‘rewrite’ it?” asked Marigold Chew, when the out of print pamphleteer announced his plan to his inamorata over breakfast one rainswept March morning.
“I mean,” spluttered Dobson, choking on a mouthful of goosefat toastie, “That I will enter Doughty’s head, as it were, see what he saw, hear what he heard, smell the very same fumes his nostrils smelled, and from those sensual prods I shall weave a spell of words to create a new and improved Travels In Arabia Deserta, no less mad, no less massive, but better, grander, more true.”
*It is an intriguing, if foolish, idea,” said Marigold Chew, “But I wonder if you have thought it through. You will know, from Doughty’s book, if not from other sources, that the desert is a vast and pitiless place of burning heat upon which the sun beats down relentlessly. You, meanwhile, are a man whose hatred of bright sunlight – and hatred is not too strong a word – has often led me to think you have the constitution of a vampire. You are a man who thrives under overcast skies and in drizzle, Dobson, not a sun-worshipper.”
“Two points,” replied Dobson, swallowing a forkful of shredded radish, “First, I have not actually read Doughty’s book. Oh, I have skimmed it here and there, gained a feel for its strange and highly-wrought prose, weighed its mad mass in my hands, but I could not claim to be familiar with every last nook and cranny of the text. Second, I do not intend actually to travel in the burning sands of the hellish sun-bashed desert. If you listened carefully, you will have heard me say that my plan is to enter into Doughty’s head, from the comfort of my escritoire, and to summon forth the new Dobsonized Travels In Arabia Deserta through the majestic powers of imagination alone!”
“And you will enter his head how?” asked Marigold Chew.
“I snipped from a periodical a photograph of the Doughty head,” said Dobson, “And I have affixed it to the wall by my escritoire with a drawing pin. As soon as I am done with breakfast, I shall sit and gaze at the picture, in awed concentration, and as I gaze, slowly but surely the lineaments and integuments of the Doughty brain will become fused with my own brain, and swimming before my eyes shall come wondrous mirages. Mirages, after all, are the stuff of travels in Arabia Deserta, are they not? And then I will take up my propelling pencil and scribble down, in impassioned prose, all I see, all I hear, all I smell, while thus entranced. My plan is sound,” he concluded, “And I shall give birth to a masterpiece!”
Marigold Chew drained her beaker of milk slops and turned her head to look out of the window at the downpour.
It was still raining later in the afternoon when Dobson returned from a trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal. He came crashing through the door, sopping wet, leaving a trail of puddles in his wake. Marigold Chew eyed him carefully.
“Who is this come a-crashing through the door?” she asked, “Is it Dobson or Doughty, or some zany minglement of both Dobson and Doughty?”
By way of reply, the pamphleteer merely grunted.
“You are sopping wet and leaving a trail of puddles in your wake,” said Marigold Chew, “Nobody could look less like they had been travelling in Arabia Deserta. I’ll put the kettle on.”
As she went to the kitchen sink, Marigold Chew saw, in the waste bin, the snipped-out photograph of Charles Montagu Doughty’s head, torn in half and scrunched up, the hole pierced by Dobson’s drawing pin visible in the centre of the Doughty forehead.
“How are you getting on with your visionary rewriting?” asked Marigold Chew that evening, as she and Dobson sprawled on the sofa. From the Dansette on the sideboard came the finger-tapping hoo-cha of Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra.
“I may have to rethink my plan,” said Dobson.
“I gazed and gazed at Doughty’s head for hours,” said the pamphleteer, “But only one mirage, or vision, came swimming into my head. I could neither replace it nor dislodge it. There is not enough material there for a mad and massive book in two volumes, which was what I hoped to be able to wreak from the wild imaginings boiling in my doubled Dobson-Doughty brain. Instead, I shall have to make do with a recipe book. Or rather, a recipe pamphlet, for I have but the one recipe. That was my mirage.”
“Well, people are always on the lookout for an exotic recipe, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Get it scribbled down and I shall have it typeset in the morning on the Gestetner machine in the shed.”
