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.


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


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.

On The Blötzmann Manoeuvres

Ever mindful of the need to trim the wicks of his tallow candles, Dobson employed for the purpose a tiny pair of shears which he deployed using the so-called Blötzmann Manoeuvres.

I took against electricity from an early age, he wrote, lying shamelessly, and often found myself in a quandary because untrimmed wicks set my teeth on edge. For a long time I thought the remedy for this was to imbue my teeth with greater strength, foolish young pup that I was. I crunched nuts morning, noon, and night, nuts of many different kinds. I had no favourites in the nut world, although of course the harder the nut, and the greater the effort needed to crunch it into a digestible pap, the hardier my teeth became, and the better they could withstand being set on edge by the appearance of untrimmed wicks on the tallow candles I used to illuminate my habitat.

By his own account, a temporary nut shortage forced Dobson to readdress the problem, but official statistics give the lie to this. Indeed, at the point where the pamphleteer adopted the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, there was a nut glut in the land. According to Pocock & Gabbitas, the squirrel population had been decimated by unexpected lupine savagery, leaving millions of nuts unhidden. If there was no lack of nuts, what made Dobson nail his colours to Blötzmann’s mast? It is significant that at this time, unlike later, Dobson’s colours were cherry and dun, and that a new Blötzmann mast had been erected atop Pilgarlic Hill, not far from the pig farmer’s hut where Dobson had regular sunrise gleanings. The siting of the mast, illegal then as now, was a stroke of genius by the Blötzmannist Erno Von Straubenzee, who had smuggled himself into the country aboard a packet steamer some months earlier.

Intriguingly, no sooner had Von Straubenzee disembarked from the boat, the Googie Withers, than its captain scuppered it, set it ablaze, and promptly vanished. Some say he still haunts the warehouses down at the harbour, rattling an old tin cup and begging for alms from the rough tough sailors thereabouts. Other stories have the one time packet steamer captain retired to the countryside keeping bees, like Sherlock Holmes. All that is known for certain is that a single charred plank dredged from the quayside was all that survived of the Googie Withers, and it was incorporated into a wooden altarpiece in St Bibblybibdib’s church, where it can be seen today, if you buy a ticket from the sexton, a monkey-faced man who sits in a little canvas kiosk in the churchyard each Thursday afternoon, awaiting redemption.

From the lych-gate of St Bibblybibdib’s, looking westward, on a clear day one can see the top of the Blötzmann mast, with its cherry and dun pennants. Turning to the east, the prospect is of fields rippling with wheat and rhubarb and hollyhocks and stinkwort, punctuated by ha-has and the occasional scarecrow. No wild jabbering pigs are to be seen, for they were eradicated by the same unexpected lupine savagery which did for the squirrels during the nut glut, just at the time Dobson falsely claimed a nut shortage led to his adoption of the Blötzmann Manoeuvres as his favoured way of trimming the tallow candle wicks the untrimmedness of which set his teeth on edge so.

But why did Dobson forever deny his association with Erno Von Straubenzee? Decades later, when it was put to the pamphleteer that he and the untidy Blötzmannite had been fast friends, often cooped up together for days on end in the pig farmer’s hut on the hill, scheming and plotting and cackling and letting sawdust trail through their fingers, reading the runes, Dobson blushed as he protested that the name Von Straubenzee meant nothing to him. He came up with improbable tales to account for his whereabouts on certain days when it was suspected the Blötzmann mast had been activated. And he was never able to explain how he had learned to trim his wicks so deftly with the tiny shears essential to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres. The one time he mentions the shears in a pamphlet, he is curiously abrupt.

In Ten Short Essays On Chopping And Cutting And Hacking (out of print), he gives full vent to his thoughts on scissors and scimitars and pastry-cutters, for example, devoting over twenty pages to the latter alone. There is detail here aplenty for the student who wishes to learn from scratch how to cut up bits of pastry in hundreds of different ways. Yet not only is there not a separate essay about the tiny shears, they are only mentioned in a footnote, and in such small type that only the most assiduous of readers is likely to be bothered with it. I freely admit that I have not read it myself, and rely entirely upon the account of the footnote given in the latest issue of Marginalia Dobsonia, the scholarly journal edited by Aloysius Nestingird.

