Dobson’s Card Index

“Along the path, glued to the window panes or hung on the bushes or dangling from the ceiling, so that all free space was put to maximum use, hundreds of little placards were displayed. Each one carried a drawing, a photograph, or an inscription, and the whole constituted a veritable encyclopaedia of what we call ‘human knowledge’. A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff’s periodic table of the elements, the keys to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart, Lorentz’s transformation formulae, each planet and its characteristics, fossil remains of the horse species in series, Mayan hieroglyphics, economic and demographic statistics, musical phrases, samples of the principal plant and animal families, crystal specimens, the ground plan of the Great Pyramid, brain diagrams, logistic equations, phonetic charts of the sounds employed in all languages, maps, genealogies – everything in short which would fill the brain of a twentieth century Pico della Mirandola.” – René Daumal, Mount Analogue : A Novel Of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures In Mountain Climbing, translated by Roger Shattuck (1952; 1959).

The astonishing thing about the “little placards” displayed by Father Sogol, the Professor of Mountaineering in Daumal’s novel, is how similar they are to the immense card index maintained by Dobson, upon which he relied when writing his out of print pamphlets. Dobson would have approved, too, the Professor’s method of displaying the cards – at least, sometimes. One of the pamphleteer’s more irritating characteristics was his inability to settle on the keeping of his cards. At times, like Sogol, he pinned them up on every available surface. Then a frenzy would take him and he would tear them all down and shove them into one of his innumerable cardboard boxes. Marigold Chew reports that Dobson spent hours upon hours arranging the cards when they were in their boxes, ordering and reordering them according to various abstruse cataloguing systems. No sooner was he done than he would once again tip them out of their boxes and pin them up on walls and screens and pinboards and what have you. And of course, all the time he was adding new cards to the collection.

Much of Dobson’s card collection perished in the Potato Building fire, and ever since researchers have been attempting to reconstruct it. This is probably an impossible task, but that doesn’t stop them trying. The reward would be to create a sort of cardboard model of the innards of Dobson’s pulsating brain – not to be confused with the cardboard model of the carapace of Dobson’s brain which is currently being carted around the globe by a devotee. According to the timetable posted on the Cardboard Brain Of Dobson World Tour website, the cart with its precious contents is en route to one of the –nesses at the moment, either Skeg- or Dunge- or Foul-.

There was a flap of controversy some months ago when a previously unheard-of Dobsonist, one Bunko Chongue, claimed to have recreated an accurate cardboard box’s worth of index cards. After painstaking study of clues littered throughout the pamphleteer’s out of print works, and a visit to a stationery shop, the mysterious Chongue placed on display the results of his research. Purists’ suspicions were roused by the fact that one had to pay an exorbitant fee to get through the door of the Nissen hut where the exhibition was held. Inside, however, there was an attempt to reflect the pamphleteer’s indecision, with half the cards gummed to the walls and half crammed into a cardboard box. The cards themselves, too, demonstrated the variety that was characteristic of Dobson’s collection, as it was of Sogol’s. One visitor to the hut, later to denounce the show as a “despicable farrago of falsehood and Nissen hut windowlessness”, made a list of the cards he saw.

Instructions for the proper care of ostriches in captivity. Street map of Skegness. Photo of a duck escaped from Rouen. Pig brain diagram. Bootlace aglet comparisons. Lopped Pol Pot poptart. Torn and rent stuff. Widow’s buttons. Tips on bell ringing. Sandwich paste reviews. Drawing of ghost. Railway station smudge. Voltage statistics. Unsullied napkin from a remote canteen. Gunshot punctures. Drool from a pauper. Old Halob’s hat measurements. Imaginary portrait of Tecwen Whittock. Muggletonian dinner menu. Fatal microbes. Winnipeg pumpkineer’s cravat knot schema. Potter’s duffel bag toggle analysis. Starling feathers. Stalin brooch. Desiccated plum pulp. Rubberised atomic sackcloth scrap. Latch. Pins. Bolt. Set of amazing stains. Devotional card of St Abodwo, arguably the patron saint of monkeys. Periodic table of the crumplements. Gravy recipe. Tabulation of Orwellian egg count. Snapshot of Schubert’s grave. Mezzotint of Schubert’s boot. Handwritten screed of gibberish. Lock of Pontiff’s hair. Gummy ick. Definitions of flotsam and jetsam and plankton and krill and lemon meringue pie. The dust of death. The dewdrops of doom. Pointless scribblings.

