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.

Monkeys And Squirrels

The super soaraway Dabbler is rapidly proving to be the one thing (apart from Hooting Yard of course… so make that one of the two things) that justifies the very existence of het internet, so it pains me to have to chuck a brickbat, but chuck a brickbat I must. Quite frankly, it passeth all understanding that a postage with the promising title Important monkey / flying squirrel insight news signally fails to mention Dobson’s ground-breaking pamphlet A Detailed Account Of How I Provided Emergency Medical Assistance, Despite Having Not A Jot Of Training, To A Flying Squirrel Exhausted And Maimed After Being Pursued And Attacked By A Small Tough-Guy Japanese Macaque Monkey Which Mistook It For A Predatory Bird, With Several Diagrams And An Afterword Quoting A Jethro Tull Song Lyric (out of print).

We tend not to think of the great pamphleteer as the sort of chap to dispense succour to small wounded animals. After all, he was much more likely to throw pebbles at swans, or to rain imprecations down upon puppies. But painstaking research has shown that the “detailed account” he gives is absolutely factual. What happened was that Dobson took a detour through a monkey and squirrel sanctuary while on his way home from a visit to Hubermann’s, that most gorgeous of department stores, where he had bought a large supply of bandages and liniment. His purchases were made with a distinct purpose, for sloshing around in his head was the idea of writing a pamphlet about bandages and liniment as part of a projected series with the collective title Various Things You Can Smear On Wounds And Various Methods Of Protecting Wounds From The Elements. According to his notes, there were to be at least twelve pamphlets in the series, but not a single one was ever written, possibly because of the turn of events in the monkey and squirrel sanctuary.

Close to the perimeter fence, Dobson chanced upon a mewling and maimed flying squirrel, and saw a small Japanese macaque monkey scampering away with squirrel blood dripping from its gob. The pamphleteer put two and two together. Then, quite out of character, he knelt down, applied liniment to the gashes on the flying squirrel, and enwrapped it in bandages. He had a mind to take it home to Marigold Chew, as a prospective pet to replace her recently deceased weasel. Alas, so thoroughly did Dobson apply the bandages that the flying squirrel was suffocated.

The pamphleteer chose a spot close to the Blister Lane Bypass and buried the flying squirrel in a shallow grave. Every day, for weeks afterwards, he visited to place a sprig of dahlias or lupins on the plot, and he wept. He never told Marigold Chew what he had done, and it seems that she never got round to reading the pamphlet, one of the few works of Dobson to be commercially printed rather than typeset and cranked out on Marigold Chew’s Gestetner machine.

The quotation from Jethro Tull which appears on the last page of the pamphlet, by the way, is “So! Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?” from Thick As A Brick. Its significance to the text it accompanies has eluded every Dobsonist who has tried to winkle some meaning from it. I suppose that is one of the reasons we still read Dobson today. He continues to challenge us.

Dobson’s Abortive Pliny

Here is the list of contents of the tenth book of Pliny The Elder’s Natural History (c. 77-79 AD):

“The nature of birds. (i-ii) The ostrich, the phoenix. (iii-vi) Eagles, their species; their nature; when adopted as regimental badges; self-immolation of eagle on maiden’s funeral pyre. (vii) The vulture. (viii) Lámmergeier, sea-eagle. (ix-xi) Hawks: the buzzard; use of hawks by fowlers where practised; the only bird that is killed by its own kind; what bird produces one egg at a time. (xii) Kites. (xiii) Classification of birds by species. (xiv-xvi) Birds of ill-omen; in what months crows are not a bad omen; ravens; the horned owl. (xvii) Extinct birds; birds no longer known. (xviii) Birds hatched tail first. (xix) Night-owls. (xx) Mars’s woodpecker. (xxi) Birds with hooked talons. (xxii-v) Birds with toes: peacocks; who first killed the peacock for food; who invented fattening peacocks; poultry – mode of castrating; a talking cock. (xxvi-xxxii) The goose who first introduced goose-liver (foie gras); Commagene goose; fox-goose, love-goose, heath-cock, bustard; cranes; storks; rest of reflexed-claw genus; swans. (xxxiii-v) Foreign migrant birds: quails, tongue-birds, ortolan, horned owl; native migrant birds and their destinations – swallows, thrushes, blackbirds, starlings; birds that moult in retirement: turtle-dove, ring-dove. (xxxvi) Non-migrant birds: half-yearly and quarter-yearly visitors: witwalls, hoopoes. (xxxvii-xl) Mernnon’s hens, Meleager’s sisters (guinea-hens), Seleucid hens, ibis. (xli) Where particular species not known. (xlii-v) Species that change colour and voice: the divination-bird class; nightingale, black-cap, robin, red-start, chat, golden oriole. (xlvi) The breeding season. (xlvii) Kingfishers: sign of fine weather for sailing. (xlviii) Remainder of aquatic class. (xlix-li) Craftsmanship of birds in nest-making; remarkable structures of swallows; sand-martins; thistle-finch; bee-eater; partridges. (lii f.) Pigeons – remarkable structures of, and prices paid for; (liv f.) Varieties of birds’ flight and walk; footless martins or swifts. (lvi) Food of birds. Goat-suckers, spoon-bill. (lvii) Intelligence of birds; gold-finch, bull-bittern, yellow wagtail. (lviii-lxl) Talking birds: parrots, acorn-pies; riot at Rome caused by talking crow. (lxi) Diomede’s birds. (lxii) What animals learn nothing. (lxiii) Birds, mode of drinking; the sultana hen. (lxiv) The long-legs. (lxv f.) Food of birds. Pelicans. (lxvii f.) Foreign birds: coots, pheasants, Numidian fowl, flamingos, heath-cock, bald crow or cormorant, Ted-beaked or Alpine crow, bare-footed crow or ptarmigan. (lxix) New species: small cranes. (lxx) Fabulous birds. (lxxi) Who invented fattening of chickens, and which consuls first prohibited? who first invented aviaries? Aesop’s stewpan. (lxxiii-lxxx) Reproduction of birds: oviparous creatures other than birds; kinds and properties of eggs; defective hatching and its cures; Augusta’s augury from eggs; what sort of hens the best? their diseases and remedies; kinds of small heron; nature of puff-eggs, addled eggs, wind-eggs; best way of preserving eggs. (lxxxi f.) The only species of bird that is viviparous and suckles its young. Oviparous species of land animals. Reproduction of snakes. (lxxxvi-vii) Reproduction of all land animals; posture of animals in the uterus; animal species whose mode of birth is still uncertain; salamanders; species not reproduced by generation; species whose generated offspring is unfertile; sexless species. (lxxxviii-xc) Senses of animals: all have sense of touch, also taste; species with exceptional sight, smell, hearing; moles; have oysters hearing? which fishes hear most clearly? which fishes have keenest sense of smell? (xci-iii) Difference of food in animals: which live on poisonous things? which on earth? which do not die of hunger of thirst? (xciv) Variety of drink. (xcv f.) Species mutually hostile; facts as to friendship and affection between animals; instances of affection between snakes. (xcvii f.) Sleep of animals; which species sleep?”

Now, imagine the scene. It was shortly after breakfast time on a cold and storm-tossed morning in the 1950s at the home of the twentieth century’s most magnificent pamphleteer. Dobson had eaten his bloaters. Marigold Chew had something eggy. They were still sitting at their breakfast table. Outside, hailstones were pinging.

“Marigold, o my darling dear,” boomed Dobson, “I have devised a marvellous plan! Listen carefully. You often comment upon what you consider to be my breathtaking ignorance of the natural world. And though I usually swat away your charges, as a giant may swat away a dwarf, I have, this day, found within myself a reservoir of humility, and I must admit there is a certain truth in what you say.”

Marigold Chew interrupted here, to suggest she capture Dobson’s words upon a tape recorder for the settling of any future contretemps, but the pamphleteer pressed on.

“That being so,” he said, “My plan is to increase my knowledge in the best way possible, and what method could be more efficacious than to write a book about what I do not know? And not just any book. I shall take as my guide that great ancient encyclopaedia by Pliny The Elder, the Natural History, and rewrite it in its entirety! To ensure I cover the sweeping width and breadth of all natural phenomena, I  shall follow slavishly the chapter and section headings of the great work, but, subjoined to them, the texts shall be my own! Is that not a fantastic plan and a superb way to extend my knowledge of that which you claim me to be ignorant.. of, again, I think, if I am to be grammatically sound?”

