The Beak

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).

Amsterdam

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.

Travels In Arabia Deserta

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.

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*

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.

“Oh?”

“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

Ingredients
1 whole camel, medium size
1 whole lamb, large size
20 whole chickens, medium size
60 eggs
12 kg rice
2 kg pine nuts
2 kg almonds
1 kg pistachio nuts
110 gallons water
5 lbs black pepper
salt

Method
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.]

Dobson’s Diary 17.1.61

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.

160 Pamphlets (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.

Mr Jennings’ previous listings can be found at these links: numbers 1 to 104, 105 to 128, 129 to 139, and, all by itself, number 140.

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 Diary 5.1.58

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.

Dobson’s Diary 2.1.53

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.

masks

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’s Diary 1.1.53

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.

sandpiper1sandpiper2

On Mountains And Suitcases

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.

On Homburg

“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.

On The Catalogue Of Ships

That unparalleled pamphleteer of the twentieth century, Dobson, was never shy about bruiting abroad his talent.

“It has occurred to me,” he said one morning, over breakfast, to his inamorata, “That I am probably the greatest writer since Homer. No, strike that ‘probably’. Really, there is no question about it.”

Marigold Chew dallied with a sausage skewered on her fork, and said, “That may be so, Dobson, but where in your accumulated pamphleteering work is there a passage to match the catalogue of ships given by Homer in Book Two of the Iliad?”

“What catalogue of ships would that be?” asked Dobson, who had never actually read Homer.

Marigold Chew leaned over to the bookcase, took from it a copy of the Iliad in the translation by Samuel Butler, and tossed it over to Dobson.

“Read and learn,” she said, “Read and learn.”

After breakfast, Dobson did so.

I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together, he read, Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians. These were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis, and who held Schoenus, Scolus, and the highlands of Eteonus, with Thespeia, Graia, and the fair city of Mycalessus. They also held Harma, Eilesium, and Erythrae; and they had Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon; Ocalea and the strong fortress of Medeon; Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe the haunt of doves; Coronea, and the pastures of Haliartus; Plataea and Glisas; the fortress of Thebes the less; holy Onchestus with its famous grove of Neptune; Arne rich in vineyards; Midea, sacred Nisa, and Anthedon upon the sea. From these there came fifty ships, and in each there were a hundred and twenty young men of the Boeotians.

Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Mars, led the people that dwelt in Aspledon and Orchomenus the realm of Minyas. Astyoche a noble maiden bore them in the house of Actor son of Azeus; for she had gone with Mars secretly into an upper chamber, and he had lain with her. With these there came thirty ships.

The Phoceans were led by Schedius and Epistrophus, sons of mighty Iphitus the son of Naubolus. These were they that held Cyparissus, rocky Pytho, holy Crisa, Daulis, and Panopeus; they also that dwelt in Anemorea and Hyampolis, and about the waters of the river Cephissus, and Lilaea by the springs of the Cephissus; with their chieftains came forty ships, and they marshalled the forces of the Phoceans, which were stationed next to the Boeotians, on their left.

Ajax, the fleet son of Oileus, commanded the Locrians. He was not so great, nor nearly so great, as Ajax the son of Telamon. He was a little man, and his breastplate was made of linen, but in use of the spear he excelled all the Hellenes and the Achaeans. These dwelt in Cynus, Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe, fair Augeae, Tarphe, and Thronium about the river Boagrius. With him there came forty ships of the Locrians who dwell beyond Euboea.

On and on it went, captain after captain, ship after ship, until Dobson calculated he had tallied up almost fifty captains and over a thousand ships. Then he returned the book to its place, pulled on his Bavarian Otter Hunter’s boots, and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I intend to take the bus to the ill-starred fishing village of O’Houlihan’s Wharf,” said Dobson, “Where I shall sit on the jetty armed with propelling pencil and paper, making notes.”

“Righty-ho,” said Marigold Chew, “What time can I expect you back?”

“When I have tallied up over fifty captains and at least one and a half thousand ships,” said Dobson, and he stamped out into the rain, slamming the door behind him.

Later, sitting on the jetty at O’Houlihan’s Wharf armed with propelling pencil and paper, the pamphleteer gazed upon the sloshing estuary. He had been here all day, and thus far had a tally of three captains, one of whom he suspected was a pantry boy in disguise, four fishing smacks, a tugboat, and a couple of rowing boats. It was still raining, and he caught the bus home in a foul temper.

“How did you get on?” asked Marigold Chew brightly.

“Don’t ask,” growled Dobson, “I am repairing to my escritoire and will join you later, when I have written up my catalogue of ships.”

I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together, he wrote, as spotted from the jetty in the ill-starred fishing village of O’Houlihan’s Wharf on a wet Wednesday in October. First let it be said that I do not know how long Homer sat in some similar seaside spot counting captains and ships. But my own experience leads me to distrust his tally, and I think he was probably cheating, making things up, inventing captains and ships out of whole cloth. Well, two can play at that game.