The Dobsonist who made the list, whose name has never been made public, was initially impressed by the exhibition. A few days later, however, in a letter to the Daily Nisbet Spotter, he got into a fit of the vapours about the windowlessness of the Nissen hut, pointing out that, depending on the disposition of the purlins, it is quite simple to insert windows into the hut’s frame. It is rare for one who spends his life studying Dobson also to have expertise in the construction of huts, whether Nissen or not, and this suggests that we may be able to identify the writer, if anyone can be bothered to sift through the documentation in the register, if there is indeed such a register, as the rumour mill insists is the case, though of course its existence may be a wild fantasy. We know of such phenomena, of fictional imagined registers, not least because Dobson himself wrote so forcefully of them in his pamphlet Wild And Unhinged Fantasies Regarding The Existence Of Wholly Imaginary Registers (out of print). We can only guess how many index cards the pamphleteer used during the writing of this frankly blithering text, which Marigold Chew for some reason typeset to make it look like a pipsy-popsy book for infants.

Following the writing of his letter to the press, our unidentified Dobsonist had second thoughts about the exhibition. Where he had been positive, he now heaped execrations upon it, at first privately, shouting at his reflection in a mirror. He seems to have been oddly reluctant to bruit his views abroad. This changed after he spent a prolonged stay in a sensory deprivation tank and emerged hopelessly bonkers. He was seen wandering around various post offices babbling at anybody who would listen, and then he was seen scampering like a mad thing in the hills, and then he was seen weeping and rending his garments at the graveside of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Then he vanished. He was missing during the dog days of the year, emerging as they petered out to publish his magnificent counterblast to Bunko Chongue, which I cited above.

By quoting his words, I do not necessarily lend them my imprimatur. For one thing, I did not see Bunko’s show myself, so I cannot say whether he grasped the essence of the Dobson card index in all its lost glory. And for another thing, I rarely lend my imprimatur to anything. It can be rented at a cost, usually a cost involving blood and body parts, and undying fealty, and one or two tangerines, and seeds, and the plasticine head of a wolf on a stick.

Shipwreck Is Everywhere

Si bene calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est. – Gaius Petronius Arbiter. That is, “if you consider well the events of life, shipwreck is everywhere”. Nobody considered the events of life with as much rigour as the out of print pamphleteer Dobson, and he came to agree with Petronius. Indeed, late in life he became notorious for breaking up happy gatherings, such as cocktail parties and jaunty sporting occasions and infants’ birthday celebrations, by brandishing mezzotints of famous shipwrecks in the faces of those gathered and reciting, in a booming voice, The Wreck Of The Hesperus or The Wreck Of The Deutschland, or both.

The mezzotints Dobson clipped from a magazine to which he subscribed for many years. Partridge & Peacock’s Weekly Shipwreck News collected accounts of shipwrecks real and fictional, usually written in lurid prose, and illustrated them with mezzotints, many from the hand of noted mezzotintist Rex Tint. Neither Partridge nor Peacock had the slightest interest in improving safety at sea, nor did they campaign for better lifeboat provision or similar initiatives. Quite the opposite, in fact. Partridge and Peacock were a gruesome pair, who relished the horror of shipwrecks, clapping their hands in unseemly glee when they received fresh tales of maritime disaster. They employed a team of backroom scribblers to empurple and embroider the basic reports which came clicketyclacking into the office on some kind of tickertapeyfaxy gubbins the duo had themselves invented.

Dobson never wrote for the magazine, although both Partridge and Peacock begged him to do so. There was one particular winter when either or both of the creepy cousins came banging on Dobson’s door offering blandishments, but the pamphleteer never succumbed. Even in the depths of penury, he appears to have held himself aloof, which is the more curious when one considers how devoted a reader of the weekly he was. Odder still that shipwreck is one of the few topics, one of the few “events of life”, to which Dobson did not devote a pamphlet of his own. It is true that he penned more than one blitheringly infantile encomium upon mezzotintist Rex Tint’s shipwreck mezzotints, the ones he clipped so carefully from the magazine every Tuesday morning for untold years and which, late in life, he took to pressing upon the attention of jolly partygoers, but of shipwrecks in and of themselves, he wrote not a word.

Although she did not share Dobson’s macabre interest, Marigold Chew once set The Wreck Of The Deutschland to music. She was, at the time, a pupil of grim beetle-browed composer Horst Gack, who set her the task of using Father Hopkins’ great poem as the basis for a harmochronotransduction for voice, piping, valves, and flute-to-be-played-while-standing-on-one-leg. Legend has it that she tried to get Dobson to sing the words during rehearsals in a farmyard barn, but that the project had to be abandoned when cows toppled over and goats got the vapours, hens became hysterical and rooks and bluebirds plummeted from the sky.