Whole Stuffed Camel
1 whole camel, medium size
1 whole lamb, large size
20 whole chickens, medium size
12 kg rice
2 kg pine nuts
2 kg almonds
1 kg pistachio nuts
110 gallons water
5 lbs black pepper
1. Skin, trim and clean camel, lamb and chicken.
2. Boil until tender.
3. Cook rice until fluffy.
4. Fry nuts until brown and mix with rice.
5. Hard boil eggs and peel.
6. Stuff cooked chickens with hard boiled eggs and rice.
7. Stuff cooked lamb with stuffed chickens.
8. Add more rice.
9. Stuff the camel with the stuffed lamb and add rest of rice.
10. Broil over large charcoal pit until brown.
11. Spread any remaining rice on large tray and place camel on top of rice.
12. Decorate with boiled eggs and nuts.
13. Serves eighty to a hundred famished travellers in Arabia Deserta.
[My thanks to James Beckett for drawing to my attention this splendid – and genuine – recipe.]
On this day in 1961 we find the out of print pamphleteer Dobson on his travels:
Woke up without the faintest clue where I was. It rapidly became apparent that I was zipped up tight in a sleeping bag. When I struggled out of it, I saw I was in a tent. I have absolutely no memory of going camping. In any case, I hate camping. In my experience, one finds that wherever one pitches one’s tent soon becomes a haven for moles. You fall asleep on a flat patch of ground and when you wake up the entire area is riddled with molehills. Usually.
That was not the case today, as I discovered when, emerging through the canvas flaps, I found that the tent had been erected within a hotel room. This was a curious occurrence to be sure, and I ransacked my memory to work out why it might be so. Was I so bent on travel that I had to double the experience, as it were, first booking into a hotel and then pitching a tent within it? It is something I have done only once before, when I was young and foolish. Now I am old and wise, at least by my own reckoning.
I abluted in the en suite bathroom and pranced out into the corridor in search of breakfast. I noticed something decidedly odd about the sausages and the cornflakes, and beckoned a hotel person. Finding myself inexplicably bereft of speech, I pointed at the sausages and the cornflakes and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
The explanation I was given for the oddness of my sausages and cornflakes sent my brain reeling. Not only was my tent in a hotel room, but the hotel was on a space rocket! I was hurtling at unimaginable speed towards a distant planet. And I could not speak because of what the hotel person, who I noticed had special breathing apparatus attached to a tinfoil helmet, called “space muffling”.
I had been planning to take a walk in the grounds of the hotel after breakfast but clearly this was not feasible, so I returned to my room and, once inside, crept back through the flaps into my tent. I set up a portable escritoire, took out my jotting pad and propelling pencil, and set about writing a pamphlet. Space Age Dobson, I decided to entitle it, immodestly.
Shortly after I had scribbled my opening sentence, and was chewing the end of my propelling pencil trying to think up a second sentence, the captain made an announcement over the space tannoy. Due to the wrong sort of particles in the galaxy, we would have to turn back and return to Earth. I scribbled out my title and my opening sentence and continued to chew the end of the propelling pencil, which tasted remarkably similar to both the sausages and the cornflakes.
We bumped back to earth about half an hour later. I disembarked and made my way home by bus. I told my inamorata Marigold Chew all about my excursion.
“You were never much of a traveller, Dobson,” she said, “You always get upset about moles.”
That gave me an idea for a pamphlet, and I repaired immediately to my escritoire, where I wrote in one sitting my pamphlet Are There Any Moles In Outer Space? No, There Are Not!*
* NOTE : Out of print.
And lo! a new year dawns, and bang on schedule reader Mike Jennings provides us with an update on the Dobson canon, listing all those pamphlets which have come to light and been mentioned in dispatches over the past year. As ever, Mr Jennings has applied the obscure yet somehow charming Blötzmann Numbering System for ease of reference. Unless otherwise stated, all pamphlets are out of print.
141. Cyclops With A Broom!
142. A Full Account Of Sawdust Bridge
143. Well, They Both Have Beaks And Feathers, For Christ’s Sake!
144. Hints And Tips For Intrepid Explorers In The Polar Wastes
145. And what should they know of potatoes, who only potatoes know?
146. My Boundless Ornithological Ignorance, Together With A Paean Of Praise To Googie Withers
147. A Description Of And Reverie Upon Forty-Four Curlews
148. My Blithering Ignorance Of Vast Swathes Of Ornithology
149, When It Comes To Ice Hockey, I Have No Idea What I Am Talking About
150. Let Tourists Go To Switzerland And Italy And Drink Goaty Flavoured Goat’s Milk From Improperly Cleaned Mugs And Glasses, And See If I Care!