Now here’s the thing. Parish records seem to show that Nestingbird is directly related to Erno Von Straubenzee, may indeed be his grandson. If true, it would explain a lot, although I am not entirely sure what precisely is explained, and Nestingbird has never replied to any of my letters. Last week I fired off a sort of questionnaire to him, demanding what they call full and frank answers to over a dozen accusations. I wanted to know if he had copies of the construction plans for the Blötzmann mast, or for any similar mast, if he ever worshipped at the wooden altar in St Bibblybibdib’s and, if he did, what god he worshipped there, and did he worship standing up, sitting, kneeling, or sprawled prostrate on the cold stone floor. I pumped him for an answer to the important question of whether he knew the name of the captain of the packet steamer Googie Withers, and what had become of that mysterious old sea dog. I threw in a sneaky query about the accounting procedures of his scholarly journal, convinced as I am that the profits are being salted away to fund the salt mines from which far-flung members of the Nestingird clan draw their dubious salaries. I asked all this and more, but of course got nothing in return, not even the threats I have become used to from the badly-dressed buffoon. I know for a fact that it is Nestingbird, or one of his cronies, who has sullied my reputation with the electricity people, and with the gas people too, and that both utilities have cut off supplies to my seaside cabin, and that is why I, like Dobson before me, now rely upon candlelight, and well-trimmed wicks. To date, I have not had to resort to the Blötzmann Manoeuvres, for wicks not neatly trimmed have yet to set my teeth on edge. If they do, with much bluster I shall begin to crunch nuts, and Nestingbird will be laughing on the other side of his pasty face. I will crunch nuts, and cackle, and be righteous and roopty-toot.

[This piece previously appeared on 25 March 2007.]

On Light Pouring Out

Magazine’s 1978 song “The Light Pours Out Of Me” is a splendid example of a lyric in which the singer claims to have light pouring out of him. A couple of others that spring to mind are “See Me Emit A Remarkable Effulgence” by Periodical, and Gazetteer’s “I Bear A Striking Resemblance To A Switched On Incandescent Lightbulb”. Neither of these had the success of Magazine’s foray into the genre, perhaps with good reason.

By any measure, Magazine’s song is both musically and lyrically superior. Those of us who have calculated the Blötzmann units (Second Handbook, Lavender Series) arrive at 14.76 for Magazine, 8.35 for Periodical, and a lamentable 2.06 for Gazetteer. It is important to stress that Blötzmann’s is an exact science, so there is no room for manoeuvre.

In interviews, Periodical’s singer and lyricist Hereward Scrimgeour has always insisted that “See Me Emit A Remarkable Effulgence” paints a far more vivid picture of light pouring out of himself than Howard Devoto’s effort. But the Blötzmann units do not lie, and one listen to the song after all these years serves to remind us why it was roundly ignored. The music is very plinky-plonky. This is not always a bad thing, of course, and some plinky-plonky records have been chart hits, or at the very least acceptable filler as album tracks. That said, plinky-plonkiness is a difficult art to master, as Dobson proved conclusively in his majestic pamphlet The Difficulty Of Mastering The Art Of Plinky-Plonky Musical Composition, With A Mezzotint Of Chas ‘n’ Dave (out of print). Dobson argues that the balance of plinks and plonks is critical, and it is this balance, I think, or the lack of it, that undermines the Periodical piece. At times it is all plinky, at others all plonky, and the plinks and plonks never seem to coalesce into plinky-plonkiness proper.

Challenged on this score in a notorious interview by Russell Harty, Hereward Scrimgeour babbled some bollocks about Ravel, Buxtehude, and Scriabin before bursting into tears, tearing the microphone from his lapel, running out of the studio, and flinging himself into a canal, from which he was rescued by screaming teenagers who had been encamped outside the television studio, mistaking the Periodical front man for Gilbert O’Sullivan, to whom he bore a passing resemblance from a certain angle in a certain light on certain days of the week.

It is not just the flawed plinky-plonkiness of the music, however, but the lyrics too, which fail to match up to Magazine’s song. Fatally, Scrimgeour seems to have taken as his guide that “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” twaddle from The Who’s Tommy. Indeed, when first he caterwauls the words “See me …”, and pauses, we are startled to think we are listening to Roger Daltrey himself. Scrimgeour then tries to jam the words “emit a remarkable effulgence” into the exact same melody as Daltrey’s “feel me, touch me”. Try it yourself and you will appreciate that only a madcap could ever think it would be something teenyboppers would want to hear more than once. With the plinks and plonks accompanying the words, it really is the most godawful racket.

Well, perhaps not the most. That accolade, if accolade it is, must be reserved for Gazetteer’s “I Bear A Striking Resemblance To A Switched On Incandescent Lightbulb”. The title suggests a novelty record, or one of those disarmingly naïve amateurish postpunk ditties which used to amuse us all those years ago. In fact, it is the most godawful racket, and determinedly so, a twenty-minute barrage of improvised din produced by amplified cheese-graters, coathangers, bags of cement, hammers and nails and screwdrivers and funnels and hooters and the Lord knows what else. Accompanying this cacophony, Gazetteer’s singer and lyricist Harold Stalin alternately shrieks, whispers, declaims and mutters a rhyme so foolish it beggars belief. I will not try your patience by reproducing the whole thing, but here is a sample:

I bear a striking resemblance to a switched on incandescent lightbulb, yeah?
My lightbulb-shaped head is entirely bald because this morning I shaved off all my hair.
I might do the whole thing again later.
Take it away, amplified cheese-grater!