“Are you sure you mean ‘subjoined’, Dobson?” asked Marigold Chew, who was in chucklesome mood.

“I am not one hundred percent certain, no, but let that pass, o my inamorata. The thing is, I have decided to begin the project this very day, not at the beginning, but plunging straight in to the tenth book of Pliny, which you will recall is the one in which he addresses matters ornithological. That is an area in which you suggest my ignorance is boundless and unfathomable, so it will be the perfect test bed. And no, I am not sure I mean ‘test bed’, but let that pass too, for the time being.”

“I am quite happy to do so,” said Marigold Chew, “For now my eggy breakfast is digested, I am going off and out to a beekeeping bonanza jamboree. Get thee to thy escritoire, and when I return I shall be happy to have you read to me the initial scribblings of your Natural History, a book I am sure will knock Pliny from his plinth.”

Dobson took this repartee in good part, scurried to his escritoire, sharpened a pencil, and flung open his dusty copy of Pliny at the tenth book. The nature of birds. (i-ii) The ostrich, the phoenix, he read. He closed his eyes and tried to summon a vision of an ostrich and a phoenix, first separately, then together. He was determined not to cheat by reading what Pliny The Elder had had to say on the subject nearly two thousand years ago. Then the pamphleteer shook his head, like a man waking from a jarring dream, opened his eyes, and began to scribble with his sharpened pencil on the first page of a brand new notepad.

Both the ostrich and the phoenix, he wrote, are birds, the one real, the other mythical. On the front of the head of the real bird, there is a beak. And, lo!, what do we find on the front of the head of the bird of myth? It too has a beak! And this is not the only feature they have in common, for the bodies of both birds bear plumage in the form of feathers.

Dobson looked upon what he had done, and saw that it was good. No doubt there would be more to say about both the ostrich and the phoenix, but he felt he had, at the very least, cracked the method he planned to employ. Pliny would be his guide, but only his guide. The grand sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose would be Dobson’s alone. He went to take a post-breakfast nap.

When he awoke, the pamphleteer’s brain was befuddled after a series of dreams, the details of which, so vivid in sleep, vanished pfft! the instant his head rose from the pillow. He opened a can of revivifying Squelcho! and poured it into a tumbler, then sat again at his escritoire to consult his Pliny. Eagles… vultures… hawks… owls… woodpeckers… it was a long, long list of things with beaks and feathers! Dobson threw his pencil across the room, donned his greatcoat and his Belgian Post Office Inspector’s boots, and went out in the teeth of the hailstorm to trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal to clear his head. He saw a number of birds while on his trudge, not one of which was either an ostrich or a phoenix. He threw a pebble at a swan. He stopped in at Old Ma Purgative’s Canalside Lobster Hatchery ‘n’ Winter Sports Togs Bazaar, and browsed among the lobsters and the winter sports togs, but in spite of the Old Ma offering bargains galore in a special ‘hailstorm sale’, Dobson, enmired in penury as ever, bought nothing. Eventually he trudged back home, passing the puddle in which the pebble he had thrown at the swan had somehow fetched up, as pebbles do. And as pamphleteers do, he returned to his escritoire, sharpened another pencil, and, jaw set in determination, cast his eye over the Pliny. Peacocks… bustards… swans… hoopoes… partridges… goat-suckers… this last reminded Dobson that he had a goat-milk popsicle in the refrigerator, and he was about to go and fetch it, for a midmorning snack, when, towards the end of the contents of Pliny’s tenth book, he read instances of affection between snakes and a bomb exploded inside his brain.

Suddenly Dobson recalled the dream from which he had awoken befuddled after his nap. He remembered it in every last detail, for it was his recurring dream, the one that flickered in his sleeping cranium on so many, many nights, and in so many, many daytime naps, and had done since infancy. He turned to a fresh page of his notepad, and began scribbling.

When I was a tot, he wrote, I had a favourite bedtime story which I implored my ma or pa to read to me before I fell asleep. I drank my bedtime beaker of milk of magnesia and settled my little head on my little pillow, and listened, night after night, to the tale which, ever since, has haunted my dreams, and about which it is incomprehensible that I have not written a pamphlet until today. Well, thanks to Pliny The Elder, now I can address that omission. The story began as follows:

Once upon a time there was a boa constrictor named Dagobert. He was loitering on a verdant slope when he happened to spot a passing vole. Dagobert uncoiled himself, pounced, sank his fangs into the tiny vole, and gulped it down in one fangsome mouthful. But before his digestive juices could begin to reduce the paralysed but yet living vole into nourishing pulp, along came a viper named Clothgard.

“My oh my!” thought Dagobert, “What a lovely viper she is. I feel a great pang of affection for her.”

Clothgard herself was a sore vexed viper, for she had not eaten for many days.

“O boa constrictor loitering on the verdant slope, canst thee help a sore vexed viper who has not eaten for many days? My name is Clothgard,” hissed Clothgard.

So mighty were the pangs of affection felt by Dagobert that he immediately regurgitated the vole and offered it to the famished viper.

“Why thank you,” she hissed, “You are quite the most charming boa constrictor it has ever been my pleasure to meet.”

There was more to the story, much more, but it was always around this point that, as a tot, I fell into my golden slumbers, and ma or pa placed the storybook gently by my pillow and tiptoed away.

This you will recognise, I expect, as the opening of Dobson’s important pamphlet The Significance, In My Long-Ago Infancy, Of An Undigested Vole (out of print). He was still scribbling away furiously, possessed by a pamphleteer’s demons, when Marigold Chew arrived home. Thinking he was at work on his revision of Pliny, she did not interrupt him, but went straight into the back garden with the new bees she had brought back from the bonanza jamboree. Not until a few days later, when she asked Dobson if he had yet written his chapter on the nature of puff-eggs, addled eggs, and wind-eggs, did she learn that the pamphleteer had abandoned his Pliny.

“Oh that,” he said, over breakfast, “It’s just one bird after another. I can’t be doing with it.”

Dobson In Dreamland

According to Hargrave Jennings, in Curious Things Of The Outside World : Last Fire (1861), “There are moments in the history of the busiest man when his life seems a masquerade. There are periods in the story of the most engrossed and most worldly-minded man, when this strong fear will come, like a cloud, over him; when this conviction will start, athwart his horizon, like a flash from out a cloud. He will look up to the sunshine, some day, and in the midst of the business-clatter by which he may be surrounded, a man will, in a moment’s glance, seem to see the whole jostle of human interests and city bustle, or any stir, as so much empty show. Like the sick person, he will sometimes raise his head, and out of the midst of his distractions, and out of the grasp which that thing, ‘business’, always has of him, he will ask himself the question, What does all this mean? Is the whole world awake, and am I asleep and dreaming a dream? Or is it that the whole world is the dream, and that I, in this single moment, have alone awakened?”

That great twentieth-century pamphleteer, Dobson, woke up in this state of mind every single morning of his adult life. And that was not the end of his confusion, for Dobson was a great one for naps, he took a nap daily, very often more than one, plural naps, as it were, and each time he woke from his naps he likewise asked himself the questions posed by Hargrave Jennings, as he had already done on the morning of the day, when first he awoke.

“Do you have the slightest idea,” asked Marigold Chew, one blustery blizzardy Monday in the late 1950s, “How tiresome it is to have you lumbering about the place like a dippy person, asking the kinds of questions most sensible people stop posing when they outgrow their years of teendom?”

Dobson’s reply to this perfectly reasonable query was most annoying.

“Are you really speaking, Marigold, or am I just imagining this conversation within the wispy mysterious mists of mystery?”

Marigold Chew was holding a handful of pebbles, and proceeded to throw one at the pamphleteer. No, that’s not right. Marigold Chew was holding a Pebblehead paperback, and it was this she threw across the room. The book was Pebblehead’s latest bestselling potboiler, The Interpretation Of Breams, a guide to foretelling the future using a combination of fish and recordings of lute music. Luckily, the book missed Dobson’s head by an inch.