151. Trudges In Towns
152. It Behoves Me To Write At Some Length On Footnotes, Without Footnotes
153. Lead, Kindly Light, To Bald Men Wearing Specs
154. The Difficulty Of Mastering The Art Of Plinky-Plonky Musical Composition, With A Mezzotint Of Chas ‘n’ Dave
155. Some Unfocussed Thoughts On Birds And Boots
156. Funerary Customs Of Different Types Of Birds, No. 1 : The Seagull
157. Thoughts Upon A Rain-soaked Trudge From Homburg To Homburg
158. A Searing, Coruscating Analysis Of Paul Simon’s Song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, With Particular Attention Paid To 50 Different Techniques Of Suitcase-Packing, Each Illustrated With Instructive Diagrams With Pointy Arrows And Diagonal Lines
159. A Few Tips On Mountain-Moving, With Shovel And Bucket
160. Things To Shove Through A Funnel Into A Jar
Dobson’s diaries contain a huge number of undated entries. Over the past several years, a team of indefatigable researchers has been busy attempting to pinpoint specific dates where possible, in a project funded by an unfathomably secret organisation possibly led by international woman of mystery Primrose Dent. The team’s most recent success was to deduce, from internal textual evidence, that the following was written on the fifth of January 1958:
After a breakfast of kippers, hare-brains and jellied celery, I was all set to spend the day slumped at my escritoire, scribbling, but my inamorata Marigold Chew had other ideas.
“We must go on an outing!” she cried, frighteningly.
When I asked why, she replied that we ought to celebrate, by outing and picnic, the birthdays of Scarlatti, Zebulon Pike, Frederick Converse, Herbert Bayard Swope, Yves Tanguy, Stella Gibbons, Wieland Wagner, Friedrich Durrenmatt, W. D. Snodgrass, Walter Mondale, Umberto Eco, Raisa Gorbachova, Jan Leeming, Diane Keaton, Linda Clare, and Joan Balawejder, while also commemorating the anniversary of the deaths of Edward the Confessor, Catherine de Medici, Karl Alfred von Zittel, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Amy Johnson, Charles Slee, and Mistinguett. When I said that I had no idea who some of these people were, she announced that today was also the anniversary of the Great Fire of Eindhoven, the discovery of X-rays, and the foundation of the Nazi Party.
“So let us pack our picnic hamper and set off on a hike!” she added.
Which is what we did. After the picnic (cows, rain) we stopped in at the Museum of Ack-on-or-near-the-Vug. It was about to close, due to the pomposity of the curator, but we had a few minutes in which to look around. My eye was caught by an exhibit of indescribable gorgeousness. Well, I say indescribable, but the pompous curator made a pretty good fist of describing it on the card placed next to it, which I copied out in my jotting pad with my propelling pencil:
It is 45 cm. in height, has a jewel-encrusted crimplene base, ivory fluting, ruched silk underbelts, hectic trimmings, a delightful milky-green ribbed spandole, villainous scraping marks, a gutta percha rim, opalescent bison-head motifs, swivelling glutinous beads inlaid with serried gems, fleur-de-lys hatching, precise web-and-tuck dufraiment, talc stipples, a riband nightside opening on the velveteen casing, some rather brusque kaolin relief work, tiny cack-iron clips, berry lagging, a splendid gilt Spode handle, and corky frets on the oversling.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Marigold Chew executed a quick sketch in her jotting pad with her propelling pencil, but as we left the museum a jackdaw swooped out of the sky and snatched that page of the jotter in its beak and flew away, away, up into the overcast sky.
The out of print pamphleteer Dobson’s diary, sixty years ago today:
I embarked on my research into sewage farm gnomes by rereading, and rerereading, the article in The Listener about a buff-breasted sandpiper. It was a pity, I thought, that no illustration accompanied the piece. Elsewhere in the same issue, the editor found room for a picture of masks in an article about masks. This exasperated me so much that I threw my new pencil sharpener, bought this morning to replace the one mislaid yesterday, out of the window and into a puddle. Why on earth the window was wide open on a day as inclement as this is a surpassing mystery, or it would be had Marigold Chew not embraced some hare-brained fresh-air fad. I hope she soon diverts her attention to something less chilly and windswept.