Harold Stalin took his amplified cheese-grater with him when he made an appearance on Russell Harty Plus, a week after Hereward Scrimgeour had fled the studio. A more convincing interviewee than the Periodical singer, Stalin charmed Harty with a series of verbal sallies that seemed incongruous coming from the mouth of such an idiotic lyricist. He demonstrated wit, verve, erudition, and a kind of gumption, all in the space of five minutes. Harty was so bowled over he asked if he could have a go with the cheese-grater. Fiddling about with the attached wiring just before passing it to the chatshow host, Harold Stalin got his sockets mixed up and managed to electrocute himself. He survived the accident, but was never quite the same. He certainly lost his wit, verve, erudition and kind of gumption. He disbanded Gazetteer and formed a new group, adopting a new pseudonym, and went on to huge international success followed by lute-playing. As far as I am aware he still goes under the same name, which I think is “String”, or something like that.

There are several other songs in which the singer claims to have light pouring out of him, but they are quite difficult to track down. Dobson wrote a pamphlet about his own, tireless, efforts to do so, to which he gave the title Lead, Kindly Light, To Bald Men Wearing Specs (out of print). If ever you stumble upon a copy in a secondhand pamphlet shop, be very very careful. Marigold Chew devised a special cover which, when opened, reveals a blinding incandescent light not unlike that which shines forth from the mysterious case in Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), starring Ralph Meeker and Cloris Leachman.


On Footnotes

Dobson had an ambivalent attitude towards the footnote. Fond of footnotes as a reader, in his own writing he took pains to avoid them. He gave some indication of his thinking in the pamphlet It Behoves Me To Write At Some Length On Footnotes, Without Footnotes (out of print):

When I am reading a book or a pamphlet or a hysterical tract, I am very fond of footnotes. Indeed I lap them up. I have been known to ignore the main body of a text and read only the footnotes. Yet when it comes to the composition of my own sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose, it is my staunch belief that one should avoid footnotes wherever possible, and embed or incorporate the matter of the footnote into the main text. This can, and indeed usually does, have the effect of interrupting the flow of one’s argument, and risks undermining the majestic sweep of one’s prose. Why, then, do I eschew the footnote?

My guide in these matters was Herr Von Straubenzee, who taught me to write in the old wooden schoolroom long ago. Now it must be admitted that his own pathological loathing of the footnote was born, not of reason nor of a concern for the felicities of style, but of childhood trauma. Herr Von Straubenzee had been orphaned young, and he held a footnote responsible for his parents’ deaths. I could never quite grasp the details, though he often told us the story as he handed around our rations of blotting paper, and Frau Von Straubenzee would enact the grisly episode through the medium of shadow puppetry in the old wooden schoolroom when our lessons were over for the day. As far as I could gather, it was something to do with a footnote appended to a funicular railway timetable in some remote Alpine fastness, and the consequences thereof. Oddly, Herr Von Straubenzee was fixated on the footnote rather than on funicular railways themselves. Indeed, both he and Frau Von Straubenzee were daily passengers on one, as were all we tinies, for the old wooden schoolroom was otherwise inaccessible, perched as it was high up on a mountainside.

But psychological flaw or no, the abomination of footnotes expressed by my pedagogue had a lasting effect. I remember when I made my first faltering steps as a pamphleteer, and sent a draft of A Draft In Preparation For My First Ever Pamphlet (never in print) to Herr Von Straubenzee. I was young and cocky, and included in the draft a provocative footnote. My main text included the phrase “the contents of an ostrich’s stomach”. I plopped a superscript number “1” after this – thus threatening further footnotes! – and added, at the foot of the page,

1. The contents of the stomach of an ostrich which died in London Zoo in 1942 included a lace handkerchief, a buttoned glove, a length of rope, a plain handkerchief (probably a man’s), assorted copper coins, metal tacks, staples and hooks, and a four-inch nail – a step too far, and the cause of death.

Herr Von Straubenzee returned my manuscript unread, partly blotted out, partly burned, and torn into a thousand pieces. He enclosed a note in which he consigned me to the deepest pit of hell for all eternity. He had no power to do so, of course – though I have always suspected Frau Von Straubenzee did – but I felt suitably intimidated and sent a fawning letter of apology, in which I promised never to knowingly write a footnote ever again so long as I should live. This seemed to do the trick, and over the next few years I retained the good graces of my old teacher. He sent me a crate of Carlsbad plums on my birthday. Well, one year he did. The following year he sent me a sausage. After that, not a sausage. And then later of course, he died.