“I am going to go about my business in the real, palpable world, Dobson,” announced Marigold Chew, “If you choose to waft about the place in a moonstruck daze, that is up to you. But it won’t get any pamphlets written!” and she swept out of the house into the blizzard, bent upon her real and palpable business, whatever it might have been that day.

Dobson picked up the Pebblehead paperback from the floor and leafed through it, distractedly. He read a few lines here and there, and decided to go out to the fishmonger’s and the record shop. But he got no further than the chair on which he sat to don and to lace up his Canadian Snowplough Mechanic’s boots, for, yet enmired in his dreamy daze, he wondered if the chair, the laces, the boots were but figments. “Figments” made him think of figs, and then of Fig Newtons, a type of biscuit of which, at this period, he was inordinately fond, and, with his right foot encased in a boot the laces of which were not yet tied and his left foot merely ensocked, he rose from the chair and made for the cupboard wherein the biscuits, and similar snack items, were stored. When he stood, he was, in boot and sock, necessarily lopsided, and this being so, Dobson lost what balance he had, and toppled, bashing his bonce on the wainscot.

He was unconscious for some minutes, during which time he really did dream, of the glove of Ib and of his weak Bomba, whatever that might mean.

And of course, when he woke, sprawled on the floor, the pamphleteer’s swimming brain was yet again prompted to ask the Hargrave Jennings questions. Round and round we go, in an endless cycle, akin to the orbit of the planets around the sun.

Marigold Chew was still out and about, so Dobson was alone in his daze. Now wide awake, but still unable to gain a foothold in the real, palpable world, he mooched about the house as a person might blunder about in a thick fog, what they used to call a “pea-souper” because of the supposed similarity of the cloudy density of the air to the consistency of soup made from peas, not to be confused with pease pudding, which is, as its name suggests, a pudding, not a soup. Dobson was thinking neither of soup, nor of the Fig Newtons, which he had utterly forgotten. He was doing things such as tapping the walls with his fingertips, peering carefully at curtains, opening and then closing doors, or in some cases leaving them ajar, as he tried to grasp what was real and what was not. Stumbling past an airing cupboard into the bathroom, he was astonished, in a bleary way, to come face to face with a monster of the deep, wallowing in the tub. It was bloated, lascivious, coarse, and repulsive, rather like Gertrude Atherton’s vision of Oscar Wilde, except that it had fins and hideous trailing tendrils, like those of a jellyfish. One such tendril now lashed out and struck Dobson across the face, leaving, not just a vivid crimson stripe, but droplets of an unbelievably aggressive toxin which seeped in seconds through his pores and began ravaging his innards. The pamphleteer toppled once again to the floor, this time of his bathroom rather than of his kitchen, still wearing one boot, but now he was convulsed by fits, as if he were Voltaire’s officer with pinks in his chamber alluded to in another passage from Hargrave Jennings’ very sensible book, and, like the officer, Dobson lost his senses.

In the tub, the sea monster now began to gurgle, and to splash about. Suddenly, through the bathroom window crashed Father Ninian Tonguelash, the Jesuit priest and self-styled “Soutane-Attired Nemesis Of Sea Monsters”, clutching in one gloved hand a harpoon and in the other a crucifix. Then…


Then… I awoke, and I realised that all I have just written was a dream. Of course it was! Dobson did not become the titanic pamphleteer he was by faffing about the place all muddleheaded. When he woke up, every day of his adult life, he knew exactly where he was, and if perchance there was a smidgen of doubt in the matter, he would in any case plunge his head into a bucket of icy water, just to be on the safe side. How foolish of me to confuse the hallucinations of my sleeping, pea-sized brain with the iron truth!

Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes

Within minutes of beginning my research into the poultry yards of archdukes, I struck gold. I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that it was a topic to which Dobson had turned his attention, in his pamphlet The Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes (out of print). Alackaday!, as Hadrian Beverland would put it, I then struck base metal, for it turns out that this is one of the rarest of the rare of Dobson pamphlets, and I could not get my hands on a copy try as I might, not that I tried very hard, having other things on my mind, such as Pantsil’s performance in the World Cup, guff, pomposity, and potato crisps. Of which, more later, if it please your Lordship.

Now the unobtainability of a pamphlet would deal a knockout blow to a weedy, milksop researcher, but I am made of sterner stuff. I gulped down a beaker of Squelcho! and, at dead of night, I stole out to the weird woods of Woohoohoodiwoo and sought out the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. I found her crouching in a patch of nettles, moving her withered arms in some incomprehensible but no doubt eldritch fashion, and muttering gibberish. Good old Woohoohoodiwoo Woman!, I thought, she never lets you down. Not, at least, if you remember to bring her a gift, as I did. I greeted her and handed over a rather smudged back number of the Reader’s Digest. I had no idea to what weird and spooky use she would put it, but it is better not to ask. She gave the magazine a couple of gummy bites to make sure it was genuine, and then asked me, in her weird woohoohoodiwoo voice, what I wanted. I cleared my throat.

“Are you familiar with the out of print pamphleteer Dobson?” I asked her. When I spoke aloud the great man’s name, an owl hooted and a wolf howled. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman’s head moved slightly, in what might have been a nod. It was either that or a magical spasm. I pressed on.

“There is an unobtainable pamphlet by Dobson which I feel impelled to read, oh Woman of Woohoohoodiwoo,” I continued, “And I was wondering if, through your tremendously strange powers, you might be able to commune with transient shimmerings of ectoplasmic doo-dah and somehow have transmitted to you the full text of this pamphlet, entitled The Poultry Yards Of The Grand Archdukes, and declaim it to me, here in the weird woods in moonlight, while I scribble down what you say in my notepad with my propelling pencil.” I patted my pocket to indicate that I had come prepared with these essential items.

The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman did some business with a toad and a newt and a hacksaw and some parsley and the bleached and boiled skull of a starling and a handful of breadcrumbs, and there was a mighty flash of eerie incandescence across the sky and a boom as of thunder and then she began to writhe in hideous jarring contortions as the night air grew chill as the grave. Then she began to babble, and I started scribbling.

When we were done, I patted the Weird Woman on her weird head, promised her further back copies of the Reader’s Digest or Carp Talk!, her other favourite periodical, and headed for home clutching the precious recovered text. I had a long day’s work ahead of me, transcribing the scribble in my notepad using my iWoo, a fantastic new device from Apple specifically designed for the transcription of unearthly hallucinatory babblings into tough sensible prose. I chuckled to myself, wondering what Dobson would have made of our twenty-first century technology. Somehow I could not imagine the great man Twittering or Facebooking or posting videos on YouTube, though there is of course that tantalising paragraph in his pamphlet Tantalising Paragraphs About The World O’ The Future (out of print) where he seems to be hinting at some kind of hand-held apparatus called an iRuskin. I must look it up and parlay my observations into a postage here one of these days.

As soon as I got home, just after dawn, I switched on or, as they say nowadays, powered up my iWoo, and left it to bleep and hum while I fixed a solid breakfast. This involved more eggs than you can shake a stick at, which is a goodly number of eggs, I can tell you. This is my own breakfast recipe, called Hitchcock’s Nightmare, or, alternatively, Orwell’s Glut. All of my many and various breakfast recipes are named after writers, painters, and film directors, and I hope one day to cobble them together into a compendium. But a more urgent task was at hand. What, I wondered, had Dobson had to say about the poultry yards of the grand archdukes in that rare, o rare!, pamphlet?

The iWoo hissed and juddered like some living organism as it tackled the bonkers babbling of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, but before sunset I had a print-out. It ran to forty pages of densely-set text, cleverly imitating the authentic look of a Gestetnered pamphlet direct from Marigold Chew’s shed. I was too exhausted to read it then and there, so I shoved it into a drawer and went to bed.

During the night I had that dream about the Kibbo Kift again.

The next morning, after a breakfast I call a Claude Chabrol Special, I sat down to read. I was careful to bear in mind that what I was reading was not Dobson as such, but Dobson as filtered through the eerie inexplicable powers of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, a different text entirely. Nonetheless, it was the nearest I could get to the pamphleteer’s own words.

