Pillow Pamphlets

I have a terrible memory. I sometimes wonder if my inability to remember things might have something to do with the ruinous debauches of my Wilderness Years, but I suspect my forgetfulness preceded them, and that my memory was never much cop in the first place. I barely recall much of what I have written and posted here over the years. This morning, casting about in my puny brain for a topic, I thought “Aha! I know! I will write about Dobson discovering the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and deciding to write a Pillow Book of his own!”

I got as far as writing an opening line about Dobson and Marigold Chew sitting at breakfast one fabulously dreary morning in the early 1950s when a faint ping! within my bonce halted me. “I’ve already done this, haven’t I?” I said, to a nearby sock, for want of any other interlocutor. The sock did not reply, but a quick search confirmed that, yes, six years ago I wrote about this very thing. Maybe you lot had forgotten about it too. Here it is again:

Capacious and pulsating it may have been, but Dobson’s brain contained many, many pockets of ignorance. He was in his mid fifties, for example, when he first came upon the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a work of which he had no previous inkling. He did not read it, merely noting the title on the spine of a copy lodged on the bookshelf of his friend Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp, the Sino-Dutch artist and mountaineer.

Back at home later that day, he mentioned it to Marigold Chew.

Did you know that an eleventh century Japanese bint wrote an entire book about pillows?” he asked.

Yes, Dobson, of course,” said Marigold Chew, “I have borrowed it from the mobile library more than once, and read it from cover to cover.”

Speaking of the mobile library,” said Dobson, and he embarked on a long-winded and pettifogging digression upon the mobile library, which in that place at that time took the form of a cart pulled by an elegant yet tubercular drayhorse, the cart piled high with hardbacks covered in greaseproof paper jackets, the drayhorse chivvied on its way by an equally elegant and equally tubercular librarian-carter, a man of grim countenance and terrible personal habits who bore a distinct resemblance to the actor Karl Johnson, noted for his roles as elderly peasant Twister Turrill in Lark Rise To Candleford and as Wittgenstein in Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. In fact, it may even have been Johnson himself, moonlighting as a mobile librarian to supplement his thespian earnings. Dobson posited this possibility, but doubted it was true, as we, too, must doubt it until all the evidence is in.

So implacable was the pamphleteer’s babbling that Marigold Chew was unable to get a word in edgeways, and was thus given no opportunity to point out to Dobson that the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, like all pillow books, was not actually a book about pillows, but a collection of lists and aphorisms and observations and jottings and poems and opinions and anecdotes. Had he ceased prattling for but a moment, Dobson would have learned this, and not, when eventually he exhausted the topic of the mobile library and the greaseproof paper jackets and the drayhorse and the librarian-carter and the actor and the fictional peasant and the non-fictional philosopher, gone scurrying off to his escritoire to sit and scribble the following:

I have learned that a thousand years ago, a woman from the land of Yoko Ono wrote an entire book about pillows. Such is human progress that in the intervening millennium there must be much, much more to be said on the subject. Clearly I am the pamphleteer to take on this daunting task. I shall set to work on the Pillow Book of Dobson as soon as I have taken a nap. NB: The nap will of course be research for my Pillow Book, as I shall be resting my head upon a pillow while I nap, and present my findings as soon as I wake up.

As far as we know, the promised “findings” were never written down. So refreshed was Dobson by his nap that, upon waking, he immediately put on his Iberian duck hunter’s boots, grabbed an Alpenstock in his fist, and set out for a jaunty hike that took him past the electricity pylons and the abandoned swimming pool and the badger rescue station and the allotments. All the while he hiked, he concentrated his mind on pillows – a thousand years of pillows! His brain reeled as he struggled to comprehend the sheer amount of material he would have to marshal in the making of his Pillow Book. What advances mankind must have made in the field of pillows since the eleventh century! How many heads had rested on how many pillows in that time? How many dreams dreamt during pillow-assisted dozes and naps and even comas? Pausing for a breather outside the bolted and shuttered off licence, Dobson suddenly felt intimidated by the scale of the task before him. He watched the skies for swifts and sparrows and starlings and other birds beginning with S. He rattled the bolts on the off licence door. He chucked his Alpenstock into a ditch. And then he turned for home, resolved to write, not a Pillow Book, but a whole series of Pillow Pamphlets, each to tackle a single, manageable subsection of his vast unwieldy subject matter.