It was after the death of Herr Von Straubenzee that I fell prey to the temptations of the footnote. I no longer need fear his disapproval. Frau Von Straubenzee was still among the living, very much so, but she had always pooh-poohed her husband’s footnoteophobia, so I had no cause for concern from that quarter. I remember the first time I felt impelled to insert a post-Herr Von Straubenzee footnote into one of my pamphlets. Curiously enough, it concerned the pedagogue himself. The pamphlet was Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, 1900-1949 (out of print). I had constructed a particularly fine paragraph on the Von Straubenzees, and felt I ought to disclose that their orphaned child went on to become my teacher in the old wooden schoolroom perched high on a mountainside. I did not see how I could include this gobbet of information in the text without fatally undermining its sweeping majesty. And so, with a heavy heart and the hope that Herr Von Straubenzee would not be rolling in his grave, I made it a footnote.

I may well have gone on to shove footnotes willy nilly into my prose thereafter, had it not been for the reaction it provoked. In those days my pamphlets would occasionally be reviewed in learned journals, and it was one such review, in The Learned Journal Of Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, that stopped me in my tracks. A certain B. Tick wrote:

A new Dobson pamphlet is usually a cause for rejoicing in this neck of the woods. Indeed our small editorial team has been known to crack open a bottle of vitamin-enhanced goaty milk when postie toils up the gravel path bearing the latest outpouring of the titanic pamphleteer. We don’t much care what he writes about, so long as it is suitable reading matter for a funicular railway journey, which, with Dobson, it always is. This time, however, he is trespassing on a subject about which we know not a little. I would go so far as to say we know everything there is to be known. I had hoped to be able to say that he has acquitted himself with aplomb, but alas, he has not. This is a witless and foolish pamphlet, marred particularly by an extraordinarily jarring footnote. Had Dobson inserted the footnoted matter within the main body of his text, I would be singing his praises, and extolling the pamphlet as perhaps the finest of all his works. But if you are going to thrust a footnote upon your reader, you have to know how to wield it. Dobson hasn’t got a clue. He thinks it is enough merely to plop a superscript “1” into his text and then add some blather at the foot of the page. Did he ever listen, when tiny, to the wise words of Herr Von Straubenzee in the old wooden schoolroom perched high on a mountainside and accessible only by funicular railway? He must have had an excess of earwax that prevented him from hearing that great man.

The review went on like this for page after page, and quite frankly, I threw the Learned Journal aside before I finished reading it, and broke down sobbing. When I dried my eyes, I used a matchstick to dig around in my ears to remove the clotted wax that had been accumulating for decades. Then I made a vow never to write another footnote for as long as I should live. This will explain to my readers why so many of my pamphlets consist of little else but subsidiary and incidental matter. Works such as Subsidiary And Incidental Matter Appertaining To Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, 1900-1949 (out of print) are in fact the footnotes I could have written, oh I could have!, but never did.

On Dobson’s Urban Diary

Shortly after his stint on the Country Diary, and his abortive plans for a country dairy, Dobson conceived the idea of writing an Urban Diary. By keeping his observations to town and city, he reasoned, he would have no need to trespass in the countryside and thus run the risk of encountering peasants who, as he put it, “babble gibberish in the guise of rustic wisdom and so befuddle my brain”. Dobson hawked his idea around a few newspaper and periodical editors, but found no takers. Unwilling to abandon the idea, however, he issued what he intended would be the first in a lengthy series of pamphlets. This work, Trudges In Towns (out of print), has recently been hailed as a pioneering work of psychogeography, a judgement which may be based on a misreading of the critic Brent Crude, who suggested that “there is more psychosis than geography on display in this tatty pamphlet”.

The title, with its plural Towns, is somewhat misleading, as so far as we know Dobson never went further than a single town, Pointy Town, in search of material. In fact, unstinting research by hothead young Dobsonist Ted Cack suggests that the pamphleteer barely moved from one spot while working on the text.

This is by no means, writes Cack, the work of a flaneur, nor even of a pedestrian. What I have discovered in the course of my unstinting research is that Dobson barely moved from his escritoire while writing Trudges In Towns. He might have popped into the kitchen to boil some water in a kettle preparatory to pouring it into a teapot into which he had already spooned, from a caddy, a modicum of tea leaves, and he may have remained in the kitchen, staring vacantly out of the window, at crows or cows or trees or whatever it was that was visible outside his window at that time, while he waited for the tea leaves to infuse the hot water, and he would still have been in the kitchen, away from his escritoire when, eventually, he rested a tea-strainer over his cup and poured tea through it from the teapot, into the cup, before adding a dash of milk, poured delicately from a bottle taken from the refrigerator, also located in the kitchen, and, making use of a teaspoon from the cutlery drawer, stirred the decoction so that milk and tea-infused water were throroughly and inextricably intermingled, and he would only return to his escritoire and get some bloody scribbling done when, having placed the cup of tea atop a saucer, he carried it out of the kitchen, before which he would have ensured that the tea-strainer and the teaspoon had been rinsed under the tap and placed for the time being on the draining board anent the sink, there to dry in the warm fug of kitcheny air. But that was about as far away from his escritoire as he got. There is no evidence that he ever trudged the streets of Pointy Town, alert to the sights and sounds and smells of what Keith Pratt, husband of the toyshop assistant Candice-Marie Pratt, famously termed “the hurly burly of the urban conurbation”. I forgot to mention, by the way, that before rinsing the tea-strainer under the tap in the sink, Dobson would have deposited the tea leaves caught in the strainer into a waste bin in the kitchen, one with a flip top lid, a lid raised and lowered by depressing a pedal at the exterior base of the bin with the sole of his foot. Some might accuse me of wittering away with far too much detail about the inconsequentialities of Dobson’s doings, but in my view it is the duty of a biographer to act as a conjuror who makes his subjects “walk and appear that have layen in their graves many hundreds of years”, as John Aubrey put it. And, yes, I am well aware that Dobson has not been dead that long, but I am writing for posterity, even if I am writing a short article for a tatty magazine rather than a big fat biography.