Dobson, or the WooDobson, began by listing the grand archdukes whose poultry yards he had studied. It was an incredibly long and tedious list, packed with Ludwigs and Viggos and Hohenhohens and Gothengeists and Ulrics and Umbertos. Here and there, a few biographical or historical details were scattered about, but nothing about poultry yards nor, indeed, disgusting rabbits. Next came one of those Dobsonian digressions, sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating. This one was firmly in the latter camp, being an extended meditation upon stars and yeast, neither of which topics the pamphleteer seemed to have a clue about. By the time he had finished wittering, I was halfway through the recovered pamphlet, and still waiting to learn about its ostensible subject matter. I began to wonder if the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman had played a joke on me. Had she really been in contact with ectoplasmic beings from a realm beyond our puny understanding, or was she just raving? I wanted to trust her, not least because I had paid good money for that back number of the Reader’s Digest from Old Ma Purgative’s Anti-Communist Secondhand Periodicals Shoppe.

But of course I need not have worried. After some closing flimflam about boiled yeast, the WooDobson at last got to the matter in hand. Here was the sentence that made me sit bolt upright:

It is patently obvious to anyone who has studied these things that all grand archdukes, maintaining poultry yards upon their estates around which disgusting rabbits prowled, did so because of a fanatical devotion to the cause of Unreason.

He goes on to explain. Unfortunately, this is where the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman’s channels of communication with the mysterious realms seem to have broken down a tad.

I say “patently obvious” because it is both patent and obvious. Consider the Ancien Regime. Consider it again. Imagine yourself strutting about the corridors of the archducal palace. Is your path blocked by hens? It is! Why are the hens not in their coop in the poultry yard? Hear them clucking. If you could translate their clucking into human speech, specifically High Germanic speech, as spoken by quite a number of grand archdukes, what do you think they would be saying? “Eek! Eek! We are in fear of the disgusting rabbits who skulk about the perimeter of our yard!” You might argue that rabbits are one of the last animals on earth whose method of propelling themselves hither and thither could be described as “skulking”. You might argue that, but do you want to be seen arguing with hens, in your palace corridor, by one of your footmen or valets? “Ho ho ho”, they would sneer, your minions, later, downstairs in their pantry, “The old fool was arguing with hens. Who ever heard of such a thing?” Thereafter they would treat you with contempt and even come to question your Archdukedom. The lettered ones among them might start reading insurrectionist pamphlets produced by beardy German revolutionaries. Better by far never to argue with hens in the corridor, no matter how panic-stricken they appear. Gather them up, one by one, and put them right back in their coop, in the poultry yard. Send a rider to dash on horseback to the Landgrave, in his distant fastness, to alert him to the presence of disgusting rabbits. His forces may sweep in, within days or weeks, or not at all, for you can never second guess the Landgrave. He has his own hens, in his own poultry yard, where he argues with them all day long, for much interbreeding in his noble line has made him soft in the head. See him dribble. See him drool. See him argue frantically with this hen and that hen, hauling himself around the poultry yard on the crutches which support his withered legs. The legs of his hens are withered too, as are the legs of the disgusting rabbits who surround his castle, yes, he has his own disgusting rabbits to contend with, as do all Landgraves and Margraves and Grand Archdukes in the Ancien Regime, you would do well to learn that and to cease your whining. Strut your corridors as you may, for one day all will crumble, the footmen and valets will break out of the pantry and run amuck, and there will be traffic between the terrified hens and the disgusting rabbits, oh, odious, odious, but now you have glimpsed what is to come you must be a fierce and ruthless Grand Archduke, in all your finery, though it fray to tatters..

I will leave it to the experts to judge if this is the authentic voice of Dobson, or the witless prattle of the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman. Either way, it takes us some way towards a better understanding of the Hens of Unreason, and that is all we set out to do, in our modest way, on this summer’s day.

Flight Patterns Of The Common Shrike

One rain-lashed November morning in the latter half of the 1950s, Dobson awoke from uneasy dreams and succumbed to a fit of ornithomania. At the breakfast table, after fletcherising his steamed dough ‘n’ gooseflesh flan, he announced to Marigold Chew “O inamorata o’ mine! What the world needs is a pamphlet, decisively written, on the flight patterns of the common shrike.”

Marigold Chew let this intelligence sink in while she munched her kedgeree. This was the period, it ought to be noted, when the out of print pamphleteer and his belle kept to differing breakfast menus, later to be chronicled in the pamphlet-cum-recipe book A Thousand Breakfasts In Five Hundred Days (out of print).

Munching done, Marigold Chew asked pointedly, “Are you intending to pen this pamphlet yourself, Dobson?” to which the pamphleteer replied, after a long pause while he masticated a mouthful of flan thirty-two times, “Yes, of course!”

Marigold Chew sighed. “Dobson,” she said, not unkindly, “You know nothing of the shrike. I doubt you could tell one apart from a robin or a starling or a pratincole or even a vulture. How the hell are you going to write, decisively or otherwise, about the flight patterns of a bird of which your ignorance is limitless?”

“I have a one word answer to that,” replied Dobson, “Research!”

So it was that, when his breakfast was fully digested, Dobson clambered into his Galician Zookeeper’s boots, donned a threadbare waterproof, and stalked out into the rain. He made for the top of Pilgarlic Tor and stared at the sky for hours. When he returned home, he was drenched, and dusk was descending.

“Well?” asked Marigold Chew, “What have you learned?”

“The sky is a vast expanse,” said Dobson, “Across which clouds scud, and from these clouds falls rain, now as drizzle, now in sheets, hence the puddle forming at my feet which I shall mop up with a mop on the end of a stick when I have done enlightening you, my darling dear. From time to time, below the scudding clouds, birds soar and swoop across the sky. Some go flitting until they can no longer be perceived by the human eye, some come into land on the branches of trees or in nests built high or low in trees or even in hedgerows. There are many different types of birds, many more than the ones you catalogued over breakfast this morning. Each has a distinctive manner of keeping itself airborne. Through keen and judicious observation, one can learn to differentiate one type of bird from another, purely from its method of flight, without needing to get close up to it, for example while it is resting in its nest or on a tree-branch. As my pamphlet will be devoted exclusively to the common shrike’s flight patterns, that closer observation in the nest will not be necessary. That is fortunate, for I much prefer to stand windswept and rain-lashed upon the top of the tor than to be hunkered in shrubbery for hours on end, where I would be subject to biting by insects and other things that crawl upon the earth, and in shrubs.”

“There are goos one can smear upon the skin to repel such creatures,” said Marigold Chew, waving her hand towards a wall-mounted cabinet wherein such goos were stored.

“That may be so,” said Dobson, “But if you are listening attentively you will grasp that for present purposes I need no such repellant.”

“So will you be standing atop Pilgarlic Tor again tomorrow, staring at the sky?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I will not,” said Dobson, “For tomorrow I will be consulting works of ornithological reference in the library.”

And lo! it came to pass. The following morning, after a breakfast of eggy buns (Dobson) and lightly grilled hen-head with tomatoes (Marigold Chew), the pamphleteer was to be found poring over an enormous ornithological reference work in the ornithological reference library reading room. In those days, libraries were havens of quiet in what Pratt dubbed “the hurly burly of the urban conurbation”, and the only sounds to be heard were the frantic scraping of Dobson’s very very sharp pencil as he scribbled upon his jotter, and the strangulated choking of a fellow bird researcher with a predilection for high tar cigarettes. Dobson was making notes from his study of The Boys’ And Girls’ Bumper Book Of Shrikes. He copied out one passage in its entirety:

Now, tinies, let me tell you why the shrike is known as the “butcher bird”. You see, it is a rapacious and violent little birdie, and it likes to entrap in its talons insects, small birds and even teeny weeny mammals like fieldmice and shrews. Once caught, it impales its victim upon sharp thorns. This helps it to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a sort of pantry or larder so the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time. Its call is strident. You will probably have nightmares about it now, but it is well to learn that nature is a realm of blood and gore.

“How did you get on at the library?” asked Marigold Chew when Dobson returned. He had trudged home in a downpour, and a puddle was forming around his feet, which today were clad in a pair of Paraguayan Mining Inspector’s boots.

“It looks as though I will have more mopping up to do, o light of my life,” said Dobson. “You will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have formed a plan of campaign for the accomplishment of what I suspect will be one of my most important pamphlets.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said Marigold Chew, who was knocking back a beaker of some fluid she had strained through a sieve earlier that day. Its colour was indescribable, and it was pip free.

Dobson took his jotter from an inside pocket of his raincoat.

