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.

Dobson And The Pit

“I think,” said Dobson, at breakfast one foul and rain-sodden Tuesday morning, “It is time we had our own mosh pit.”

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

“Do you actually know what a mosh pit is?” she asked.

“Not exactly,” replied the twentieth century’s greatest out of print pamphleteer, “But I suspect it would be a good use of that part of the garden overhung by laburnum and sycamore and larch. You know that patch o’er which hangs leafage so dense that it is forever in shadow, and is home to brambles and nettles and dockweed. I cannot even remember the last time I sat or stood in it nor even walked though it, nor can I recall ever seeing you doing so, O cherished one. It is unused ground, and no ground ought to be unused on this earth, according to some authorities.”

“Which authorities might they be, Dobson?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I think there is a maxim to that effect in the Maxims of Bombastus Dogend, or I could be thinking of Listerine Optrex, also a great one for maxims. I can check later.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Marigold Chew, marshalling with her fork the last few caraway seeds on her breakfast plate, “You intend to dig a pit in a shady arbour in the garden, and dub it a mosh pit, without any clear understanding – without any understanding at all – of what a mosh pit is?”

“I shall look it up in a thick and exhaustive reference book,” said Dobson, mad with cornflakes.

“So you will be going to the mobile library?” said Marigold Chew.

“That is my plan,” said the pamphleteer, and he got up from the table and proceeded to don his Andalusian Sewage Inspector’s boots.

“Today is Tuesday,” said Marigold Chew, “So the mobile library is in quite a different, and distant, bailiwick.”

“And you think I am going to let that stop me?” shouted Dobson melodramatically as he crashed out of the door into the downpour.

Untold hours later, Dobson came crashing back through the door, sopping wet, with a gleam in his eye and a thin, pained smile playing about his lips, as if he were Ronald Colman shooting a scene for Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942).

“Well, Dobson, what news?” asked Marigold Chew.

Dobson took his pipe from his pocket, crammed into it a thub of Rotting Orchard Fruit ‘n’ Conkers Pipe Tobacco from his other pocket, lit up and puffed, and said:

“I had a deal of difficulty finding the thick and exhaustive reference book I sought. Actually, before that I had a deal of difficulty finding the mobile library itself. There is a new mobile librarian, of wild and untrammelled mien, with an unruly beard, whose grasp of the schedule is weak. He had driven the pantechnicon to quite an unsuitable bailiwick, near cliffs, where the native peasants, having never seen the mobile library before, stood in a ring around it, holding aloft their pitchforks and sticks tipped with tarry burning rags, gawping. I think they may have had it in mind to sacrifice the mobile librarian on a pyre.”

“Gosh!” said Marigold Chew.

“Be that as it may,” continued Dobson, “I barged my way through the seething peasant throng and climbed into the pantechnicon. The wild beardy person was engaged in some sort of haphazard reshelving exercise, oblivious of the peasants outside. The mobile library holdings, including several thick and exhaustive reference books, one of which was critical to my research, lay scattered about higgledy-piggledy. Oh! I was sorely vexed. But I found what I wanted eventually, under a pile of paperback potboilers by Pebblehead. And – “

“You have created a puddle on the floor, Dobson,” interrupted Marigold Chew, “So soaked you are from rainfall. Finish your pipe and mop up the puddle and then you can continue your tale over a nice piping hot cup of ersatz cocoa substitute.”

And it was during the subsequent conversation that the out of print pamphleteer revealed to his poppet that he had indeed discovered the nature of a mosh pit.

“Apparently,” he said, “A mosh pit is an area where gaggles of frenzied teenpersons hurl themselves about in an uncoordinated and rambunctious manner to a soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket played from an adjacent stage or platform by persons not dissimilar to the denizens of the mosh pit.”

“Yes, I know,” said Marigold Chew, “I could have told you that this morning over breakfast. I assume that now you know what a mosh pit is you no longer want one in your own back garden.”

“Quite the contrary, my sweet!” shouted Dobson with unnerving zest, “I am all the more determined to dig one! Hand me that spade!”