Ted Cack need not justify his methods to me. I am always delighted to read even the most trivial prattle about the twentieth century’s titanic out of print pamphleteer. In fact, I would be spellbound by an account of his making of coffee, or cocoa, or his boiling of potatoes, or his chopping of carrots, or a myriad of other activities, those performed in the kitchen and elsewhere. Each fragmentary glimpse of Dobson contributes to our portrait of the man, in all his Dobsonosity. Quite frankly, I don’t care if all that stuff he wrote in his Urban Diary was mere figment, embroidered from the stuffing of his brain, rather than based on direct observation of whatever was going on in Pointy Town at the time.

But what, precisely, was that stuff? And why did not a single newspaper or periodical editor show the slightest interest in it? After the initial rejections, Dobson thought that by issuing the pamphlet as a kind of sampler, and sending copies to editors, he would have them fighting tooth and claw, bidding ever more ridiculous sums of money, to engage him as a regular urban diarist. In the event, the tatty pamphlets were chucked, unread, into bins, much like the tea leaves from Dobson’s tea strainer. Trudges In Towns was meant to be the first in a series, but no subsequent pamphlets were ever written, and it stands alone and isolated in the Dobson canon.

The problem, I think – and Ted Cack agrees with me – is that the day Dobson chose to write about for his first Urban Diary happened to be a day on which all the countryside persons for miles around descended upon Pointy Town en masse, with their carts and horses and hay and straw and turnips and potatoes and shapeless hats and smocks and muck and slurry and what have you. Even if the pamphleteer had roamed further than his kitchen, in the streets and alleys and mews of Pointy Town he would have met with nobody but peasants, wide-eyed and dribbling and, of course, babbling gibberish in the guise of rustic wisdom and so befuddling Dobson’s brain.

It is his very befuddlement that is expressed in the text, which makes no sense whatsoever, and is largely unreadable. Even young hothead Ted Cack doesn’t understand it, nor even claim to, and that is saying something.

A new edition of Trudges In Towns, in which all the original words are crossed out and replaced by others, from opposite ends of the dictionary, is currently in preparation. Ted Cack is writing an extremely lengthy foreword, in which he promises to examine in detail Dobson’s habitual method of tying his bootlaces in the first week of March 1954.

On Dobson’s Country Dairy

I have a picture postcard of the Old Town of Prague, on the reverse of which there is printed a quotation from “The Dairies Of Franz Kafka”. For many years, in fact until yesterday, I assumed this was a misprint. It was only when I conducted some mopping up research into the whole business of Dobson and his Country Diary that I realised I had misread some of the paperwork. My source material actually referred to Dobson’s Country Dairy. This leads me to wonder if the picture postcard is indeed correct, and Franz Kafka, too, had his own dairy in the Bohemian countryside, over which his biographers have drawn a veil. I will look into this matter in due course, but for the time being, while I still have these masses of Dobsonia strewn around my boudoir, I think it best to winkle out what facts I can about the titanic pamphleteer’s dairy.

Apparently, one windy March morning in the early nineteen-fifties, Dobson made a sudden announcement at breakfast. He and his poppet, Marigold Chew, were in the midst of an experimental breakfast phase at the time, what with postwar rationing, and were tucking into boiled viper-heads on toast. Suddenly, Dobson put down his fork, finished chewing, swallowed, and said:

“God Almighty, I’ve had it up to here with this pamphleteering lark! I am out of print and nobody cares what I have to say about any topic under the sun. I think I shall retire to the countryside and surround myself with goats.”

“Anglo Nubian, Toggenburg, Golden Guernsey, or Bagot?” asked Marigold Chew, raising an eyebrow.

“I beg your pardon?” said Dobson, who had no idea what she was talking about.

“I am wondering which types of goats you intend to surround yourself with,” said Marigold Chew. Then, noting that Dobson’s countenance was expressive of the most profound bafflement, she added, “Those are the names of four breeds of goat. There are others, but I did not wish to overstimulate your brain and have it explode so early in the morn.” It was five-thirty, and the sun had not yet risen.