Marigold!” he announced, bustling through the door, “I have had a brainwave with regard to my working methods on the pillow project!”

I did not know you had embarked upon a pillow project, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “And what have you done with the Alpenstock?”

Oh, I chucked it into a ditch,” said Dobson, “I shall go and retrieve it later. But first I must write out the plan for my Pillow Pamphlets, updating a thousand years of pillow history since Sei Shōnagon wrote her book about pillows long long ago in far Japan!”

But so exhausted was the pamphleteer by his hiking and his brain activity that before sitting at his escritoire he took another nap. He thus set a pattern for what was to follow. Every time he determined to set to work on the Pillow Pamphlets, he convinced himself that further practical pillow research was necessary, and lay his head upon a pillow, and fell asleep.

The project was eventually abandoned when the pamphleteer’s attention was distracted by cataclysmic world events, and he turned his energies to writing his famous pamphlet On The Inadvisability Of Taking Daytime Naps During The Unfolding Of Cataclysmic World Events (out of print).

Fear Of Squirrels

The piece I am babbling on the soundtrack of the Creekside Artists film is Fear Of Squirrels, which first appeared here on Thursday 2nd September 2004. Here it is again:

Dobson was afraid of squirrels. Here’s why. It was a damp and ruinous Thursday and he had not had any breakfast. He slapped his hand on the table and shouted “I must have marmalade! I must have some marmalade!” There was nobody to hear his complaint except for an ant which was making its way across the floor of his hovel, and the ant didn’t care, being an insect. Dobson had not even noticed the ant, in any case. He leapt out of his chair, put on his big reindeer-hide anorak brought back from one of his Arctic expeditions, and trudged outside, muttering now instead of shouting.

Have I ever told you there were several important trees on the path outside Dobson’s door? There was a sycamore and a yew, a larch and a pine. Dobson was fond of trees, usually, although he was unable to tell the difference between them. Gone were the days when he would festoon his hair with fallen leaves and twigs, inviting ridicule from the local whippersnappers. Dobson in the days of which I write had adopted a sober mien, indeed a gloomy one.

Dobson, Dobson, don’t look so dismayed,” his acquaintances would say, to which the out of print pamphleteer’s response was to look heavenward, as if in great pain, adopting the air of an early Christian martyr, one lined up for some particularly bloodthirsty persecution. Dobson often skimmed through the pages of Fox’s Book of Martyrs to pick up tips. But I digress.

On this damp marmaladeless morning, Dobson walked past the sycamore, the yew, the larch and the pine, onward past a repulsive ditch, past the post office and the pig huts and the vipers’ nest and the glue factory, up the lane towards the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill. The wind howled. It always did. Back in the hovel, the ant had vanished into a crevice in the wainscot, just as Dobson arrived at the gates of the Building. These gates were enormous and forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary, for there was a wooden door set in the base and brickish wall which skirted the building, and it was only a few feet away to the left of the gates, or to the right, I cannot remember precisely, I have never been there myself, I am only reporting this as it was told to me by Marigold Chew on the day after Dobson’s death, after she had had her bath, and was sipping tea from an inelegant tin mug in the shabby parlour of a horrible hotel hard by the banks of the River Wretched in Sibodnedwabshire.

Dobson knew all about the wooden door, so why did he tarry by the strange rusty gates? Was he confused, was his mind a jumble due to lack of marmalade? Or did he have a tryst? We do not know. We do know that Dobson stood at those gates on that damp Thursday, peering intently through them, for a full quarter of an hour before turning around and heading off to Old Jack Blothead’s Foodstuffs Tent, where he bought a jar of marmalade and some pastry and a pot of some kind of edible paste which Old Jack Blothead had left unlabelled. The year was 1952. Dobson and the vendor of foodstuffs had their usual argument about the pamphleteer’s promissory note, a page torn from his notebook on which he had scrawled words to the effect that sooner or later he would do right by Old Jack Blothead, and if he did not then may the heavens smite him and may all his days be leavened with woe. It was advantageous for Dobson that Blothead was a man of great charity and puny intellect, and after a few minutes he left the tent through its great grimy flaps, armed with his jar and pot and a paper bag for the pastry. They would not fit in the single pocket of his anorak, so he carried them in his ungloved, unmittened hands.