And though it was now dark, and the rain was pouring down more heavily than ever, Dobson was soon enough out in the garden, under the dripping leafage of laburnum and sycamore and larch, digging a pit. Positing that he had taken leave of his senses, Marigold Chew retired to her boudoir to listen to Xavier Cugat And His Orchestra on the wireless.

At some point in the small hours of the morning, Dobson came back indoors. He was covered in mud, as if he had been toiling in the trenches of Flanders fields during the Great War, the cause of the shellshock suffered by Smithy, alias Charles Rainier, the character played by Ronald Colman in Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942). Marigold Chew was fast asleep, but she was woken by a repetitive dull thumping noise, as of bone cushioned by flesh bashing against wood, over and over again. She went downstairs to find Dobson slumped at the kitchenette table, repeatedly thumping his forehead against its polished wooden surface.

“Whatever is the matter, Dobson?” she asked.

Dobson looked up.

“The mosh pit is dug, my dear! It needs but a complement of frenzied teenpersons to be deposited within it. That is my quandary, that the reason for my despair.”

“Please explain Dobson, you have me utterly befuddled. Though it be the middle of the night I am going to put the kettle on for a nice piping hot cup of powdered milk slops enriched with filbert nut flavouring. Pray continue.”

“Well,” said Dobson, “It was only when I had finished digging the mosh pit, and clambered out of it, and stood back to admire my work in the brilliant illumination of Kleig lights, that I realised the fatal flaw at the heart of my design.”

“Which is?” asked Marigold Chew.

“We have not space in the garden sufficient to erect a stage or platform next to the mosh pit,” moaned Dobson, “Thus nowhere to assemble a grouplet of persons to provide the necessary soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket to which frenzied teenpersons so minded will mosh.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Marigold Chew, “We may not have our own mosh pit, but now we have an all-purpose pit. There is a myriad of usages to which it could be put. I can think of several immediately, but I will refrain from telling you right away. I think you need a disinfectant bath and a good night’s sleep.”

“Perhaps you are right, buttercup,” said Dobson, “And in any case there may be such an activity as moshing for the deaf, or moshing to the sound of a lone piccolo, or other types of moshing yet unimagined by frenzied teenpersons, and by unfrenzied teenpersons too. Tomorrow I shall go the mobile library again, assuming it has not been shoved over the cliffs by the baffled and menacing peasants, and I shall undertake further and more rigorous research..”

“That is an excellent idea, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “But before plunging into your disinfectant bath, just tell me one thing. Why on earth did you want to have frenzied teenpersons hurling themselves about in an uncoordinated and rambunctious manner to a soundtrack of improbably loud and thumping and often discordant electrified racket in your own back garden in the first place?”

Alas, whatever Dobson said in reply was drowned out by the piercing shriek of the now boiling kettle.

Some days later, Marigold Chew hoicked the spade and filled in the pit under the leafage, still dripping with rain, of laburnum and sycamore and larch, and strewed over it brambles and nettles and dockweed. Never again did the word “mosh” ever pass Dobson’s lips. Other matters had attracted his attention, as related in his pamphlet How I Witnessed The Sight Of A Wild And Bearded Mobile Librarian In Hand To Hand Combat With A Snarling Gaggle Of Brain-Bejangled Peasants (out of print).

The Pillow Pamphlets

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).

About The Funnel

I should perhaps give some explanation of the postages headed The Funnel, Volumes One and Two. They comprise the lists of contents of the only two editions of a decisively obscure magazine entitled The Funnel, conceived and written by Dobson and edited and published by Marigold Chew.

Dobson was insanely jealous of the success of the Reader’s Digest, every single issue of which sold more copies than even his most popular pamphlets. Trudging along one morning past the pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing, it occurred to him that whereas his pamphlets tended, in the main, to address one subject at a time, the great attraction of the Reader’s Digest was its variety. Each copy came packed with diverting disquisitions on topics as various as John’s kidney, escapes from imperilment, Jane’s liver, Aztec antiquities, anticommunist hysteria, and astrological flummery.

“To hell with pamphlets!” shouted the pamphleteer, at a siskin perched upon a bough. The siskin is, in the words of one ornithologist, an attractive little finch, but it has no understanding of human speech, so Dobson’s words were wasted. But when he arrived home, having plodded around the edge of the eerie marsh, he repeated his imprecation to Marigold Chew.