The Joke Pamphlet

One of the more startling works of Dobson was the text often called “the joke pamphlet”, dubbed such because its opening lines are almost identical to one of those gags that begins “There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotchman…” It is the least-read of Dobson’s pamphlets by a long chalk. Some think this may be due to the work itself being thought a joke, perpetrated by an anti-Dobsonist, and thus not part of the canon. Equally, it could be argued that the very rarity of the pamphlet has led to it being neglected. Most estimates conclude that only three copies were bashed out on Marigold Chew’s Gestetner machine in her crumbling shed.

The pamphlet begins thus:

There was a thnetopsychist, a psychopannychist, and an annihilationist, and they were loitering in a graveyard. The thnetopsychist held that the souls of persons and beasts perish along with their physical bodies, and that both body and soul are resurrected at the Last Judgement. The psychopannychist believed that the soul sleeps in the grave, to be awoken at the End . The annihilationist, as his name indicated, said that there was no resurrection at all, for either the body or the soul.

Clearly, any sensitive reader would not be expecting Dobson to follow this with a comic punchline. This is a serious pamphlet by a serious pamphleteer. There follows a lengthy conversation between the trio, written in stilted, artificial, and highly-wrought prose, which Dobson disastrously tries to render in a variety of regional accents, choosing regions where he had never been, and of which he knew nothing. Indeed, it may be that the pamphlet has attracted so few readers because it is virtually unreadable.

But, as ever with the out of print pamphleteer, persistence pays off. Ted Cack has gone so far as to claim that it is Dobson’s finest, bravest, most valiant work, but he is probably just showing off.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the conversation between the thnetopsychist, the psychopannychist, and the annihilationist, which makes up the bulk of the pamphlet, consists of each arguing their case against the other. But it swiftly becomes apparent that this is not Dobson’s purpose at all. Well, it becomes swiftly apparent once one gets to grips with the tortured prose, but if one has to struggle it becomes slowly apparent. (In my case, it took about seven years hard slog, sitting up all night reading by the light of tallow candles, shivering in a blanket, to reach a vague understanding of this mighty text.) Rather than a standard mortalist debate about the fate of the body and soul after death, we are treated to a sequence of what can only be called rants by the three protagonists upon familiar Dobsonian themes – shipping timetables, foreign boot manufacture, breathtaking ornithological ignorance, and so on – interspersed with passages in which ghouls rise from the tombs in the graveyard and dance a sort of tarantella.

Obviously, the pamphleteer is playing with his readers here in a quite un-Dobsonish manner. Our moorings are loosened, and we are set adrift. We wonder, or at least I wondered, by about page 44, if we were heading for a maelstrom, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. We cling on, though, trusting in Dobson to rescue us. And rescue us he does.

In the final pages of the pamphlet, the dancing ghouls harry the thnetopsychist into one of the graves, chop up the psychopannychist with their ghoul-axes, and hoist the annihilationist up a gum tree which just happens to be growing in a corner of the graveyard and which we have glimpsed, briefly, earlier in the text, when one of the protagonists – it is not clear which, given the stultifying density of the prose – shins up it and taps it for gum to make a point about tapping gum from gum trees. The ghouls then do a final little dance – more a hopping about, in truth – before returning to their tombs. But of course, one tomb is newly occupied by the stricken thnetopsychist, leaving a single ghoul with nowhere to rest. This ghoul wanders out of the graveyard, through the grim iron gates, past the cake shop and the colonic irrigation theme park and the butcher’s and the performing pinhead person’s plinth, and then vanishes into a mist, a mist reminiscent of the one that swallows up Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The ghoul is bound we know not where, and nor does Dobson tell us.

It is, in short, a tour de force, albeit one that is maddeningly difficult to make sense of. Oddly, not one of the giants of prog rock ever adapted it for a concept album. One can only imagine what a terrific gatefold sleeve would have been designed for the original vinyl release, and with what vim adenoidal youths would have carved Dobson’s name into their school desks with a penknife. Is there, one wonders, a parallel universe where such things came to be? And is there a piece of boffinry that could take us there, away, away… away from the sludge and gristle of our hapless hell?

Dobson’s Kitchen Groanings

I was mistaken, yesterday, to suggest that Dobson wrote a pamphlet entitled Kitchen Groanings, like the late eighteenth century work of the same name penned by an angry cook-wench or discontented housemaid. I was sure there was some kind of Dobson connection, and leapt to the most obvious thought, that it was yet another out of print pamphlet by the out of print pamphleteer. Unable to place it, however, I knitted my brows and set the tiny engines a-whirring in my pea-sized yet pulsating brain, and eventually, in the middle of the night, I realised I had been thinking of a radio programme made by Marigold Chew in the dying days of 1953.