Anyway, it seems quite obvious to me that everybody knows what a mask is, and we do not need a photograph to aid our understanding, whereas I doubt there are many persons with the vaguest clue about buff-breasted sandpipers. A picture would have helped. I was going to fire off a stern letter packed with invective to the editor of The Listener, but having chucked my pencil sharpener out of the window, and my pencil being ruinously blunt, and there being no spare pencils to be found anywhere, I was at a loss, and in any case, leafing through The Listener to locate the wholly unnecessary picture of a mask, so I could refer to the page number in my irate letter, I happened upon the piece about a buff-breasted sandpiper again, and paused to reread it for the umpteenth time, and it was then I was struck by a previously overlooked detail.
R S R Fitter begins his piece “I found myself at a large sewage farm…” A large sewage farm. Now, though I know very little about gnomes, I do know that they are small, or reputed to be small. Would small gnomes be likely to farm a large sewage farm? I thought it more likely that gnomes would be found at a small sewage farm, one of a size appropriate to their smallness. Thus even at this early stage I was making progress in my research, for my conclusion seemed inarguable. At a stroke, I had whittled down the number of sewage farms at which gnomes might be found. I resolved to obtain a map and a thick black marker pen with which to expunge all large and medium sized sewage farms, leaving only the smaller ones visible. That should keep me gainfully occupied for a while at least. I have high hopes for the pamphlet which will eventually result!
Another thing I need to do, when I have the means to sharpen my pencil and thus write a letter, is to send a query to R S R Fitter, c/o The Listener. I am intrigued by that phrase “I found myself at…” It is as if Mr Fitter woke from a deep sleep, or perhaps a trance or a coma, and “found himself” at the sewage farm, as opposed to where he might have expected to be, at home for example, or in a familiar snackbar. I want to ask him if this is a regular occurrence, and if there are any other places he has “found himself”, other types of farm, other sewage-related locations, or indeed anywhere else on God’s earth.
The Year of Our Lord MCMLIII has certainly begun with some fascinating lines of inquiry. Who knows what more lies in store?
Decontaminated plovers’ eggs for breakfast.
Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, was an intermittent diarist. At certain periods in his life, he maintained a voluminous, almost demented daily journal. At other times he made only scattered and vestigial scribblings, and there are also whole stretches where he fell completely silent, at least as a diarist. Surprisingly, there has been as yet no attempt to marshal all the extant texts into a published edition. Here, however, is Dobson’s diary entry written sixty years ago to the day, on the first of January 1953:
Cabbage stalks in swans’ blood for breakfast. Then I went for a trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal. Stopped to gaze at cows – the cows gazed back. Spent untold hours slumped at my escritoire struggling with my pamphlet in progress, Farming With Gnomes. The problem is I know little about farming and even less about gnomes. Why, then, asked my inamorata Marigold Chew, did I choose the topic in the first place? She fails to grasp the intricate workings of what I have decided to dub “Dobson Praxis”, a praxis that itself may be the subject of a future pamphlet.
When the time came to sharpen my pencil I could not find the pencil sharpener, so instead I picked up this week’s copy of The Listener and read a fascinating article about a buff-breasted sandpiper. From a careful reading – and rereading – I deduced that this is some sort of bird, though what it is doing hanging around at a sewage works is beyond me. If I had wings and the power of flight I am by no means certain that I would choose to wallow in sewage when I could take wing and fly to, oh I don’t know, somewhere less noisome and noxious.
Actually, I note that the writer calls it a sewage farm rather than a sewage works. Perhaps this is a suitable type of farm for gnomes. I shall have to embark upon further research.
Pig innards and peas for supper.
There was a review in today’s Grauniad of a concert by a popstrel called Emeli Sandé, which included the following observation…
Excuse me a moment while I interrupt myself. A splendid feature of The Listener, which I extolled the other day, was that it did not concern itself with popular culture, or if it did, only very rarely. (I think in its latter days John Peel wrote an occasional column, but that was about as “pop” as it got, i.e., not very far.) The same was of course true of the broadsheet newspapers, until about twenty years ago. They did not deign to notice the existence of pop pap, and would certainly never have sent a reviewer to the 1970s equivalent of an Emeli Sandé concert. Now, I am not Peter Hitchens. I did not stop listening to pop and rock music at the age of 22, and I retain a keen interest in certain corners of popular culture. But I cannot help thinking that it was a more edifying age when coverage of young persons’ music was left to the young persons’ music press, and did not invade every cranny of the media. If, when I was a teenperson, you had told me that the NME‘s Charles Shaar Murray would one day write for the Daily Telegraph, my jaw would have dropped. As, I suspect, would Charles Shaar Murray’s.
