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.



It was still raining later in the afternoon when Dobson returned from a trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal. He came crashing through the door, sopping wet, leaving a trail of puddles in his wake. Marigold Chew eyed him carefully.

“Who is this come a-crashing through the door?” she asked, “Is it Dobson or Doughty, or some zany minglement of both Dobson and Doughty?”

By way of reply, the pamphleteer merely grunted.

“You are sopping wet and leaving a trail of puddles in your wake,” said Marigold Chew, “Nobody could look less like they had been travelling in Arabia Deserta. I’ll put the kettle on.”

As she went to the kitchen sink, Marigold Chew saw, in the waste bin, the snipped-out photograph of Charles Montagu Doughty’s head, torn in half and scrunched up, the hole pierced by Dobson’s drawing pin visible in the centre of the Doughty forehead.


“How are you getting on with your visionary rewriting?” asked Marigold Chew that evening, as she and Dobson sprawled on the sofa. From the Dansette on the sideboard came the finger-tapping hoo-cha of Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra.

“I may have to rethink my plan,” said Dobson.


“I gazed and gazed at Doughty’s head for hours,” said the pamphleteer, “But only one mirage, or vision, came swimming into my head. I could neither replace it nor dislodge it. There is not enough material there for a mad and massive book in two volumes, which was what I hoped to be able to wreak from the wild imaginings boiling in my doubled Dobson-Doughty brain. Instead, I shall have to make do with a recipe book. Or rather, a recipe pamphlet, for I have but the one recipe. That was my mirage.”

“Well, people are always on the lookout for an exotic recipe, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Get it scribbled down and I shall have it typeset in the morning on the Gestetner machine in the shed.”


Whole Stuffed Camel

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

1. Skin, trim and clean camel, lamb and chicken.
2. Boil until tender.
3. Cook rice until fluffy.
4. Fry nuts until brown and mix with rice.
5. Hard boil eggs and peel.
6. Stuff cooked chickens with hard boiled eggs and rice.
7. Stuff cooked lamb with stuffed chickens.
8. Add more rice.
9. Stuff the camel with the stuffed lamb and add rest of rice.
10. Broil over large charcoal pit until brown.
11. Spread any remaining rice on large tray and place camel on top of rice.
12. Decorate with boiled eggs and nuts.
13. Serves eighty to a hundred famished travellers in Arabia Deserta.

[My thanks to James Beckett for drawing to my attention this splendid – and genuine – recipe.]

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.

Dobson’s Diary 5.1.58

Dobson’s diaries contain a huge number of undated entries. Over the past several years, a team of indefatigable researchers has been busy attempting to pinpoint specific dates where possible, in a project funded by an unfathomably secret organisation possibly led by international woman of mystery Primrose Dent. The team’s most recent success was to deduce, from internal textual evidence, that the following was written on the fifth of January 1958:

After a breakfast of kippers, hare-brains and jellied celery, I was all set to spend the day slumped at my escritoire, scribbling, but my inamorata Marigold Chew had other ideas.

“We must go on an outing!” she cried, frighteningly.

When I asked why, she replied that we ought to celebrate, by outing and picnic, the birthdays of Scarlatti, Zebulon Pike, Frederick Converse, Herbert Bayard Swope, Yves Tanguy, Stella Gibbons, Wieland Wagner, Friedrich Durrenmatt, W. D. Snodgrass, Walter Mondale, Umberto Eco, Raisa Gorbachova, Jan Leeming, Diane Keaton, Linda Clare, and Joan Balawejder, while also commemorating the anniversary of the deaths of Edward the Confessor, Catherine de Medici, Karl Alfred von Zittel, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Amy Johnson, Charles Slee, and Mistinguett. When I said that I had no idea who some of these people were, she announced that today was also the anniversary of the Great Fire of Eindhoven, the discovery of X-rays, and the foundation of the Nazi Party.

“So let us pack our picnic hamper and set off on a hike!” she added.