I counted fifty-five captains, Bristow, Snippy, Vile, Glinka, Dipdap, Penge, Crowbar, Hoistermann, Buckle, Snedbury, Frowst, Pang, Gleet, Owlhead, the further names to be added later.

And I counted two thousand ships, including fishing smacks and tugboats and rowing boats, and I will list all their names after I have had a bite to eat.

This will become known as Dobson’s Catalogue Of Ships, and with the passage of time, several centuries’ worth, nobody will dare to doubt its veracity. Long after Homer is forgotten, and his captains and ships all blotted out, the name of Dobson will resound down the ages. Wherever two or three nautically-enthusiastic persons are gathered together, and feel impelled to recite lengthy lists of captains and ships, it is my catalogue they will turn to, and read aloud, declaiming the mighty names in mighty voices! But first, on this wet Wednesday evening, I shall partake of soup and sausages, and a cup of tea.

On A Colossus

It has been said that Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, bestrode the 20th century like a colossus. This claim was first made by Dobson himself, when still a young man. At the age of twenty, he published a pamphlet resoundingly titled Why I Shall Bestride This Century Like A Colossus. It is a curious work, out of print of course, a thin tract with a picture of a whooper swan on the cover. It begins thus:

I shall bestride this century like a colossus. My name will ring out like a clarion. In years to come, whenever two or three are gathered together to discuss pamphleteers, there will be but one name on their lips: Dobson!

Such self-belief, in so callow a youth, is touching. Looking back, in his dotage, Dobson found it touching too, and he took to sitting with his one remaining copy of the pamphlet clutched to his chest, sobbing uncontrollably for hours on end. When Marigold Chew found him thus, she flung open the windows, whatever the weather, and stamped around the room singing loud, tuneless sea shanties, ones that involved pirates, cutlasses, bilgewater, tattered sailcloth, salt, seaweed, hard tack biscuits, foghorns, sirens, rigging, anchors, and shipwreck. Invariably, Dobson’s self-pitying lassitude would be broken, and he would hurl the curiously pristine pamphlet towards the fireplace, wipe away his tears, don his Bolivian military boots and his Stalinist cardigan, and crash out of the house to go on one of his jaunts.

Dobson’s jaunts, in the latter part of his life, usually took him to the nearest pig sty, but there was one occasion when he headed off in a different direction. He walked so far that day that he came upon a shining city on a hill, a city where all the streets had two names, one both illegible and unpronounceable, and the other devised by Yoko Ono as part of an art project to promote world peace. Postal delivery persons in that city were required by law to learn all the double street names by heart, or to face summary dismissal if they failed. Often, those who did fail – and there were many – would flounce around on the outskirts of the city warning travellers away. It was a paltry sort of revenge, and seldom succeeded, for the delights of that shining city on a hill attracted wayfarers from near and far, daily, in their thousands. It is a wonder that Dobson had never been there before this particular Tuesday.

A dismissed postal delivery person stopped the out of print pamphleteer as he was about to cross a pontoon bridge that would take him in to the most boisterous quarter of the city.

“Go no further, old man,” said this vengeful figure, whose yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath. His hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence. “This city you approach is no place for out of print pamphleteers.”

Ever sensitive to warnings from spooks and wraiths, Dobson turned around and went home. He found Marigold Chew in the back garden, drilling holes in an enormous sheet of corrugated cardboard.

“I was warned away from a shining city on a hill,” he said, “Is it a city you have visited?”

Marigold Chew stopped drilling, reset the safety catch, and removed her protective goggles.

“You are a foolish old man in your dotage, Dobson,” she said, though there was kindness in her voice, “And it is well you were warned away, for that city you think you saw is illusory. Some say the hill it sits atop is hollow, and harbours within it heaven, and some say hell. Either way, I am pleased to see you home. Let us clear the nettles from the vegetable patch.”

That was what happened on that Tuesday towards the end of the 20th century. Did Dobson indeed bestride it as a colossus? He was not the only person to think so, but the names of the others escape me for the time being. When I remember them, I will tell you.

*

That piece, which first appeared almost exactly five years ago today, has been chosen as a set text for the entrance examinations to Bodger’s Spinney Infant School. Here are some sample questions likely to be faced by the tiny candidates:

1. Imagine you are the dismissed postal delivery person who encounters Dobson by the pontoon bridge. Would you have handled the situation in the same way? Think about what you would have said to the out of print pamphleteer, then translate it into Latin.

2. Do you think Yoko Ono’s unnecessary double-naming of the streets in the shining city on the hill would make a significant contribution to world peace? Give reasons for your answer in terse, cogent prose, then translate that into Latin too.