What pangs led Dobson back to the strange enormous rusty gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill? There was a fallen log, a log fallen from a trembling poplar, slap bang next to the gates, and Dobson sat on it and ate the pastry, and he stayed sitting there despite the fact that it began to rain heavily. He didn’t even bother to pull up the hood of his anorak, although that may be because it was rife with holes made by starving moths and his head would have got wet anyway. Wet, but surely not as wet as it did get, as he sat on the poplar log in the downpour eating pastry with his pot of paste and marmalade jar beside him outside the forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill on that Thursday morning in 1952 when he first became terrified of squirrels.

Why,” I asked Marigold Chew as she sipped her tea in the shabby hotel parlour, “Why did Dobson become so fearful of squirrels on that particular day?” She glanced at me briefly, and I was disconcerted by the weird look in her eyes. “Those bushy tails….” she began, then fell silent, turning to stare out of the window. I followed her gaze, and saw the gravedigger walking across the lawn, toting his spade jauntily over his shoulder. “Those bushy, bushy tails…” Marigold Chew repeated. She drank the rest of her tea, put the mug down on the floor by her feet, and stood up. “I must go and have a few words with the gravedigger,” she said, and swept out of the room as breezily as a bereaved woman on crutches can sweep breezily from a hotel parlour on the day after the death of her one true friend on this magnificent and baffling planet.

Pirouette And Volte Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate cold mush!” he declaimed.

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

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

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

Seething Dobson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dobson was splatting.

seething

Dobson, Preoccupied

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

Dobson did not reply, for he was preoccupied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soup Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dobson’s Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

x-click-butcc-donate

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

Sirinuntananon & Bewg

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

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

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To whom am I shouting?” shouted Dobson.

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

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

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

“See?” said the hobbledehoy.

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

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

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

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

Savagery In Splat

So, what was meant to happen at the latter end of last week was that Roland Clare and I would present our double act on literary nonsense to the sixth-formers of Truro School. (A riveting account of an earlier appearance at Bristol Grammar School can be found here.) A scheduling mixup hoo-hah meant, however, that instead of descending upon the not-so-tinies in tandem, Roland and I did our bits separately, on successive days. Improvising brilliantly. Mr Clare inserted into his presentation an old Hooting Yard On The Air recording, so my disembodied voice provided a foretaste of what had of necessity become the next day’s entertainment. The piece he chose was, appropriately, devoted to the subject of an unsuccessful educational initiative in Cornwall. It first appeared in Hooting Yard on 30 March 2006. Here it is again:

Dear Mr Key, writes Octavia Funnel, I am sure I read somewhere that Dobson’s companion and amanuensis, Marigold Chew, was a feral child, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron or Kaspar Hauser*. Is this true?

I think I can help Ms Funnel out here. She is clearly unfamiliar with Dobson’s rare and out of print pamphlet Ten Things Guaranteed To Drive Marigold Chew Crackers, an amusing bagatelle which he wrote for Marigold’s birthday one year. It is worth quoting at length:

victor hauser

Left, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Right, Kaspar Hauser

There can be no doubt about number one on the list of things that drive Marigold Chew crackers. Countless are the times I have witnessed her seething with fury when she is mistaken for Mary Goldchew, the so-called Savage Infant of Splat.

Splat is a tiny, stricken village in Cornwall, and it was here, on a muggy summer’s day in 19–, that a peasant pushing his barrow of countryside filth along a lane was astonished to encounter a small child roaring and spitting and growling and scrabbling in the muck. Its gender was indeterminate, but its savagery was unquestionable.