Which is what we did. After the picnic (cows, rain) we stopped in at the Museum of Ack-on-or-near-the-Vug. It was about to close, due to the pomposity of the curator, but we had a few minutes in which to look around. My eye was caught by an exhibit of indescribable gorgeousness. Well, I say indescribable, but the pompous curator made a pretty good fist of describing it on the card placed next to it, which I copied out in my jotting pad with my propelling pencil:

It is 45 cm. in height, has a jewel-encrusted crimplene base, ivory fluting, ruched silk underbelts, hectic trimmings, a delightful milky-green ribbed spandole, villainous scraping marks, a gutta percha rim, opalescent bison-head motifs, swivelling glutinous beads inlaid with serried gems, fleur-de-lys hatching, precise web-and-tuck dufraiment, talc stipples, a riband nightside opening on the velveteen casing, some rather brusque kaolin relief work, tiny cack-iron clips, berry lagging, a splendid gilt Spode handle, and corky frets on the oversling.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Marigold Chew executed a quick sketch in her jotting pad with her propelling pencil, but as we left the museum a jackdaw swooped out of the sky and snatched that page of the jotter in its beak and flew away, away, up into the overcast sky.

Dobson’s Diary 2.1.53

The out of print pamphleteer Dobson’s diary, sixty years ago today:

I embarked on my research into sewage farm gnomes by rereading, and rerereading, the article in The Listener about a buff-breasted sandpiper. It was a pity, I thought, that no illustration accompanied the piece. Elsewhere in the same issue, the editor found room for a picture of masks in an article about masks. This exasperated me so much that I threw my new pencil sharpener, bought this morning to replace the one mislaid yesterday, out of the window and into a puddle. Why on earth the window was wide open on a day as inclement as this is a surpassing mystery, or it would be had Marigold Chew not embraced some hare-brained fresh-air fad. I hope she soon diverts her attention to something less chilly and windswept.


Anyway, it seems quite obvious to me that everybody knows what a mask is, and we do not need a photograph to aid our understanding, whereas I doubt there are many persons with the vaguest clue about buff-breasted sandpipers. A picture would have helped. I was going to fire off a stern letter packed with invective to the editor of The Listener, but having chucked my pencil sharpener out of the window, and my pencil being ruinously blunt, and there being no spare pencils to be found anywhere, I was at a loss, and in any case, leafing through The Listener to locate the wholly unnecessary picture of a mask, so I could refer to the page number in my irate letter, I happened upon the piece about a buff-breasted sandpiper again, and paused to reread it for the umpteenth time, and it was then I was struck by a previously overlooked detail.

R S R Fitter begins his piece “I found myself at a large sewage farm…” A large sewage farm. Now, though I know very little about gnomes, I do know that they are small, or reputed to be small. Would small gnomes be likely to farm a large sewage farm? I thought it more likely that gnomes would be found at a small sewage farm, one of a size appropriate to their smallness. Thus even at this early stage I was making progress in my research, for my conclusion seemed inarguable. At a stroke, I had whittled down the number of sewage farms at which gnomes might be found. I resolved to obtain a map and a thick black marker pen with which to expunge all large and medium sized sewage farms, leaving only the smaller ones visible. That should keep me gainfully occupied for a while at least. I have high hopes for the pamphlet which will eventually result!

Another thing I need to do, when I have the means to sharpen my pencil and thus write a letter, is to send a query to R S R Fitter, c/o The Listener. I am intrigued by that phrase “I found myself at…” It is as if Mr Fitter woke from a deep sleep, or perhaps a trance or a coma, and “found himself” at the sewage farm, as opposed to where he might have expected to be, at home for example, or in a familiar snackbar. I want to ask him if this is a regular occurrence, and if there are any other places he has “found himself”, other types of farm, other sewage-related locations, or indeed anywhere else on God’s earth.

The Year of Our Lord MCMLIII has certainly begun with some fascinating lines of inquiry. Who knows what more lies in store?

Decontaminated plovers’ eggs for breakfast.

Dobson’s Diary 1.1.53

Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, was an intermittent diarist. At certain periods in his life, he maintained a voluminous, almost demented daily journal. At other times he made only scattered and vestigial scribblings, and there are also whole stretches where he fell completely silent, at least as a diarist. Surprisingly, there has been as yet no attempt to marshal all the extant texts into a published edition. Here, however, is Dobson’s diary entry written sixty years ago to the day, on the first of January 1953:

Cabbage stalks in swans’ blood for breakfast. Then I went for a trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal. Stopped to gaze at cows – the cows gazed back. Spent untold hours slumped at my escritoire struggling with my pamphlet in progress, Farming With Gnomes. The problem is I know little about farming and even less about gnomes. Why, then, asked my inamorata Marigold Chew, did I choose the topic in the first place? She fails to grasp the intricate workings of what I have decided to dub “Dobson Praxis”, a praxis that itself may be the subject of a future pamphlet.