“Listen to this!”, he said, in an excitable voice, “The shrike is a rapacious and violent little birdie, and it likes to entrap in its talons insects, small birds and even teeny weeny mammals like fieldmice and shrews. Once caught, it impales its victim upon sharp thorns. This helps it to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a sort of pantry or larder so the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time. Its call is strident. And that’s not all, but you get the gist.”

“I do,” said Marigold Chew, “But what is your plan of campaign and when are you due to set it in motion?”

“Using keen and judicious observation, from atop Pilgarlic Tor, I will wait to spot a bird impaling an insect or a smaller bird or a fieldmouse or a shrew or some other tiny mammal upon a thorn. ‘That,’ I will say to myself, possibly out loud, ‘is a shrike!’ It will then be a simple matter of watching it fly away from the thorn and to trace, with my pencil, in my jotter, the patterns it forms in the sky. This diagram will then form the basis for an accompanying text, which will describe the patterns, in decisive prose.”

The next morning, Dobson ate lobster for breakfast while Marigold Chew had mashed up cake ‘n’ crumpets ‘n’ cornflakes. Then the pamphleteer headed out for Pilgarlic Tor in the torrential rain. He stationed himself in the vicinity of a thorn bush, near the summit, and watched, keenly and judiciously, all day. That was Thursday. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were identical in all particulars except, of course, for the breakfasts. By the time dusk descended on the second Thursday, Dobson was soaked to the skin and had yet to spot a shrike. He returned home crushed and despondent. Marigold Chew could tell from the misery etched upon his countenance that his plan of campaign was yet to bear fruit, but as the pamphleteer stood in a puddle in his Latvian Ice Rink Attendant’s boots, contemplating the mopping he would shortly be engaged in, she asked, “Did you spot a shrike today, Dobson?”

“I did not,” he moaned, in a voice ancient and sepulchral.

“I did,” said Marigold Chew, “Just after you left this morning I went out into the garden to cast my gaze admiringly upon the hollyhocks, and gosh, all of a sudden a bird swooped into view, a newborn hamster struggling in the vicious grip of its talons, and I was jolted by a wave of nausea as I watched the bird impale the poor tiny thing upon a thorn in the thorn bush next to the hollyhock patch beside the shed. Somehow I managed not to vomit all over the lawn, and I realised the bird was a shrike, so I ran indoors for my sketchpad and propelling pencil and rushed back out in time to see the shrike fly away, thereupon executing a highly accurate rendering of the patterns it formed in the sky until, some minutes later, it was lost to view in the overcast grey immensity of the rain-raddled empyrean.”

“And you’re sure it wasn’t a pratincole?” asked Dobson.

“As sure as eggs is eggs,” said Marigold Chew, brandishing the relevant page of her sketchpad in the pamphleteer’s face, now transformed by joy.

“This is fantastic news!” cried Dobson, and he sprang forward and clutched Marigold Chew in an embrace of boundless love. And that is why the pamphlet Flight-Patterns Of The Common Shrike by Dobson (out of print) has the subtitle With A Tremendously Accurate Diagram by Marigold Chew.

In closing, it is worth noting that Dobson’s text, far from being decisive, is incoherent, jumbled, and in places quite potty, probably because in the bliss of their wild embrace, Marigold Chew’s sketchpad was dropped into the puddle of rainwater, and became smudged. The diagram as published was newly drawn, from memory, a few days later, and was by no means as tremendously accurate as claimed. In fact, a reputed ornithologist has said that the flight patterns represented are typical, not of the shrike, but of the pratincole.

The Mythical Island

For those of us whose knowledge of the world is gleaned almost exclusively from the out of print pamphlets of Dobson, it comes as a crushing blow to learn that he was absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong in the matter of the mythical island o’ werewolves. You will recall that in his pamphlet The Mythical Island Where Werewolves Think They Come From (out of print), Dobson claims there is, within the brain of every werewolf, some sort of false memory nugget which throbs with the sights and sounds and smells of a wholly imaginary island. This, he says, is thought by all werewolves to be their homeland, to which they are driven to return, with an impulse as savage and unassuageable as their hunger for blood and guts. Hence the danger of docks and harbours, where werewolves roam, trying to stow away aboard ships and clippers and ocean liners.

You will also recall that in the 1956 film Bigger Than Life, James Mason, as cortisone-addled schoolteacher Ed Avery, declaims, as only James Mason could, the line “God was wrong!” Shocking that may have been to a 1950s audience, but how much more shocking is it, today, to utter the words, or even to entertain the thought, “Dobson was wrong!”? Yet, unbelievably, that indeed appears to be the case, according to a new study by jumped-up young Dobsonist Ted Cack. In five hundred pages of densely argued and pretty prose, the wet behind the ears little squirt pulls apart the pamphleteer’s pronouncements upon werewolves, demonstrating them to be complete drivel.

“Ah!” you may cry, “But what about all those footnotes?” It is true that The Mythical Island is one of Dobson’s most heavily annotated works, bulging with an apparatus of footnotes and references and scholarly appendices. So bulky did all this stuff make the first edition of the pamphlet that, when running off the first few copies in the shed, Marigold Chew broke her Gestetner machine and had to call out a person from Porlock to repair it. That is why the additional material was published as a separate pamphlet thereafter, the pair of pamphlets bunged together into a cardboard box, to which was stuck with glue a mezzotint of a werewolf done by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. It is perhaps the most sought-after Dobson rarity coveted by collectors, which makes Ted Cack’s revelations all the more dispiriting.

What on earth can have made Dobson deceive his readers so? It is not a question Ted Cack tries to answer, but then he is young and callow and has not yet gained a proper apprehension of Man’s fallen state. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is not a fruit Ted Cack has bitten, yet. His time will come, as it does to us all, as it certainly did to Dobson.

Because the pimpled youngster does not address Dobson’s motives for churning out this screed of twaddle, we are forced to draw our own conclusions. For what it is worth, and despite the evidence piled up against him, I think it is legitimate to ask if Dobson actually believed the absurdities he wrote of werewolves. It would not be the first time he was subject to delusions, hallucinations, and general brainpan dislodgement. The critic Bernard Levin wrote of Beatleperson John Lennon that “there is nothing wrong with [him] that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out.” The same was true of Dobson, if not more so. In fact, Marigold Chew designed, but never got round to building, a sort of hoist, of deal and wicker and gutta percha, into which the pamphleteer could be pinned, upended, and shaken about. Had such treatment been applied, perhaps on Thursday mornings, before breakfast, Dobson might never have cast so ineradicable a blot upon his reputation as The Mythical Island Where Werewolves Think They Come From.

So did he think it was true? Did he just wilfully misread all those quotations and references with which the pamphlet is packed? The problem here is that he seems to have invented most of his sources, from ancient texts in Latin and Greek and Ugric, to scripts from films and radio plays, and a paragraph about werewolves apparently copied down from the back of a carton of breakfast cereal. Tellingly, Dobson does not say what the cereal was, and in any case, the pamphlet was written at a time when we know he only ever ate bloaters for breakfast. Oh, it is a puzzle to be sure!

A clue may be found by close reading of his earlier werewolf pamphlet, The Hidden Wealth Of Werewolves (out of print), the one where he bangs on about werewolves living in caves wherein are kept toads in hanging cages, the toads having jewels embedded in their heads. It all sounds a bit unlikely, doesn’t it? Did he invent that, too? Ted Cack ignores this pamphlet completely, but then perhaps he has never heard of it. To gain a familiarity with the entire corpus of Dobson’s work takes years and years, as I know to my cost. And I have decades yet to live, God willing, before I am as ancient and craggy and stooped and wizened as Aloysius Nestingbird, the greatest Dobsonist of all, who is well into his second century and has collected several free bus passes from the government. He sells the spare ones on a website called Nestingbird-Bay, and spends the proceeds on gruel, which is all he is able to digest after long years of debauch.

The point about the first werewolf pamphlet is that Dobson always denied having written it. He claimed it was a forgery, wrought by sinister and shadowy associates of international woman of mystery Primrose Dent. If this is indeed the case, it would be a fool who would dare to investigate further. Let us not forget that the last person to probe the doings of La Belle Dent, a television reporter even more pimply and callow than Ted Cack, was pinned, upended, and shaken about in a hoist umpteen times more terrifying than Marigold Chew’s unrealised design. I am not joking. That is why I am going to stop writing about the whole confounded business, and go for a walk down by the docks, where I may or may not be set upon by marauding werewolves. And if I am, it will be a fate far less horrifying than Primrose Dent’s hoist.