The peasant, sad to say, had the morals of the gutter and a heart as foul as a swamp, and he decided then and there to sell the child to a travelling circus or a zoo. Plucking the child from its ditch, he shoved her on to his barrow and trundled off towards a larger town where mountebanks were known to gather. But the child, bestial being that she was, sank her teeth into the peasant’s wrist and attacked him in a whirling frenzy of bloodlust. She was gnawing the hair off his head when a kindly doctor arrived on the scene. He patted her on the head and announced, “There, there, little one, be not afraid. I am a kindly doctor fascinated by Natural Philosophy, and I shall take you to my comfortable house and see if, over a period of months, or years, I can instil in you the civilised qualities that were your birthright but have been stolen from you by no doubt tragic circumstances. What is your name?”

The child howled.

“Ah,” said the kindly doctor, “You are inarticulate. That noise you made sounded to me like a combination of a wolf and a bear, with perhaps a touch of corncrake. I deduce that you have been raised since you were a baby by wolves and bears and corncrakes, and mayhap by bees and hornets too. Still, you must have a name, child, so I shall call you Mary.”

Doctor Goldchew took the child by the hand and led her to his house, which stood all alone in a field outside Splat. There, he dunked her in a disinfectant bath, dressed her in girly clothes, and embarked on a comprehensive pedagogical regime. Over the following weeks, he attempted to teach her metaphysics, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic, Latin, Greek, bread baking, botany, chemistry, religious instruction, conspiracy theory, merchant banking, astronomy, philology, and the rudiments of table tennis, or ping pong. During this time reporters from the Splat Courier & Bugle camped out on his doorstep, filing a series of woefully inaccurate stories about the girl they called the Savage Infant of Splat. Her fame spread throughout Europe, and Doctor Goldchew received visits from some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Kapisko, Blunkett, and Woobie. It was the latter who persuaded the kindly doctor to have the girl baptised by being fully submerged in the sea off the coast of Cornwall, during which baptism she nearly drowned.

She entered the booming ocean a savage infant, biting and squealing and howling, wrote the doctor, and she emerged as Mary Goldchew, a pious Christian child.

This is a selective account, of course. The doctor makes no mention of the drenched and spluttering tot who was fished out of the water by a passing trawler. Nor does he admit that the “pious Christian child” remained incorrigibly savage for the rest of her long, long life. In spite of the doctor’s lessons – to which he soon added physics, geology, alchemy, polevaulting, palaentology, entomology, knitting, forensic medicine, vexillology, Dianetics and pottery – the Savage Infant of Splat became a Savage Adolescent and in turn a Savage Adult. She celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday by creeping into Doctor Goldchew’s bedroom as he slept and smothering him with a pillow.

Thereafter she spent her days crashing around like a wild maniac as the once comfortable Splat house fell into ruin about her. When she died, craggy and ancient, decades later, she had learned nothing – nothing except to speak two words, the same two words that were the full extent of the Wild Boy of Aveyron’s vocabulary: God and milk.

*NOTA BENE : Specialists in the field would dub Kaspar Hauser a “confined” rather than “feral” child.

Dobson’s Abortive Bandicoot Pamphlet

“Remind me, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew one morning over breakfast, “Did you ever write that pamphlet you planned about the bandicoot?”

The out of print pamphleteer was fumbling with his fork, trying to spear on its tines one of the shrivelled boiled otter-heads swimming in a broth of gummy pap, with dockweed, in his breakfast bowl. So terrific was his concentration that he barely heard his inamorata, and she repeated the question after taking a swig of New! Breakfast Variety Squelcho! from her tumbler.

Dobson threw in the towel, put down his fork, and reached for a stick of celery-style impacted vegetable matter. Waving it in a show of flamboyance, he announced “I will never write another word about birds!”

This exchange took place during the closing stages of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, so with hindsight we are able to note that Dobson’s statement was ludicrously inaccurate.

“I do adore your non sequiturs, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “But do tell, I am agog to know about the bandicoot pamphlet.”

His mouth full of curiously tasteless vegetable matter, Dobson gazed at his inamorata as if she had taken leave of her senses. His table manners being impeccable, he did not attempt an immediate reply. Marigold waited upon his munching. She herself was a dab hand with the fork and the otter-heads and had finished her breakfast some minutes ago.

“Your remark regarding non sequiturs seems to me a non sequitur in and of itself,” said Dobson, eventually, then, his voice rising, shouted “Be that as it may, when I say I shall never again write a single word on the subject of birds, I mean it! And now I am going to go out in the rain to no apparent purpose.”