Anyway, back to that review. It reports that
Although Sandé’s lyrics can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to her credit, she has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.
Reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if something similar could be said about Dobson, the titanic out of print pamphleteer of the twentieth century. If we swap “Dobson” for “Sandé”, and “pamphlets” for “lyrics”, can we say, with even a hint of accuracy,
Although Dobson’s pamphlets can be refreshingly daft . . . many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to his credit, he has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.
(followed, to be grammatically correct, by) ? Well, can we?
That first phrase is almost unarguable. We might question how “refreshing” the daftness is, but of the daftness itself there can be no doubt. In his definitive categorisation of the pamphlets, the greatest of all Dobsonists, Aloysius Nestingbird, divided the canon into Daft, Valiant, Coruscating, Sensible, Shoddy, Hysterical, Majestic, Ornithological, Searing, and Illegible. “Daft” is by far the largest group, by a long chalk. And even if we wish to cavil with the scholar, we have Dobson’s own judgement. In Things To Shove Through A Funnel Into A Jar (out of print), he wrote, in an aside,
Some say many, if not most, of my pamphlets are daft. They may well be right. Who am I to argue? But just because I do not argue, and indeed largely accept the view, that does not mean it does not cause me untold grief. Only the other day, for example, as I trudged along the towpath of the filthy old canal on my way to the newsagent’s, I recalled that James Cake, in a review of one of my pamphlets, described it as ‘”irredeemably daft”, and my heart burst with misery and I began to sob. So copious were my tears that my vision was occluded. I was so overcome with dejection that I had to sprawl on a canalside bench until the weeping subsided. It was pouring with rain.
This is an interesting passage, in that it plainly shows the pamphleteer crying in the rain. It is not, then, something he has “managed to avoid”. But what about mountains being moved, mountains being climbed, and lovers packing suitcases? Can we find instances of these, dotted here and there, in the collected works? As Barack Obama used to say, so mystifyingly, “Yes we can!” Indeed, we can find so many instances that, extracted from their sources and cobbled together into a separate text, the passages would form a huge fat book rather than a mere pamphlet.
Dobson is forever prattling on about mountains, in spite of the fact that as far as we know he never actually climbed one, nor indeed lived anywhere near one. And he certainly never moved one, though if pamphlets such as A Few Tips On Mountain-Moving, With Shovel And Bucket (out of print) are to be believed, it was something he busied himself with every Thursday afternoon during the 1960s. We must be grateful, again, to Aloysius Nestingbird, who demonstrates conclusively that Dobson was either hallucinating or lying.
As for lovers and their packed suitcases, the pamphleteer does not seem as preoccupied with them as he is with mountains, but one must not overlook his curious pamphlet A Searing, Coruscating Analysis Of Paul Simon’s Song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, With Particular Attention Paid To 50 Different Techniques Of Suitcase-Packing, Each Illustrated With Instructive Diagrams With Pointy Arrows And Diagonal Lines (out of print). The pamphlet is curious in that it is one of the few occasions when Dobson turned his attention to popular culture. The story goes that he was sitting on a canalside bench, weeping – this was a different bench/weeping incident to the one alluded to above – when he was joined by a passer-by, a hairy young man who took pity on the aged pamphleteer and gave him a somewhat grubby napkin with which to wipe away his tears. They fell into conversation, during which the young man babbled excitedly about rock and pop music, of which Dobson knew nothing. He was intrigued, however, and accepted the young man’s gift of a cassette tape containing the Paul Simon song, to which he then listened when he got home.
Diligent research has recently revealed that the young man was present-day Daily Telegraph music writer Charles Shaar Murray. Murray has always denied meeting Dobson, and shudders at the mention of his name. Mind you, the same could be said for lots of people. Do not forget that the pamphleteer was a very “difficult” man.
“I am going to Switzerland,” announced Dobson at breakfast one morning in the 1950s.
“Oh?” asked Marigold Chew, chewing on a sausage.
“For some time now I have been keen to wear a Homburg hat on my head,” said the greatest out of print pamphleteer of the twentieth century, “And I thought there would be no better place to obtain the hat than in Homburg itself, which I have learned is a municipality in the Swiss canton of Thurgau. So that is where I shall go, as soon as I have managed to complete the extremely intricate lacing up of these Guatemalan traffic policeman’s boots.”