Tiny, Lethal

Reading an item in yesterday’s Guardian about tiny lethal phantasmal poison frogs, I was reminded of Dobson’s pamphlet My Terrifying Encounter With A Tiny Lethal Phantasmal Poison Frog (out of print). It is by any measure one of his most exciting works, guaranteed to have one panting for breath and to cause beads of sweat to break out upon the brow. This is due to the pamphleteer deploying, as he so rarely did, his remarkable ability for building suspense. Alerted by the title, we are in a state of heightened expectation for the appearance of the minuscule killer, so tiny yet so toxic. But Dobson is in no hurry to come face to face with the lethal frog.

He begins by recounting, in exasperating detail, how, in preparing for a morning trudge along the towpath of the old canal, he discovered that the aglets on his Batavian Crimebusters’ boots had become rusted and brittle, the bootlaces fraying as a result. Reluctant to don a different pair of boots – for reasons he enumerates over five pages – Dobson describes his search, in drawers and cupboards and hideyholes, for a replacement pair of bootlaces. Throughout this “desperate fossicking”, as he calls it, Marigold Chew is staring out of the window at the incessant rainfall, picking out a tune on her celeste, composing in her head the words of the song that would later be known as The Ballad Of Incessant Rainfall.

In his monograph on Dobson’s various items of footwear, Aloysius Nestingbird asks why the pamphleteer did not simply remove the laces from one of his other pairs of boots and reuse them when it became obvious that he had no pristine bootlaces to hand. He answers his own question by delving into Dobson’s infamous pamphlet Every Lace Has Its Own Boot (out of print), the work which plumbed in excruciating detail the unfathomable depth of the pamphleteer’s neurosis in these matters. Those of us who have read our Nestingbird will have his commentary in the back of our minds as we follow Dobson crashing about the house on his futile search. Twenty pages in, we are no closer to our own encounter with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, but the tension is becoming unbearable. At the point where Dobson describes tipping out onto the floor the contents of a battered cardboard box kept under the kitchen sink, we are ready to put the pamphlet aside and to put the kettle on for a calming cup of tea.

Next, we take a nap, and when we return to the pamphlet we find that is what Dobson did too. Giving up hope of finding new bootlaces for his Batavian Crimebusters’ boots, and leaving Marigold Chew plinking and musing and staring out of the window, the pamphleteer retires to his nap-hub. Now he cranks up the suspense by treating the reader to a detailed account of his period of unconsciousness, accompanied by masterly, if somewhat florid, descriptions of his pillows, his coverlet, and his mattress. Nestingbird has remarked that “no one has ever written about the nap as brilliantly as Dobson. The only wonder is that he never devoted an entire pamphlet to the subject.” This is uncharacteristically careless of Nestingbird, who has overlooked the mid-period pamphlet Fifty Pages Of Prose About Daytime Naps In Theory And Practice (out of print). It is an inexplicable lapse on the part of the greatest of Dobsonists, one I am minded to attribute to his habit, in later years, of mulch ‘n’ mop cloth bish bosh flossy flapping.

And so we are put on tenterhooks, still awaiting the terrifying encounter with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, wondering if perhaps when Dobson wakes from his nap it will be to find the diminutive assassin perched within his bouffant. But no. He wakes, he grunts, he stumbles to his escritoire and begins scribbling. What we now come upon is not the fatal frog, but one of the central mysteries of Dobsonist scholarship. This is what the pamphleteer tells us:

I woke, I grunted, I stumbled to my escritoire, and thereupon scribbled ten pages of mighty prose, putting the finishing touches to my pamphlet Six More Lectures On Fruit.

The puzzle is that no such pamphlet exists. Given the importance within the canon of the original Six Lectures On Fruit (out of print), it seems barely credible that Dobson could have completed a sequel only to destroy it so utterly that not a trace remains. As Nestingbird has demonstrated, though the pamphleteer wrote innumerable fragments and scraps and unfinished doo-dahs, whenever he considered a work complete he invariably published it, including the stuff that can only be described as bollocks. That is Nestingbird’s word, not mine. There is no other reference, anywhere, to this pamphlet, and in fact Marigold Chew, in a late interview, directly denied its existence. “Everything Dobson had to say about fruit,” she said, into a tape recorder, “is contained in the Six Lectures. The very idea that any further essays could have been wrung out of his brain is preposterous. He simply didn’t know enough about fruit.” As with all of Marigold Chew’s tape-recorded pronouncements, this has the ring of truth, and it is backed up by the remarks of the Pointy Town fruiterer Sigismundo Figorplumtree, who recalled that Dobson used to stand in front of his market stall fruit display scratching his head and wearing an entirely vacant expression for hours upon end on many a market day morning. As if that were not evidence enough, we have the famous incident when the pamphleteer took part in a charity fruit quiz on the radio and failed to answer a single question correctly.

My own theory about this perplexing mystery is that Dobson is deliberately pulling the wool over our eyes. By claiming to have written a pamphlet for which no credible evidence exists, he guesses, rightly, that our bafflement will be sufficient to make us forget all about the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, at least temporarily, so causing us greater terror and alarm when he reminds us about it a few pages later. It is an inspired display of narrative fireworks. Here is how he makes our hearts thump:

Having pocked the final full stop on my majestic fruit sequel, I decided to go a-trudging along the canal towpath in the incessant downpour after all. I determined to wear my Latvian Civic Cavalry boots instead of the Batavian Crimebusters’ boots, for the laces in the former were, I knew, in tip top condition. Earlier in the week I had run them through a pneumatic bootlace testing contraption hired from Hubermann’s. It was worth every penny, though when the time came to return the machine to that most gorgeous of department stores I admit I shed a few tears. As I trundled it along the lane atop my cart, I wondered if I would ever be able to afford to buy one of my own. Then all my bootlace problems would vanish in the ether! Perhaps, I thought, as I rounded the sordid duckpond, if I could write a pamphlet that would outsell a Pebblehead paperback, I might – oh, hang on, I am forgetting myself. You will want to know about my terrifying encounter with a tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog.

Aloysius Nestingbird rightly numbers this as among the top one hundred paragraphs ever committed to paper by the out of print pamphleteer. Yet even after this, Dobson continues to twist the knife. It seems the suspense could not be brought to a higher pitch, but it is. I have read the pamphlet a thousand times, studied it, subjected the text to the most abstruse critical scrutiny, and even discussed it with frightening Continental literary critics, all hornrimmed spectacles and atrocious beards and Gitanes and arrogant hand gestures, but still I cannot work out how he does it. No sooner has he reminded us of the tiny toxic Epipodobate with which he is destined to come terrifyingly face to face than he postpones the awful moment by spending dozens of pages wittering on about other types of poison dart frog, frogs in general, toads, green things, things with legs, tiny beings, poisonous beings, radiant beings, Ecuadorian and Andean life-forms, and – weirdly – the Flemish painter Dirk Bouts. Now we are unable to let the imminent encounter slip from our minds. There is no relief from the tension. (Dobson’s ability to shoehorn Bouts into his frog nightmare is sheer genius.) If the reader manages to get through all this without swooning or just dropping dead, it is a capital idea to toss the pamphlet aside and put the kettle back on, or, if there is a dog in the vicinity, to take it for a walk, and let it off its leash, when one reaches an expanse of greensward, and throw a stick for it to fetch, repeatedly, and then perhaps to head to a pond, and take from one’s pocket the paper bag of stale breadcrusts one has brought with one, and chuck the crusts one by one into the pond as nutriment for ducks, if there are ducks in the pond, or swans, if there are swans, and unleash the dog again and allow it to leap friskily into the pond for a swim, if the bye-laws permit the swimming of dogs in the pond, then on the way home pop in to the orphanage to distribute alms, and perhaps leave the dog there, to serve as the orphans’ pet, unless the orphanage is in a designated risk o’ rabies zone, in which case Skippy, or Praxis, or whatever the dog is called, will have to be returned to wherever it was one gathered it, from outside the post office perhaps, or the dog pound, and then as one skips lightly along the path towards one’s door, becalmed, becalmed, one will be both physically and mentally prepared to face the final hideous revelation of the Dobson pamphlet, the encounter, so long threatened, with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog of the title, so, once safely back in the parlour, thirst quenched by that nice cup of tea, one can fling oneself into one’s armchair, à la Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu books of Sax Rohmer, and in hands no longer shaking with fear, pick up the pamphlet, and read…

And then, as I crept from the wreckage of the aeroplane onto an Andean slope, so incredibly high above sea level, out of the corner of my eye I saw something. It was tiny. It was lethal. It was phantasmal. It was poisonous. It was a tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog! I was transfixed with terror. My whole body stiffened, as if I were a piece of timber. The slopes of the Andes are steep, so immediately I began to roll downhill, just as a piece of timber would.. As I rolled, so the distance grew between me and the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, until I could no longer see it. By the time I came to rest at the foot of that Andean slope, I was no longer paralysed with fear. The tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog was far, far above me now, in the thin air, and it was so tiny I calculated that even hopping as frantically as it could, I would be long gone before it reached sea level. I stood up, in Ecuador, and walked away from the mountain, delivered from peril, sound of limb, numb of brain, writer of pamphlets.