3. Give a brief account of the career of David Blunkett, with special reference to his second resignation speech and tearful use of the phrase “the little lad”. Or was that the first resignation speech?

4. If you could bestride a century like a colossus, which century would you choose so to bestride, and why? Extra marks will be awarded if you turn pale, gnaw the end of your pencil in desperation, and crumple to the floor, twitching and shattered.

On Bird Funerals

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The BBC reports that birds hold funerals for their dead.

When western scrub jays encounter a dead bird, they call out to one another and stop foraging. The jays then often fly down to the dead body and gather around it, scientists have discovered . . .

The revelation comes from a study by Teresa Iglesias and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, US. They conducted experiments, placing a series of objects into residential back yards and observing how western scrub jays in the area reacted. The objects included different coloured pieces of wood, dead jays, as well as mounted, stuffed jays and great horned owls, simulating the presence of live jays and predators . . .

The jays reacted indifferently to the wooden objects. But when they spied a dead bird, they started making alarm calls, warning others long distances away. The jays then gathered around the dead body, forming large cacophonous aggregations. The calls they made, known as “zeeps”, “scolds” and “zeep-scolds”, encouraged new jays to attend to the dead.

The jays also stopped foraging for food, a change in behaviour that lasted for over a day . . . The fact that the jays didn’t react to the wooden objects shows that it is not the novelty of a dead bird appearing that triggers the reaction.

This may be news to the BBC, and to Teresa Iglesias and her colleagues, but it would have come as no surprise to Dobson, who considered himself an expert on such matters. The twentieth century’s titanic pamphleteer planned to devote a series of pamphlets to the funerary customs of different types of birds, although only one was ever published. This was Funerary Customs Of Different Types Of Birds, No. 1 : The Seagull (out of print). Here is an extract:

I happened to be present on the occasion when Lord Northcliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail, wantonly beat a seagull to death with his stick. My first impulse was to rush along the promenade towards him and remonstrate, and to snatch the gull-bloodied stick from his grasp and give him a taste of his own medicine. But I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw next. As the press baron stalked off, no doubt dreaming of fascism, there gathered about the corpse of the seagull several boffins in white coats, who deposited around it an array of stuffed or wooden seagulls and owls. They then withdrew, as swiftly as they had appeared, and hid behind a seaside ice cream kiosk. From this vantage point, they watched carefully, taking out notebooks and pencils and scanners and scopes and meters and gauges and similar scientific impedimenta.

Within seconds, dozens of seagulls came swooping down and hovered over their dead pal. The air was loud with the cacophany of their cries. They remained thus for some time, until a municipal seaside dustbin person came along with a shovel and a sack, scooped the bird with the one into the other, and took it away to the nearest bird cemetery. I made to follow him, but in order to do so I had to cross the road, and I did so in Baden-Powell fashion, looking neither to right nor left, not out of blank foolishness but because it is the British way. I thus got it in the back from a passing motor car, and spent the next several weeks in a seaside clinic. I never did visit the grave of the seagull.

As so often with Dobson, it is not quite clear whether this is a true account of events or the babbling of a nutcase. He may well have made the whole thing up for his own private amusement, or to chuckle over with his inamorata Marigold Chew. Equally likely, he may have actually believed it to be true, not realising it was merely a dream. At certain periods in his life Dobson had immense difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality, never more so than when birdlife was concerned. In a hiatus of – comparative – lucidity, the pamphleteer wrote:

I can never quite convince myself that birds are real, that they actually exist. Whether it be a western scrub jay or a seagull or a stalin or a linnet, or any of the teeming multitude of birds, they seem to me ethereal creatures from the world of dreams. Now, unlike many people, I have never experienced dreams of flight. Rather, my dreaming self summons forth wagtails and nuthatches and swifts and pratincoles, and others of the teeming multitude of birds, sometimes one at a time, sometimes massed in breathtaking flocks. I see the flapping of their wings and I hear their songs. Or do I? Are they not, rather, hallucinatory phantasmagoria, flying images etched upon my brain representing what I would be were I not bound to this too too solid earth by my great clumping feet shod in a pair of Austrian postal inspector’s boots?

That passage is taken from Dobson’s pamphlet Some Unfocussed Thoughts On Birds And Boots (out of print). Unfortunately for the ornithologically crazed, that is all he has to say about birds on this occasion, the following forty-seven closely-printed pages being taken up with a virtually unreadable disquisition upon the Austrian postal inspector’s boots, which may themselves have been “hallucinatory phantasmagoria”, if we are to believe the evidence so diligently collected by Ted Cack in his forthcoming monograph on Dobson’s footwear.

As both the BBC and Teresa Iglesias and her colleagues know very well, birds do exist, in at least three distinct forms, (1) real, (2) stuffed, and (3) wooden. It would be interesting to know what Dobson would have made of that.