“In my world, a goat is a goat,” said Dobson, and he left the breakfast table to go rummaging in a pile of old magazines, one of which be brought back triumphantly.

“I knew I had this somewhere,” he said, “It’s The Listener, Vol I, No 16, 1st May 1929, and I kept it because it has a very interesting article by H S Holmes Pegler on goat-keeping. Listen to this. Many people have a prejudice against goat’s milk, thinking it has a peculiarly goaty flavour. This misapprehension has probably arisen from the experience of tourists in Switzerland and Italy where goat’s milk is in common use, and frequently offered in mugs or glasses which have not been properly cleaned.

“And your point is?” asked Marigold Chew.

“My point is,” said Dobson, becoming exasperated, “That if I retire to the countryside and surround myself with goats, I can serve their milk to tourists in properly cleaned mugs or glasses and thus demonstrate that goat’s milk does not have a peculiarly goaty flavour. It’s a guaranteed money-spinner. Tourists will shun Switzerland and Italy with their goaty flavoured goat’s milk and throng to the Dobson Countryside Goat Dairy instead!”

So feverish with excitement was the pamphleteer that, leaving half a slice of toast and a boiled viper-head untouched, he leapt up again from the breakfast table, donned his Panamanian Canal Inspector’s boots, and crashed out of the door into a downpour. He caught the first bus of the new day into the countryside, alighting at a godforsaken spot on a blasted heath. It was desolate and windswept and foul, but in his mind’s eye Dobson saw a gleaming space age dairy with his name emblazoned over the gates, and happy goats frolicking and gambolling, and queues of tourists lining up to purchase properly cleaned mugs or glasses of non-goaty flavoured goat’s milk. The rain had stopped, briefly, and Dobson sat down on a stone and lit a cigarette and pondered his next step. The first thing to do, he decided, was to obtain some goats.

Dobson waited several hours before a countryside person hove into view, toiling across the heath with a pitchfork over his shoulder.

“Hail, peasant!” cried Dobson, “Tell me, where is the nearest goat shop?”

The rustic squinted at him.

“What sort of goats would you be after, sir?” he asked.

“In my world, a goat is a goat,” said Dobson for the second time that day.

“That’s as may be, sir,” said the peasant, pausing to flick bits of muck off the ends of his pitchfork with horny fingernails, “But I’d have to know whether you want Anglo Nubians or Toggenburgs or Golden Guernseys or Bagots before deciding which direction to point you in. But choose your goat, and point you I will, through copse or spinney, past brook or rill.”

“Is that some kind of rustic saying?”

“It is sir, countryside wisdom, hard won, and ancient, and timeless.”

“Look,” said Dobson, “It’s really very simple. I just want to buy a goat. Or several goats. I don’t care what type of goats they are.”

“Beware the man who chooses no goat,” said the peasant, and he brandished his pitchfork with some menace.

“Is that another rustic saying?” snapped Dobson. But it was a rhetorical question, and before the peasant could answer, the pamphleteer turned away and began trudging across the blasted heath as the clouds burst and rain began to fall again. Not for the first time, Dobson felt defeated by the countryside. By the time he reached home, hours and hours later, he had abandoned the idea of running a goat dairy.

“I am going to have another crack at pamphleteering,” he told Marigold Chew, and, still sopping wet, he sat slumped at his escritoire and wrote the opening lines of his pamphlet 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! (out of print).

On Dobson’s Country Diary

I am enormously pleased to see that an enterprising publisher has issued a collection of Dobson’s so-called nature writings. At some point in the early nineteen-fifties the pamphleteer managed to persuade a harassed and overtired newspaper editor to let him loose on the paper’s Country Diary column. The regular correspondent had been incapacitated in a badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong, and Dobson, weirdly alert to such things, immediately presented himself at the newspaper offices. It is the columns he wrote, in his temporary incumbency, which have now been gathered together and published in a handsome volume. Most of this material will be new, even to the most indefatigable Dobsonist.

Albeit he was only a stand-in, it was a daring appointment, perhaps an act of desperation. For all his undoubted talent as a crafter of sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose, Dobson was profoundly ignorant of the natural world. He was perhaps the least-qualified person ever to write a nature column in a national newspaper. Had the editor not been harassed and overtired, he would surely have sent the pamphleteer packing with a flea in his ear. Instead, Dobson was given a desk and a notepad and a pen and some blotting paper and told to knock together a thousand words in time for the next print-run, in a couple of hours’ time.

Have you ever gassed a badger? he began, and followed it with nine hundred and ninety-four words recounting the badger-gassing episode that went spectacularly wrong which led to the incapacitation of the regular Country Diary columnist and explained why he, Dobson, was sitting at his desk and using his pen and notepad and blotting paper. Not that I will need the blotting paper, he wrote, As so surely do I craft my sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose that nary a blot of ink e’er besmirches them. By the time it was typeset and printed, of course, none among his readers could know that, on the contrary, the pamphleteer’s manuscripts were hideous to behold, a mass of scratches and scribbles and nib-stabbings liberally splattered with blots, of ink and sweat and spit and blood.