According to the art critic Cosmo Hoxtonwanker, “few things boost the ego of the great artist as much as the emergence, and failures, of their epigones, talentless imitators whose own work never cuts the mustard, but clearly owes everything to the example of the master. The opportunities for preening are legion.”

One might have hoped that the egos of the truly great would need no such puffing up, but Hoxtonwanker is surely right in this (as he rarely is in anything else). One thinks of the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, convinced at an early age that he would bestride the twentieth century like a colossus, but at the same time forever riven by doubts and insecurities. Marigold Chew has recalled how happy Dobson would be when some neophyte pamphleteer would blunder onto the scene, publishing a handful of hand-stitched copies of a tract with a title like Gosh, How I Wish I Was Dobson!, in prose that curdled as one read it. The bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead is reported to be equally gleeful when he sees the shelves stacked with pathetic imitations of his own tremendously thick glossy potboilers, so much so that he invites their authors round to his “chalet o’ prose” for cocktail parties, lording it over them and taunting them, often physically, by poking at them with a stick and dropping beetles into their drinks.

It is, of course, only the supreme talents, in any creative endeavour, who provoke the slavish and witless efforts of epigones. The rest of us must continue to plough our lonely furrows, keeping our spirits up as best we may, our egos fragile and subject to the vicissitudes of a world of pap.

Until now. For it is with possibly preposterous overexcitement that I can report the latest innovation from Blodgett Global Domination Cyber Enterprises GmbH. For the past couple of weeks, this brand new company, operating from an allotment shed near Sawdust Bridge, has been seeking ways to crush the likes of Google and Microsoft under its singularly decisive boot. Their first product is designed to appeal directly to persons of a creative bent who wish like hell they had an epigone, for just the kind of ego-boost Hoxtonwanker identifies.

The E-Pig One is a tiny robot pig that can be plugged in to your computer with a USB cable or a bit of fusewire knotted to a magnet. Once initialised, synched, and prinked, the circuit boards in the E-Pig One start buzzing away, creating copies of your most recent creative projects – whether they be novels or paintings or three-hour slabs of improv racket – and then cleverly draining all the spark out of them (if any). The resulting mess is then belched out on to the E-Pig One’s so-called “sty”. It has all the hallmarks of your own work, as it might have been imitated by a lesser being without access to the empyrean peaks of creative genius you inhabit. So you can bask and preen, while the E-Pig One whirrs to a standstill, charging up for its next task.

Such has been the industry buzz, Apple are apparently already working on an iPig. It won’t succeed. The beauty of the E-Pig One lies almost entirely in its spelling. That is what the punters will pay for.

A Short Essay Upon Cardboard Breakfast Cereal Packets

The title of Dobson’s A Short Essay Upon Cardboard Breakfast Cereal Packets leads the reader, not unreasonably, to expect an essay upon the subject of cardboard breakfast cereal packets. It is nothing of the sort. Such a topic was, it need hardly be said, grist to the pamphleteer’s mill, for nothing cardboard was alien to him. But we should recall that he had already dealt with cardboard breakfast cereal packets, exhaustively, in his pamphlet Nothing Cardboard Is Alien To Me (out of print), as well as in several other works.

A Short Essay Upon Cardboard Breakfast Cereal Packets is, in fact, a hand-written and unpublished screed scratched out by Dobson with a butcher’s pencil upon cut or torn sheets of cardboard, once forming parts of breakfast cereal packets, composed during a paper shortage. The historical evidence for this paper shortage is slight, even non-existent, and it may be that it occurred only inside the pamphleteer’s head. He is known to have imagined crises of various kinds, such as outbreaks of ergot poisoning, bird attacks, planetary collisions and thunderstorms, none of which actually took place but fantastic details of which he scribbled down in his journals alongside the mundane and tiresome. Marigold Chew suggested Dobson did this to make his life seem more exciting and to provide any future biographers with opportunities for hysteria-heightened prose. If that is the case, it must be said that an invented paper shortage is hardly the stuff of high drama. Tousle-haired young Dobsonist Ted Cack has suggested that the pamphleteer simply ran out of paper one day and could not be bothered to fetch a fresh supply from the stationer’s.

Whether his recourse to bits of cardboard was genuinely necessary or otherwise, the Short Essay is an intriguing piece of work, chiefly because it remained in manuscript and was never typeset and turned into a pamphlet proper. Dobson perhaps felt it was too short, although at other times he happily issued for publication, in pamphlet form, some remarkably brief works, not the least of which was the famous and much-anthologised Paragraph About Potatoes, for many of us our introduction to the titanic pamphleteer.

Ted Cack’s view, expounded in an incoherent and shouty way during his hour upon the fourth plinth when he took part in Gormless Gormley’s ludicrous pageant of inanity in Trafalgar Square, is that Dobson planned to incorporate the Short Essay, unaltered and in its entirety, into a longer piece, a study of the behaviour of toads in the Soviet Union, which, despite voluminous notes, a research trip to Omsk, and the purchase of a fur cap with ear-flaps, he never actually completed. It is difficult to know what to make of young Ted Cack’s argument, for the words toad, behaviour, Soviet and Union are nowhere present in A Short Essay Upon Cardboard Breakfast Cereal Packets. Where, and to what purpose, we are entitled to ask, did the out of print pamphleteer intend to insert this fragment of prose, barely sixty words long, into a piece which, the extant drafts tell us, was single-mindedly concentrated, with laser-beam precision, upon communist Bufonidae?

An additional curiosity about the Short Essay is that the cardboard sheets were at some point coated with a kind of disgusting yet transparent paste which makes them resistant to all known photocopying techniques. Now there’s a thing.

Further Reading : A Very Long Essay About Stalinist Toads, Written With A Magic Marker Upon Hundreds Of Cream Crackers, by Dobson (out of print).

Dobson’s Cacodaemon

Even the most learned of Dobson scholars has difficulty with his pamphlet How I Thwarted My Cacodaemon With A Pointy Stick And Some Bleach (out of print). For one thing, who knew Dobson had his own personal Cacodaemon? It is never mentioned elsewhere in the canon, nor does it make an appearance in his voluminous diaries. Occasionally, like other indefatigable diarists, Dobson had recourse to codes and symbols, but all of these have been deciphered after decades of study by Aloysius Nestingbird and their significance revealed in his magisterial survey The Meanings Of Every Single One Of Those Enigmatic Symbols And Scribbles In The Journals Of The Out Of Print Pamphleteer Dobson, itself, alas, now out of print too. Nestingbird realised that the childish drawing of a horned and hooved goaty devil figure brandishing a spit fork, usually done in red ink, which appears in the diaries from time to time without additional written comment, had nothing whatsoever to do with some putative Cacodaemon of Dobson’s, but was simply the pamphleteer’s idiosyncratic manner of noting that Hungarian football ace Ferenc Puskas had played a blinder in a match that day. Puskas was never known by a nickname aligning him with a devil of any kind, but Nestingbird shows convincingly that the inside of Dobson’s head was rarely in accord with the wider world.