“Gosh,” she said, adding “You could just staple four or five pamphlets together, and that would provide the variety you seek, Dobson.”

“Have you actually seen the Reader’s Digest?” shouted Dobson, “It covers far more than four or five topics. It is so packed with prose that its binding needs a spine, unlike virtually ever other magazine available at this point in the twentieth century!”

“So staple ten or a dozen pamphlets together, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew.

“No staple is big or sturdy enough for the popular magazine I envisage!” shouted Dobson, and he began pouring milk into a bowl.

Over the following weeks and months, the pamphleteer and his inamorata thrashed out the details of a publication Dobson was convinced would have the editor of the Reader’s Digest either grovelling piteously at his feet or banging his head repeatedly against the damp stone walls of an oubliette in a secure facility for lunatics. Each issue of the as yet untitled magazine would contain not ten, not a dozen, but thirteen articles, penned by Dobson but with titles provided by Marigold Chew. She would enter into a shamanistic trance-frenzy, cavorting dizzily around a bonfire in the back garden, twigs and bones and feathers entwined in her hair, and summon from eldritch tonybuzanities a set of two-word titles based on the alphabet (issue one) or the qwerty keyboard layout (issue two). Fuelled by plentiful tumblers of aerated radishwater, Dobson would write all the articles in one marathon scribbleathon, the reams and reams of dazzling prose typeset and Gestetnered by Marigold Chew, and untold millions of copies piled high in a convoy of container lorries revving their diesel motors outside the house, ready to fan out across the land to doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms and other carefully selected distribution points.

On a Thursday night in November, Marigold Chew induced a shamanistic trance-frenzy and delivered forth twenty-six titles for Dobson to crack on with. At dawn, brandishing the flayed skin of a wolf on which the titles were daubed in her own blood, she went looking for the pamphleteer, who was nowhere to be found in the house. She found him beyond the pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing, slumped in the muck, weeping.

“Here, Dobson,” she cried, still in a partial frenzy, “The contents of issues one and two of The Funnel are ready for you, wrenched from realms beyond sense!”

But Dobson continued to weep, clawing at the mud.

“All is hopeless, hopeless,” he whimpered, “I have just been apprised, by Sputnik or some such space age contraption, of the latest Reader’s Digest circulation figures. I must be mad to think I could ever match them. No, Marigold, I am afraid it is back to the drudgery of pamphleteering for me. Tell the convoy of container lorries to drive away. I shall weep and claw some more and then I shall come home and pour milk into a bowl.”

“Right-o, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, brightly, “And I shall put the kettle on and pop the smokers’ poptarts into the toaster.”

And thus dawned a Friday morning in November. Far far away, in Texas, Lee Harvey Oswald woke from an uneasy sleep, got ready for work, and before leaving the house, plopped his wedding ring into a pale, translucent, blue-green china teacup with violets and a golden rim that once belonged to his wife’s grandmother.

Otter Sanctuary Sandwich Paste

Sometimes, though rarely, Dobson’s heart would swell with a charitable impulse, and on one such occasion he hatched the plan of inventing a novelty sandwich paste, the profit from sales of which he would donate to his local otter sanctuary.

“I shall call it Otter Sanctuary Sandwich Paste,” he explained to Marigold Chew, “The better to fix in the minds of my customers the eventual destination of their pennies.”

“It is a capital idea, Dobson,” replied Marigold Chew, “But it has a fatal flaw.”

Dobson’s face soured.

“Oh? And what might that be?” he asked.

“We do not have a local otter sanctuary,” said Marigold Chew. And she tossed a pebble off the bridge across which they were ploughing, into the tumultuous river below.

Later, back at home, the out of print pamphleteer racked his brains for a way to salvage his scheme, for the charitable impulse was still throbbing. After a prolonged bout of pencil-sharpening, which he found conducive to concentrated thought, Dobson made a Eurekaish grunting noise and ran out into the garden, where Marigold Chew was busy with a pair of pruning shears.

“Who says the otter sanctuary need be a local one?” he cried, “I can divert the profits to a remote otter sanctuary!”