Did you gas a badger yesterday? he wrote the next day, and the day after his column began Well, have you gassed any badgers yet? At this point a subeditor stepped in and suggested, tentatively, that Dobson might want to broaden the subject matter of his column. There was more to nature, this chap suggested, than the gassing of badgers, a topic of which, after all, the pamphleteer appeared to know next to nothing. Dobson flew into a temper and accused the subeditor of being harassed and overtired, which was undoubtedly true. But after calming down and smoking a few acrid Serbian cigarettes and doodling a map of Pointy Town on a sheet of blotting paper, he relented, and apologised, and promised to extend his range, as he put it, for the next day’s Country Diary.

The beauty of this new collection is that it includes some of the columns Dobson wrote which were spiked and never appeared in the paper. Among them are the next day’s piece, his fourth, and the first not to fixate upon the gassing of badgers.

Over the last few days, he wrote, I have had much to say about the gassing of badgers. Several letters have landed on my desk from readers, suggesting that I have no idea what I am talking about. Be that as it may, it is time to move on to pastures new. There is more, much more, to the natural world than badger-gassing, or so I have been advised. For instance, have you ever gassed a swan?

These and the following nine hundred and twenty-five words were spiked, or rather set fire to, and their space in the paper taken up instead by a mezzotint of a badger by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Dobson was summoned to the editor’s office and told to avoid, if possible, any mention of gas in his future columns. He asked if the interdiction included marsh gas. Marsh gas, declared the editor, after some thought and pencil-chewing, was an acceptable topic, but only after a week or two. First Dobson would have to show that he was capable of writing a wholly gasless Country Diary column. Seething, Dobson agreed.

The pamphleteer was now in something of a pickle. What on earth was he going to write about? Thanks to this invaluable collection, in hard covers, we know the answer to that question. Dobson somehow managed to string together sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose about voles, spinneys, farm implements, tractors, riverbanks, weasels, owls, canal towpaths, orchards, copses, bogs, ditches, rainfall, slurry, pigs, flocks of Stalins, hollyhocks, mud, lupins, nuthatches, wild rampaging boars, ungassed badgers, henbane, hen coops, Vanbrugh chickens, puddles, ponds, linnets, and a legion of other suitably rustic topics. All of them were addressed in his column the next day, Friday.

Before he sloped off home that evening, Dobson was surprised to learn that in the paper’s Saturday edition, the Country Diary was given double the space. Two thousand words?, he asked, incredulous. Quite so, said the harassed and overtired subeditor. Dobson went away fuming. He decided not to head for home after all, but to seek inspiration by spending the night in the open, sprawled in the middle of a field, out in the countryside. Ignorant as he was of country ways, he did not know that the field in which he chose to sprawl was a haunt of badgers, and that at dead of night, farmers bent on badger destruction came stamping through the muck armed with gas canisters.

When dawn broke, Dobson was sprawled, not in an open field, but in a bed in a clinic for gas victims. Incapacitated, and unable to file his copy, he was told the newspaper no longer required his services. The regular Country Diary correspondent had made a full recovery and was back at his desk, or rather, at a desk alongside it, his own desk, which Dobson had commandeered, having been taken away by the janitor to be scrubbed clean of the stains of ink and sweat and spit and blood with which the pamphleteer had besmirched it.

Several months later, Dobson contacted the editor to suggest he write a daily column about gas. The editor dropped his letter into a waste chute.

On The Livers Of Polar Bears

Dobson was no stranger to controversy, but rarely did he create so tumultuous a brouhaha as was caused by his pamphlet Hints And Tips For Intrepid Explorers In The Polar Wastes (out of print). Dobson himself had of course never been anywhere near either the Arctic or the Antarctic, and one of the many puzzles he left behind for the unwary biographer is the question of why he ever thought he was qualified to address the subject. He was only too ready to admit to his ignorance of certain matters, made plain in pamphlets such as My Blithering Ignorance Of Vast Swathes Of Ornithology and When It Comes To Ice Hockey, I Have No Idea What I Am Talking About, both of which are tragically out of print.

Yet he felt able to compile a list of hints and tips for polar exploration, and ensured that Marigold Chew ran off more copies on the Gestetner machine in the potting shed than she did of almost any other pamphlet he ever wrote. Indeed, a number of their breakfasts were ruined during a period in the 1950s when the pamphleteer insisted that his inamorata gobble down her kedgeree in double quick time so she could hurry off to the shed to crank out another dozen copies. Oddly, he does seem to have actually had some success in selling them, though this may have been due to the breathtakingly gorgeous mezzotint of a polar bear, by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint, which was used on the cover. There was a sort of polar bear fad at the time, occasioned by the popular radio serial The Adventures Of Martin The Polar Bear, starring Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert. The historian and cultural commentator Bevis Sebag has suggested, compellingly, that most of the people who bought Dobson’s pamphlet tore off the cover, placed the mezzotint in a frame and hung it on the wall of their parlour, and chucked the pamphlet itself into the bin.