Nor do we find any reference to a Cacodaemon in any of the recorded utterances or memoirs of Marigold Chew. Surely the woman who knew Dobson better than anyone else would have known of it? There is a possibility, of course, that she did know, but kept a judicious silence for fear of exposing her inamorato to ridicule. But then, there was much else that was preposterous about Dobson, from his boots to his handwriting, and she seems to have happily acknowledged, even celebrated, his various absurdities.

What of the pamphlet itself? In its startling opening sentence, the pamphleteer announces that he is going to tell us all about how he thwarted his Cacodaemon with a pointy stick and some bleach, and that if his prose were paint, in this pamphlet it would be matt rather than gloss. The fact is, Dobson continues in some of the glossiest prose he ever wrote. Indeed certain passages are so glossy that Nestingbird, among others, has recommended reading it through a screen or veil to dull its unearthly sheen.

Dobson gives his Cacodaemon no “back story”. He does not explain when it first began to haunt him, nor how terrible, or otherwise, has been its impact upon his life. It merely shimmers before him after breakfast one drizzly morning in April, and he reports this matter-of-factly, as if it is a familiar accompaniment to his post-breakfast drizzly April morning doings. On the particular morning of which he writes, Marigold Chew is away, which may in itself be significant. Dobson does not tell us where she has gone, but by checking the calendar one can conclude she was probably on one of her periodic jaunts to Shoeburyness as part of the bottomless viper-pit study group.

Dobson then recounts how he loses patience with his Cacodaemon. It is making demands upon him, as we are given to understand it “always does”, and the pamphleteer snaps. He goes to the broom cupboard and takes out a pointy stick, and dips the end of the stick in bleach, and charges across the room at the Cacodaemon, shouting his head off and threatening to impale it upon the stick. At this point, with a hideous sort of sucking and seething and squelching noise, the Cacodaemon seems to implode in upon itself. Bringing himself to a halt just before he clatters into the wainscotting, the pamphleteer peers down at the floor and sees a tiny smudge of noisome goo. This, he suggests, is all that is left of his Cacodaemon. He leans the pointy stick against the wall, and goes to the draining board to fetch a rag. He wipes the smudge with the rag, pours more bleach into a bucket, and drops the rag into the bucket. There is, he writes, “a faint echo of the sucking and seething and squelchy sound, as if heard through a funnel blocked with pebbles and dust”.

And thus the pamphlet ends, save for a rather curious colophon from which not even Nestingbird has been able to wring any meaning. I suppose we have to ask if Dobson was just making the whole thing up. We know there were times when he felt compelled to write a pamphlet even when his head was empty of ideas. Perhaps this was one of those times. Further light will no doubt be shed on the matter with the publication of Aloysius Nestingbird’s forthcoming study Dobson’s Head, Its Innards, And What They Reveal About The Colossus Of Twentieth-Century Pamphleteering.

I had hoped to be invited to write an introduction to this book, but I was told, in a dream, that there would be no such invitation, that Nestingbird had never heard of me, and that my pretensions to Dobsonist scholarship were flimsy and pathetic and doomed. Hard to argue with that, belched and spat out as it was from the fiery maw of a Cacodaemon.

Macabre Folding Camp Chairs

According to the visitor statistics, someone arrived at Hooting Yard yesterday having searched for the term “macabre folding camp chairs”. I hasten to add that I am not making this up. I suspect what the inquirer was looking for was Dobson’s exceedingly rare Eerie & Macabre Picnic Praxis, a set of practical guidelines which appeared, oddly, as an appendix to his pamphlet A Dictionary Of Squirrels (out of print).

Unusually for Dobson, the Praxis was written in response to a request from a reader. The pamphleteer was notoriously dismissive, even contemptuous, of his audience, such as it was. Marigold Chew recalls the great man stamping about in his study, spitting into the fireplace, shouting his head off at nobody in particular and insisting that his readership was composed of spiteful lickspittles and human wreckage. He had no evidence to back this claim, of course. He just enjoyed his misanthropic ravings, as who does not?

We must wonder, then, why the pamphleteer responded with such alacrity to the letter he received from a correspondent signing himself simply as “JFK”. There are compelling reasons to believe this was the soon-to-be-assassinated thirty-fifth Potus, but that is unlikely to have impressed Dobson, who had a weird animus towards men who wore surgical braces for excruciating back pain. A devotee of the “back quack” Rastus Tebbit, whom he occasionally visited in prison, Dobson swore by the old fraud’s patent back pain remedy of lettuce, toad, and cake.

The letter itself was clear and concise. Dear Dobson, it read, I am planning to organise a picnic outing that will be both eerie and macabre, but I have no idea how to go about it. It has been suggested to me by one of my secret service agents that a pamphleteer such as yourself would be able to bash together some guidelines at the drop of a hat. Thanks in advance.

It has been estimated that throughout his long career, Dobson received no fewer than eight direct requests from readers to address a particular topic. The other seven were binned or burned or torn to shreds or, on one memorable occasion, folded into a paper aeroplane of uncommonly aerodynamic soundness and launched from atop an Alpine peak into the blue empyrean, to the applause of a gaggle of Swiss boy scouts. Yet this one letter stirred something in the pamphleteer’s brain, and he immediately sat down at his escritoire and took a newly-sharpened pencil from his pencil pot and wrote the Praxis, it is thought in a single burst of concentrated picnic prose. The subject, it should be remembered, was one familiar to him, for he had written teeming pages on picnics in earlier years. Indeed, one of the first pamphlets ever to bear Dobson’s name was entitled God Almighty, Is There Anything More Satisfying Than A Well-Executed Picnic? (out of print).

As mysterious as the enthusiasm with which he tackled a reader’s request, however, is the fact that, as soon as the Praxis was written, Dobson shoved it into a cardboard box and forgot about it. Within days, the manuscript was covered with other scribblings, and with biscuit crumbs and dust and spilled talcum powder and a cackhandedly-folded map of guillemot habitats and shells from a packet of brazil nuts and newspaper cuttings and a hiking boot catalogue until the box was full and its lid was fitted and it was consigned to a shelf in the cellar alongside dozens upon dozens of other cardboard boxes filled with a heteroclite jumble of forgotten miscellania. This habitual Dobsonian practice has proved infuriating for scholars. Perhaps it really would have been better if the whole damned lot had been burned to a cinder.

Almost a decade passed. One Thursday afternoon, during a thunderstorm, Marigold Chew remarked to Dobson that his Dictionary Of Squirrels, which she was readying for print, would, in her opinion, be immeasurably enriched by the addition of a few more pages. But Dobson had exhausted his knowledge of squirrels, and had nothing more to say. By chance, he was rummaging about searching for the map of guillemot habitats, in preparation for his next project, A Dictionary Of Guillemot Habitat Maps, and, grabbing at the Praxis, he tossed it over to Marigold, muttering something along the lines of it being a “companion piece”. This was nonsense, of course, for it is nothing of the sort. Squirrels are not even mentioned in its sixteen brief paragraphs. Marigold was skim-reading it, and about to protest that Dobson was fobbing her off with a non-squirrel-related text, when there was an almighty clap of thunder and both the pamphleteer and his inamorata were stricken with sudden terrific clap of thunder shock syndrome. Dazed and bumbling, Dobson then made things worse by insisting they both take Rastus Tebbit’s so-called “curative”, a potion of toad, cake and radish, the only effect of which was to unhinge their reason for a period of forty-eight hours. It was during this time, with her judgement impaired, that Marigold Chew printed all known copies of the Dictionary Of Squirrels, with its wholly irrelevant appendix.

Should we be glad she did so? The Eerie & Macabre Picnic Praxis is a curious work, and it is hard to see how practical the guidelines are if one is actually intent upon organising an eerie and macabre picnic. Paragraph six, for example, the one I think my visitor from yesterday was searching for, reads as follows:

Most reputable stockists of folding camp chairs will be happy to listen to any requests from you regarding eerie or macabre ranges of their merchandise. They will listen happily because they tend, as a tribe, to be happy, even when faced by plague and cataclysm. I know this much because I have seen them laugh hysterically at an approaching swarm of locusts, on more than one occasion.

As Aloysius Nestingbird, that most temperate of Dobsonists, asked, after reading this passage, “What in heaven’s name is he blathering on about?” To date, no one has given a satisfactory answer to that question.