“I can think of a purpose, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “While you are out in this apocalyptic downpour perhaps you could stop by the kiosk in the shadow of the viaduct and pick up a copy of The Daily Digest Of The Doings Of Small To Medium-Sized Terrestrial Marsupial Omnivores for me?”

As he struggled to don his Eritrean Unofficial Goat Wizard’s boots, with their exceedingly complicated lacing protocol, the pamphleteer said “You don’t normally take that publication. Is there any reason for the sudden interest?”

“I think there might be something in it that I want to show you, Dobson,” she said, an enigmatic smile on her lips.

Stamping his feet to finally lodge them firmly into his boots, Dobson took his hat and coat and crashed out of the door into the rain. He wondered why on earth Marigold thought he might be interested in small to medium-sized terrestrial marsupial omnivores, when his head was filled with unrelated matters, including Hungarian football ace Ferenc Puskas, plinky-plonky piano music, weird sausages, asteroid belts, and plums.

“And one thing I am most definitely not interested in,” he shouted at a swan as he passed the pond, “Is birds, any birds, all birds, and that includes you, swan!, and your pals the teal and mergansers and buffleheads and coots and bandicoots!”

Later, sopping wet, Dobson arrived home with a copy of The Daily Digest Of The Doings Of Small To Medium-Sized Terrestrial Marsupial Omnivores which the kioskist had very thoughtfully plopped into a waterproof bag for him, at a small extra charge.

“Here is your magazine,” he said, tossing it on to the table as a puddle formed around his feet.

Marigold Chew took it from the bag, leafed through it, and alighted on a short and interesting article, illustrated with several black and white snapshots taken by tiptop marsupial snapper Rex Supial, on the subject of the bandicoot.

“When you have a moment, Dobson,” she said, “You might want to take a look at this. I shall make a pot of tea.”

And shortly afterwards, the out of print pamphleteer learned, to his horror, that everything he had intended to say about bandicoots in his projected pamphlet, hundreds of pages of scribbled notes and jottings and ill-turned sentences of foolish conjecture, was as dust, was as dust and ashes. All of it, every word, was arrant nonsense! The bandicoot was not a type of coot! It was not even a type of bird!

Dobson slumped in his chair and held his head in his hands. The cup of tea went cold.

Tenth Anniversary (III)

Between now and Christmas, we are celebrating ten years of the Hooting Yard website by reposting an item from each calendar year. Today, The Bilgewater Elegies, a thrilling episode from the annals of Dobson, which first appeared on Tuesday 26 July 2005.

Like the Arctic tern, which is neither from the Arctic, nor a tern, Dobson’s famous Bilgewater Elegies are emphatically not elegies about bilgewater. I’m sorry, I have begun that all wrong. The Arctic tern is from the Arctic, and it is a tern. I was thinking of some other bird of misleading nomenclature, or perhaps not a bird, but an animal, at any rate, which is not what its name indicates. I will try to remember what it was I was thinking of. The central point remains true, however, that the Bilgewater Elegies are not elegies and not about bilgewater, except in passing.

Dobson wrote these magnificent pieces in a wintry month or two while living in a far distant land whence he had gone to escape having to pay his gas bill. Keen students of Dobson’s life know that gas in many forms seems to take on a quite bewildering importance. In one biography, for example, there are three times as many index entries for “gas” as there are for “pamphlets”. Marsh gas, in particular, permeates much of Dobson’s middle years, almost as if it were what he was breathing instead of oxygen. Perhaps it was.

The out-of-print pamphleteer had a deep and abiding reluctance to pay for gas, and often considered living somewhere powered entirely by electricity, or by the wind or the sun, or indeed existing without being dependent upon any source of energy whatsoever. But, as Marigold Chew has noted, rail as Dobson might, he was drawn inexorably to the blue, blue flames of burning gas, a man mesmerised.

I was thinking about guinea pigs, of course, which are not from Guinea and are not pigs. Why I confused them with birds, particularly Arctic terns, is beyond me.