“Before you go,” said Marigold Chew, “It might be helpful for you to know that the Homburg hat originated not in the Swiss Homburg of which you speak, but in Bad Homburg vor der Höhe in the Hochtaunuskreis district of Hesse in Germany. King Edward VII came back from a jaunt there sporting the hat, and made it popular.”
But Dobson was so intent on the complicated lacing of his boots that he did not listen to his inamorata, and before she could stop him he had donned his long Tzipi Gulbenkian overcoat and crashed out of the door into the autumnal 1950s downpour.
When, later, much later, he arrived in the Swiss municipality of Homburg, it did not take him long to discover he was in the wrong Homburg. The conversation he had with the proprietor of a Swiss hat shop has not been recorded, but we do know that Dobson blew a gasket and spent several hours in the custody of Homburg law enforcement officers. Released after promising that he would leave the town immediately and never, ever return, Dobson headed for Bad Homburg vor der Höhe. Having only enough cash to buy a hat, he had to walk. It was raining in both Switzerland and Germany at that time, and as he trudged north, for two hundred and forty miles, his temper grew ever fouler.
By the time he arrived at the home of the hat he was exhausted and filthy and sopping wet. He slumped on a municipal bench and scribbled some notes in his jotter, notes which later formed the basis of his magnificent pamphlet Thoughts Upon A Rain-soaked Trudge From Homburg To Homburg (out of print). They were not pretty thoughts. A gaggle of Bad Homburg tots were out on an instructional walk with their governess, and when they stopped to stare at the bedraggled pamphleteer he threw pebbles at them. This led to an altercation with the tots and their governess and several German law enforcement officers, from which Dobson only managed to extricate himself by promising to write a pamphlet in praise of Bad Homburg tots and governesses and law enforcement officers. No trace of such a work has ever been found among his papers, but diligent Dobsonists continue to rummage. Perhaps one day it will be unearthed.
Quenching his thirst with water from a puddle – into which he had earlier inadvertently sploshed up to his ankles – Dobson set off in search of a hat shop. He soon found one, and managed to buy a hat without causing a rumpus. He was, for a few moments, happy.
“I cannot wait to get home!” he said to himself, “Marigold Chew will be resmitten, all over again, when she sees me sporting my Homburg hat on my head!”
The idyll did not last. Barely had the pamphleteer set foot outside the hat shop than he was accosted by a German person wearing some kind of uniform, who jabbed him on the shoulder and shouted.
“Your trouser cuffs are dirty and your shoes are laced up wrong. You’d better take off your Homburg, ‘cos your overcoat is too long.”
“I beg your pardon?” spluttered Dobson. The man repeated himself word for word.
“Now look here,” said the pamphleteer, “First, my trouser cuffs are only dirty because I have walked two hundred and forty miles to get here, and stepped in many a puddle along the way. Second, these are not shoes but boots, specifically Guatemalan traffic policeman’s boots. The lacing of them is an extremely intricate business, and I would challenge anybody to lace them up correctly at the first attempt. Third, this overcoat is not too long. Yes, it is long, for it is of the stylish cut designed by tiptop overcoat designer Tzipi Gulbenkian. Ladies have been known to swoon at the sight of its decisive and urgent swish as I sashay along the boulevards engarbed in it. And no, I will not remove my brand new Homburg hat, nor doff it, to you or to any other man.”
“Then I must place you under immediate arrest,” said his accoster.
“And who might you be, and what agency does that uniform signify?” asked Dobson.
“I am Obergruppengit Von Höhenzollernschweswigstockhausenstimmung of the Bad Homburg vor der Höhe Sartorial Standards Enforcement Police,” he said, “And if you do not come quietly I will thump you several times with unimaginable brutality until you sob for your mama.”
Dobson was not a physical coward, but nor was he a fool.
“What if I take my hat off and put it in a carrier bag until I leave your delightful spa town with its delightful tots and delightful governesses and delightful law enforcement officers?” he whimpered.
“That will be acceptable, said the Obergruppengit.
So Dobson put his Homburg hat in a carrier bag, and the rain poured down upon his bare unhatted bonce. As he did so, the town clock in the Bad Homburg market square stood waiting for the hour, when its hands they both turned backwards, and on meeting they devoured both themselves and also any fool who dared to tell the time. As we have learned, Dobson was not a fool. He trudged, in the rain, out of Bad Homburg vor der Höhe, headed for home. And the sun and moon shattered, and the signposts ceased to sign.