When the time came to sharpen my pencil I could not find the pencil sharpener, so instead I picked up this week’s copy of The Listener and read a fascinating article about a buff-breasted sandpiper. From a careful reading – and rereading – I deduced that this is some sort of bird, though what it is doing hanging around at a sewage works is beyond me. If I had wings and the power of flight I am by no means certain that I would choose to wallow in sewage when I could take wing and fly to, oh I don’t know, somewhere less noisome and noxious.

Actually, I note that the writer calls it a sewage farm rather than a sewage works. Perhaps this is a suitable type of farm for gnomes. I shall have to embark upon further research.

Pig innards and peas for supper.


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 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 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 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

On Potatoes

“And what should they know of potatoes, who only potatoes know?” asks Dobson, in the title of one of his pamphlets, which is sadly out of print. It is a dazzling tour de force, noted for containing an eerily accurate description of crinkle-cut oven chips, written before such things existed.

It is worth noting that the dazzling nature of the pamphlet is less to do with the quality of Dobson’s prose, which might better be described, in this instance, as hysterical and incoherent, and more to do with the then fashionable far out groovy psychedelic typeface employed by Marigold Chew when setting the text. Indeed, so dazzling is the appearance of the multicoloured swirly maelstrom of type that one is advised to wear sunglasses when reading it, or attempting to read it. Peter Hitchens has claimed, not without reason, that Marigold Chew was probably “high on pot” when producing the pamphlet, but she also may have thought that its far out groovy psychedelic look would increase sales in “head shops” and free festivals and other such excresences of the era. If so, she was horribly mistaken, for “That Potato Pamphlet”, as it is commonly known, sold only half a dozen copies in toto, and three of those went to a wandering proto-crusty who pitched his tent in Dobson’s back garden for the duration of the summer of love.

The pamphleteer himself might also have been “high on pot” when he wrote the text, for as I said, his prose is hysterical and incoherent. A weedy wannabe Dobsonist would have tossed the pamphlet aside, or even set it on fire, but I am adamantine in my devotion to the great man, so I enrolled in a special study group. Each weekday evening for three whole years, we met in an abandoned pavilion to pore over the pamphlet, eight of us, trying as best we could to eke some sense from it. What follows, then, owes as much to the contributions of Messrs Clapper, Shrublack, Inspip, Squelch, Dalewinton, Boggis and Globb as to my own insights.

Dobson seems to have conceived of the idea of the crinkle-cut oven chip as the ne plus ultra of space age food. This, he says, describing a then imaginary frozen sliver of reconstituted potato-based mush shaped with some sort of wiggly-shaped jig-slicer, will be the staple foodstuff of space travellers and cosmonauts as they venture through galaxies yet unknown. He asks if any alien beings they might meet would comprehend that the crinkle-cut oven chip and the ordinary potato, a tuberous vegetable buried in soil back on planet Earth, were in any way related to each other. And he answers “no” to that question. No matter, he asserts, how advanced and superintelligent the beings were, they would never be able to grasp the human ingenuity that turned the one into the other.

Dobson then posits the idea that it is the potato that has evolved from the crinkle-cut oven chip, rather than vice versa, and in a prescient passage written some years before Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), he invents a scene where a primitive ape picks up a crinkle-cut oven chip and tosses it into the air, where – pfft! – it is suddenly transformed into a potato. Annoyingly, Dobson does not specify the variety of potato. Or perhaps he does, and we were simply incapable of deciphering a particularly far out groovy psychedelic section of the text.

Quite what point he is trying to make with this topsy turvy twaddle is unclear, even when one is “high on pot”. I speak not of my own experience but that of Messrs Squelch and Globb, who often huddled together in the corner of the abandoned pavilion before our study group meetings, indulging in what I think in some circles is known as “reefer madness”.

For all that, And what should they know of potatoes, who only potatoes know? is a fascinating curio. Dobson does actually answer the question posed in the title, but in doing so raises a blizzard of further questions, the answers to which perhaps will not become apparent until the true space age is upon us.