That winter season, then, determined to outwit those who provided him with gas, Dobson decamped to that far distant country, mountainous and cold, remote yet populous, a land of which he knew nothing except the design of its flag. On arrival he discovered that even this minimal knowledge was redundant, as there had been a revolution. The old flag had been ditched, and a new one – pink, black, green – flew from flagpoles wherever he looked. Between the seaport and the chalet where he was to live for two months, Dobson counted at least seven hundred flags.

In the chalet, Dobson closed the traditional butcher’s drapes and placed his canister of calor gas in a cubby hole. Gnawing on a nut, for he was forever nut-gnawing, he considered his surroundings. It was a small chalet, with no hidden chambers, false walls, or concreted-over ancient wells. Dobson was perplexed at the absurd number of metal coat-hangers in the master wardrobe, and the equally numerous drawing-pins in the drawer atop the cubby hole. The cubby hole itself was just the right size for his canister. He was looking forward to burning the portable gas as the evening drew in, but it was still morning, so he curbed his impatience by exploring the outcrop on which the chalet perched. Knowing nothing of geology, and caring less, this took Dobson about five minutes, or about the time it took him to gnaw one of his brazil nuts to nothing. Later in life, of course, Dobson wrote a number of pamphlets on geological topics, as an exercise. Curiously, he never wrote about brazil nuts.

Temporarily out of reach of his gas-creditors, Dobson decided to spend his first afternoon in the chalet on the outcrop in that faraway flag-mad land writing. But he was by turns listless and restless, and irritated that his new domain failed to inspire him. By four o’ clock, having scratched a mere dozen words in his notepad, then torn out the page and set fire to it, he went for a walk. Turning his back on the outcrop, he headed downhill, towards the nearest village, through which his taxi had taken him that morning. He had paid it no attention, for his eyes had been shut, as they often were in taxis. Dobson used such rides for reverie rather than observation.

Marigold Chew once put her hand to a story about Dobson’s walk that day. It was called The Village That Lacked Basic Sanitation, and she refused ever to allow it to be published. All we know for certain is that Dobson returned to the chalet that evening astride a massive, ungainly horse, of chestnut complexion, called Tim. He seems to have been convinced that mice were scurrying uncontrollably about the chalet, and that they would be frightened away by the sight of a big horse. In truth, there were no mice. Dobson had fallen victim to delusional visions because of the high altitude. Nevertheless, the presence of Tim, snorting and stamping his hooves, becalmed the pamphleteer, and the next morning he dragged a wooden table and chair outside the front of the chalet and sat down to compose the Bilgewater Elegies.

Here is a list of buckets of bilgewater I have seen, he wrote, the famous opening words of what was to be his own favourite among his countless pamphlets. He spent whole days in the crisp open air, scribbling away, occasionally filling Tim’s nosebag with horse-food. In the evenings he sat in the chalet staring at the blue glow of burning calor gas. His nights were untroubled by nightmares. Every few days a panting cadet from the insanitary village would deliver a metal tapping machine message from Marigold Chew, keeping Dobson abreast of events at home.

Dobson wrote the final words of the Elegies on a bright day in October. On the same day, there was a counterrevolution in that cold distant country. The pink and black and green flags were torn down and stamped into the muck, swiftly replaced by red and blue and yellow flags. The panting cadet delivered Marigold’s latest message, his cap askew and bloodstains on his sleeves. The look in his eyes told Dobson it was time to flee. He made the cadet promise to look after Tim the massive horse, packed up his things, and headed off for the seaport on foot. The gas canister was empty, and his work was done.

Don’t forget that you can make a donation to the Hooting Yard Fund For Distressed Out Of Print Pamphleteers. Doris X. of Cuxhaven says: “I made a donation and doing so warmed the cockles of my heart!”

Plague-Infected Squirrel Of Doom

News comes in that the entire western half of the United States has been shut down due to the presence in Los Angeles of a plague-infected squirrel. Something along those lines, anyway. While I do a spot of fact-checking to ensure I haven’t exaggerated the threat, it seems apposite to repost this piece from nine long years ago.

Dobson was afraid of squirrels. Here’s why. It was a damp and ruinous Thursday and he had not had any breakfast. He slapped his hand on the table and shouted “I must have marmalade! I must have some marmalade!” There was nobody to hear his complaint except for an ant which was making its way across the floor of his hovel, and the ant didn’t care, being an insect. Dobson had not even noticed the ant, in any case. He leapt out of his chair, put on his big reindeer-hide anorak brought back from one of his Arctic expeditions, and trudged outside, muttering now instead of shouting.