On Mephitic Vapours

Dobson had this to say about mephitic vapours:

I can date my fanatical interest in mephitic vapours quite precisely. There was an autumn during my childhood when my parents took to sending me, at the first hint of daylight, on a morning errand to fetch eggs from a distant farm. There had been a falling out with the nearby eggman, for reasons unclear to me. I was sent out of the room on the last occasion he called, and heard muffled, undecipherable shouting, some thumps, and the slamming of the door. The next day I was roused at dawn and told to put on my wellington boots and head off across the fields, following a hand-drawn map pressed into my hands by papa. The map showed our hovel and a dotted line, with compass points, a few notable features such as a badger sanctuary and a Blötzmann mast, and at the end of the dotted line an egg, representing the distant farm. I would have had to be a peculiarly dimwitted child not to be able to make my way there and back by mid-afternoon.

But what papa omitted from the map, deliberately or otherwise, was Loathsome Marsh. This I had to splash through, in my wellingtons, twice a day until, months later, there was a rapprochement with the eggman. In spite of its loathsomeness, I grew to love Loathsome Marsh. I was particularly fond of the mephitic vapours which hung over it, morning and afternoon, a shroud of evil mist in which I fancied sprites and goblins cavorting and cutting capers. The noxious pong did not bother me, for I soon learned to plug my nostrils with cotton wool.

Years later, I had the pleasure of meeting a mephitic vapour scientist who was making a special study of Loathsome Marsh. One day he took me back to his laboratory, where I spent a happy afternoon poring over his baffling array of instruments and equipment while he explained his project to me. He too, it seemed, was convinced that the mephitic vapours of Loathsome Marsh served to half-conceal various sprites and goblins. He was, he said, trying to “isolate” them. He would go down to the marsh at daybreak, as I had done all those years ago, and scan the mephitic vapours with a mephitic vapour scanner of his own design. He then captured a sample of the mephitic vapours in a glass holder, its vent plugged with a simple cork from a wine bottle, and brought it back to the laboratory for analysis. Thus far, he admitted, he had no conclusive results to report, but I could tell from the mad gleam in his eyes that the mephitic vapours of Loathsome Marsh had quite unhinged him, and that his life thereafter would be devoted to them.

I have not been able to trace the out of print pamphlet from which this passage is taken. It appears in an anthology entitled The Bumper Book Of Mephitic Vapours For Boys And Girls, the editrix of which, one Prudence Foxglove, provides no sources for any of the four hundred and thirty-seven texts she cobbled together. There is a distinct possibility that she may have written the whole thing herself and attributed the separate pieces to writers both real and invented. I cannot be bothered to check on the others, but alongside Dobson we have passages on mephitic vapours purportedly by Rudyard Kipling, Ford Madox Ford, Dorothy Parker, and Anthony Burgess. Certain other pieces are credited to unknown authors who are probably figments of Prudence Foxglove’s imagination, such as Tex Beard, Gladiolus Frugmentor, and Jeanette Winterson.

Maddeningly, however, the passage I have quoted above certainly reads like Dobson. I had it analysed by an expert in textual authentication methods at the University of Ick-on-the-Ack, who gave it a rating of 93% on his own scale. He did not explain the scale to me, but there was something very persuasive about the expression on his large flat florid face when he reported his findings. Against that, he ran off at inhuman speed as soon as I handed over the cash payment he demanded.

So the jury is still out. One avenue we might prance along is to attempt to identify the mephitic vapour scientist Dobson (or Prudence Foxglove) mentions. If we can find a trace of him elsewhere in the pamphleteer’s work, this would I think settle the matter. Fortunately, hothead young Dobsonist Ted Cack has embarked upon precisely this approach, so I don’t have to. From his current location in a sink of vice and debauchery somewhere in the hinterland of Tantarabim, Ted Cack writes:

Ahoy there Key! Let me tell you what I have on my desk right now. To my right, a pile of Dobson pamphlets, both originals and illegal photocopies. To my left, the sixteen volumes of the New Standard Biographical Dictionary Of Mephitic Vapour Scientists, Revised Edition. And do you know what I am doing? When I am not canoodling with floozies and glugging vast quantities of 90% Proof Bestial Intoxicant and cheating at all-night games of Spite, I have been diligently cross-referencing the two piles. Sooner or later I am going to be able to match up a name from the Dictionary with a person mentioned in a pamphlet. Then my fame among Dobsonists will be as glorious and eternal as the star on Raymond Roussel’s forehead. The rest of you may as well pack your bags and slink off to wherever pathetic failed Dobsonists slink off to – splashing about helplessly in Loathsome Marsh, most likely. Toodle pip!

If Ted Cack does succeed in his research, I might well go slinking off as he suggests. But in order to do so, I would have to know the location of Loathsome Marsh, and that, too, is a mystery.

On An Atoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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