But some people obviously did read it, otherwise there would not have been a tumultuous brouhaha. And a tumultuous brouhaha there was, with knobs on! Several very foolish explorers went off to the Arctic or the Antarctic clutching copies of Dobson’s pamphlet, to the exclusion of any other written guidance whatsoever. It is fair to say that their lives were in his hands. Because his “hints and tips” were almost entirely spurious, idiotic, irrelevant, wrong-headed, fantastical, and outright dangerous, not one of these several fools ever returned alive from the polar wastes. Hence the tumultuous brouhaha, when their grieving relicts and orphans blamed the pamphleteer and tried to have him prosecuted in a court of law.

There were a few weeks during which Dobson had to face noisy marches and demonstrations, a temporary encampment of earnest young persons in tents outside his house, and some unkind newspaper headlines, including OUT OF PRINT PAMPHLETEER SENT EXPLORERS TO CERTAIN DEATH, BEREAVED TOT SHAMES PAMPHLETEER WITH HEART-RENDING MESSAGE SCRIBBLED WITH CRAYONS ON PLACARD, and ANTARCTIC WIDOWS’ ICE CUBE PROTEST SCUPPERED BY UNEXPECTEDLY BALMY WEATHER SPELL. (Note for younger readers : newspapers in those days were printed on much bigger sheets of paper, and had more words than pictures.) But eventually all the fuss died down, as it usually does. The marches and demonstrations were broken up by charging police horses, the futility of their tentage gradually dawned on the young persons, and the newspapers moved on to other stories, such as VICE PRESIDENT NIXON ATTACKED BY ANGRY MOB IN VENEZUELA and LISTENERS REACT WITH FURY AS ‘THE ADVENTURES OF MARTIN THE POLAR BEAR’ IS CANCELLED BY OUT OF TOUCH RADIO BOSSES – COURTNEIDGE ‘LIVID’ SAY PALS.

Throughout the tumultuous brouhaha, Dobson himself remained silent. Partly, or indeed wholly, this may have been because his position was indefensible. This was a pamphleteer, remember, whose sole advice, on the subject of unimaginably harsh gale-swept subzero temperatures in the frozen hell of the polar wastes was “Best pack a woolly”.

In a new monograph, the reputed Dobson scholar and polar explorer Loopy Pangloss has been through the pamphlet with a fine toothed comb. In her foreword, she admits that it is inconceivable to her that such a titanic figure as Dobson could have written a pamphlet entirely devoid of sense. Her task, she says, is to winnow from it something, anything, that could in some way restore the pamphleteer’s reputation among the polar exploration community. Triumphantly, she alights upon Tip Number 12, reproduced here in full:

You might, in the unimaginably harsh gale-swept subzero temperatures in the frozen hell of the polar wastes, become peckish. If so, wrap up warm and plod out into the ice and snow until you see a polar bear. These are big fierce creatures, but using skill, judgement, and weaponry, you should be able to kill one. That done, drag the slaughtered polar bear back to your nice warm hut. Using an axe, chop it to pieces, each piece being no bigger than a baby’s clenched fist. Sort the chunks out by type, i.e., fur, bone, sinew, fat, flesh, innards, what have you. Select the chunks that look toothsome, and place them in a large pot. Fill the pot with water, and bring to the boil. Place a lid on the pot and let it simmer for hours. Top up the water from time to time. While it is cooking, feed the unselected less toothsome chunks of polar bear, raw, to the huskies. Anything they leave can be put into a blender and liquidised. Heat this in a pan until it is the consistency of mayonnaise. Transfer the decisively-boiled polar bear chunks from the pot to a plate, pour over the liquid from the pan as a sauce, and tuck in.

Important note : however toothsome it appears, on no account should you eat the polar bear’s liver. It is highly toxic, containing a terrifyingly high concentration of retinol, the form of vitamin A found in members of the animal kingdom. If eaten in one meal, 30 to 90 grams of polar bear liver is enough to kill a human being, or to make even sled dogs very ill. Believe you me, you will not want to come down with a case of acute hypervitaminosis A. The symptoms include drowsiness, sluggishness, irritability, severe headache, bone pain, blurred vision, vomiting, peeling skin, flaking around the mouth, full-body skin loss, liver damage, haemorrhage, coma and death.

As Ms Pangloss points out, this is true. “For all its faults,” she concludes, “Dobson’s Hints And Tips For Intrepid Explorers In The Polar Wastes (out of print) is not wholly worthless. We should give him credit for that.”

So we do.

polar bear

A polar bear : do not eat its liver