Have I ever told you there were several important trees on the path outside Dobson’s door? There was a sycamore and a yew, a larch and a pine. Dobson was fond of trees, usually, although he was unable to tell the difference between them. Gone were the days when he would festoon his hair with fallen leaves and twigs, inviting ridicule from the local whippersnappers. Dobson in the days of which I write had adopted a sober mien, indeed a gloomy one.

“Dobson, Dobson, don’t look so dismayed,” his acquaintances would say, to which the out of print pamphleteer’s response was to look heavenward, as if in great pain, adopting the air of an early Christian martyr, one lined up for some particularly bloodthirsty persecution. Dobson often skimmed through the pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to pick up tips. But I digress.

On this damp marmaladeless morning, Dobson walked past the sycamore, the yew, the larch and the pine, onward past a repulsive ditch, past the post office and the pig huts and the vipers’ nest and the glue factory, up the lane towards the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill. The wind howled. It always did. Back in the hovel, the ant had vanished into a crevice in the wainscot, just as Dobson arrived at the gates of the Building. These gates were enormous and forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary, for there was a wooden door set in the base and brickish wall which skirted the building, and it was only a few feet away to the left of the gates, or to the right, I cannot remember precisely, I have never been there myself, I am only reporting this as it was told to me by Marigold Chew on the day after Dobson’s death, after she had had her bath, and was sipping tea from an inelegant tin mug in the shabby parlour of a horrible hotel hard by the banks of the River Wretched in Sibodnedwabshire.

Dobson knew all about the wooden door, so why did he tarry by the strange rusty gates? Was he confused, was his mind a jumble due to lack of marmalade? Or did he have a tryst? We do not know. We do know that Dobson stood at those gates on that damp Thursday, peering intently through them, for a full quarter of an hour before turning around and heading off to Old Jack Blothead’s Foodstuffs Tent, where he bought a jar of marmalade and some pastry and a pot of some kind of edible paste which Old Jack Blothead had left unlabelled. The year was 1952. Dobson and the vendor of foodstuffs had their usual argument about the pamphleteer’s promissory note, a page torn from his notebook on which he had scrawled words to the effect that sooner or later he would do right by Old Jack Blothead, and if he did not then may the heavens smite him and may all his days be leavened with woe. It was advantageous for Dobson that Blothead was a man of great charity and puny intellect, and after a few minutes he left the tent through its great grimy flaps, armed with his jar and pot and a paper bag for the pastry. They would not fit in the single pocket of his anorak, so he carried them in his ungloved, unmittened hands.

What pangs led Dobson back to the strange enormous rusty gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill? There was a fallen log, a log fallen from a trembling poplar, slap bang next to the gates, and Dobson sat on it and ate the pastry, and he stayed sitting there despite the fact that it began to rain heavily. He didn’t even bother to pull up the hood of his anorak, although that may be because it was rife with holes made by starving moths and his head would have got wet anyway. Wet, but surely not as wet as it did get, as he sat on the poplar log in the downpour eating pastry with his pot of paste and marmalade jar beside him outside the forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill on that Thursday morning in 1952 when he first became terrified of squirrels.

“Why,” I asked Marigold Chew as she sipped her tea in the shabby hotel parlour, “Why did Dobson become so fearful of squirrels on that particular day?” She glanced at me briefly, and I was disconcerted by the weird look in her eyes. “Those bushy tails….” she began, then fell silent, turning to stare out of the window. I followed her gaze, and saw the gravedigger walking across the lawn, toting his spade jauntily over his shoulder. “Those bushy, bushy tails…” Marigold Chew repeated. She drank the rest of her tea, put the mug down on the floor by her feet, and stood up. “I must go and have a few words with the gravedigger,” she said, and swept out of the room as breezily as a bereaved woman on crutches can sweep breezily from a hotel parlour on the day after the death of her one true friend on this magnificent and baffling planet.

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).

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.

S0005728

*

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.