“All well and good,” said his inamorata, “But consider something else, Dobson. Is there not a danger that your potential customers, otter-lovers every man jack of them, might construe that a paste called Otter Sanctuary Sandwich Paste is actually made out of pulverised otters? Even if they are wrong, I suspect sales would suffer, simply due to the misunderstanding.”

Dobson retreated indoors and sharpened dozens more pencils. An hour later he was back in the garden.

“Each tub of Otter Sanctuary Sandwich Paste would bear a label, a bold and bright label, on which would be emblazoned the slogan ‘Does Not Contain Otters’. That would set the otter-lovers’ minds at rest, would it not?”

“It would,” said Marigold Chew, snipping a sprig from a shrub, “But what ingredients would your sandwich paste contain, if it is to be, as you suggested while we were ploughing across the bridge earlier, a novelty sandwich paste?”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Dobson, airily, “I will think of something.”

Dobson now had two immediate tasks to accomplish, which we can summarise for the slow-witted reader as follows.

1. To identify a remote otter sanctuary deserving of the out of print pamphleteer’s largesse.

2. To concoct a novelty sandwich paste the recipe for which must contain not a trace of otter nor of the by-products of otters.

To facilitate his thinking on these critical matters, Dobson would need to sharpen a goodly number of pencils. Yet every pencil in the house had been sharpened to its utmost pointiness, as a result of which the blades of the Dobson-Chew pencil sharpener were blunted, and needed either to be honed upon a whetstone or else replaced with new blades. Thus, in addition to the tasks enumerated above, the pamphleteer faced two further challenges, viz:

1. To obtain a fresh batch of pencils.

2(a). To have sharpened the existing blades of the pencil sharpener, or

2(b). To replace the blades with brand new ones, gleaming and lethal.

A moment’s thought was all Dobson needed to realise that he could accomplish both these aims by paying a visit to the stationery department at Hubermann’s. In spite of the fact that it was pouring buckets of rain, he donned his Belgian Railway Official’s boots, lacing them so tightly he was in danger of cutting off the blood supply below his ankles, and clattered out of the house into the downpour.

One thing it is important for the reader to understand about Dobson is that, in spite of his bookish erudition, he was a man profoundly ignorant of the natural world. His witlessness in ornithological matters is well-attested. But did you know that, if you were to line up for him, as at an identity parade, an otter and a stoat and a weasel and a vole and a shrew, Dobson would have a deal of difficulty telling you which was which? He had never paid proper attention to his small mammal lessons at school, and forever after in life was lumbered with bafflement about such creatures.

Knowing this, we can grasp an understanding of what happened next. Trudging along the towpath of the filthy old canal on his way to Hubermann’s in the rain, Dobson was set upon by a trio of savage and starving small mammals roused by the smell of his Belgian Railway Official’s boots. They had, you see, recently been smeared with a protective coat of some sort of dubbin-substitute by a wizened and scrofulous pedlar who came a-knocking at Dobson’s door hawking his wares. Whatever this substance was, and however well or ill it protected the boots, it was absolutely irresistible to certain small mammals. Thus it was that, in their frenzy about Dobson’s feet, his tiny attackers caused the pamphleteer to lose his balance, and he toppled over the edge of the towpath into the canal.

The rain had reduced to a drizzle by the time Dobson, sopping wet and with bits of canal-water vegetation sticking out of his bouffant, came crashing through the door and slumped in a chair. Marigold Chew gave him a quizzing look. He told her of his mishap.

“That remote otter sanctuary won’t get a penny from my sandwich paste!” shouted Dobson, “In fact, to be on the safe side I am not even going to make any sandwich paste! That will show them!”

“But was it a trio of otters that attacked your boots, or could it perhaps have been stoats or weasels or voles or shrews?” asked Marigold Chew.

Incapable of a sensible response, Dobson fell into a sulk.

A few miles away, on the outskirts of another town, a wizened and scrofulous pedlar hawking his wares knocked upon another door. In his punnet, he had jars and jars of paste for sale. Each was labelled, but the labels were hard to decipher. In one light, they read “Dubbin Substitute”, but then, seen from a different angle, “Novelty Sandwich Paste”. The pedlar was dressed all in green, and when he spoke, the timbre of his voice cast a spooky spell, as if he were a figure from a fairytale.