Invited by the visionary producer Doug Hammarskjöld – no relation to the then Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld – to create a piece of sound art for his fledgling long wave station Radio Doug Hammarskjöld, Marigold Chew rummaged in the broom cupboard where she alit upon her vintage Blattnerphone, a modified wire recorder that was the precursor of the mid-twentieth century tape recorder. The brief she had been given by the producer was precise.

Dear Marigold Chew, he wrote to her in his spidery handwriting, Here at Radio Doug Hammarskjöld we are on the lookout for pieces of belligerent, combative, confrontational sound art of between six and ten hours in length. Usually, the stuff we are sent consists of a lot of guttural shouting, often in German, which is fantastic as far as it goes, but it would be nice to bombard listeners with something a little more challenging. I know you used to sweep across the fields outside Pointy Town twenty years ago with your Blattnerphone, recording cows and peasants, and I wondered if you would rummage around in your broom cupboard for the vintage machine and make a programme for us, which we would broadcast every day for months on end, or at least until our licence comes up for renewal.

Marigold had fond memories of the bucolic field recordings she made in her younger days, and looked forward to heading out to her old haunts, armed with the Blattnerphone, mindful that there would be new cows in the fields and older peasants digging the ditches. She was already putting a sound collage together in her head, deciding to add the noises of rutting badgers and babbling brooks to the mix. She took the Blattnerphone from the broom cupboard and put it on the kitchen table and went upstairs to dig out the bus timetable and a map from her bedside bus and train timetable and map and chart and diagram cupboard. Alas, on the landing she tripped over a pile of Dobson’s out of print pamphlets, fell, clonking her head on a hard thing, and lost consciousness.

Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, the pamphleteer himself had just returned from a pointless errand. He was exhausted and rancorous. Carrying the kettle across the room, from its place of boiling, on a counter, to its place of filling, at the sink, he bashed it inadvertently against the Blattnerphone and in so doing flicked the switch which set the machine recording.

For the next six hours every noise that Dobson made was picked up and preserved for posterity on the thin steel tape of the Blattnerphone. Most of these noises were groans, for Dobson sat slumped at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, shifting only to make and then to drink copious cups of tea. If, by his groaning, he was trying to gain Marigold Chew’s attention, he was staring failure in the face, she being splayed flat on the landing away with the fairies. Indeed, she later recalled that during her swoon, which lasted the same six hours as Dobson’s groaning in the kitchen below, she had visions of fairies and elves and peris and aziza and nymphs and satyrs and tien and leprechauns and sprites and duendes and pixies and goblins. It was not often her head was cluttered with such twaddle, and when she awoke she was mightily discombobulated.

“Mighty is my discombobulation, Dobson,” she said, as she staggered into the kitchen, and she told the pamphleteer of her trip and fall and clonk and swoon.

Dobson groaned.

“The worst of it is,” she continued, ignoring him, “That my head is now so fairy-filled, presumably as a direct result of the clonk, that I am having the devil of a job trying to remember what I was doing. Or indeed why on earth I might have rummaged in the broom cupboard for that dear old Blattnerphone, which I see is perched on the table, whirring away.”

Dobson’s groaning had been so terrific he had not even noticed the modified wire recorder, perched like a miniature science fiction windmill between a packet of cornflakes and the tea strainer. But before he could speak, a hammering was heard at the door, like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Dobson ceased groaning and went to see who it was who could be paying a visit at so ungodly an hour. It was visionary producer Doug Hammarskjöld, who shoved the pamphleteer aside as if he were so much chaff, and bounded into the kitchen, where he babbled at Marigold Chew as if in an ungodly frenzy. Ungodly hours and ungodly frenzies can often come in twos, and, like magpies, even in threes, and as if to prove this last point an ungodly magpie came swooping through the sky and smashed into the kitchen window, clonking its small birdy head and falling into a swoon not unlike that from which Marigold Chew had just awoken. Such are the furious interconnections of the known universe.

“Marigold, Marigold!” babbled Hammarskjöld, “I see you have been making your tape of  belligerent, combative, confrontational sound art of between six and ten hours in length, albeit in your kitchen rather than out in the field. Thank heaven you have done so! I must snatch the tape immediately from the Blattnerphone and take it to the studio, for we have a suffered a calamity involving carpet beetles and the chewing clean through of wiring and other dramatic events, worse than the worse things that happen at sea, and if I do not have a field recording to broadcast right now, my fledgling long wave station will be shut down by the radio police!”

Thus it was that, later that evening, listeners to Radio Doug Hammarskjöld were treated to six hours of Dobson’s kitchen groanings, and the station was saved for another day. The programme caused a short-lived brouhaha, and the column inches of obscure avant garde sound art magazines were filled with guff about it. Marigold Chew herself disowned the recording, and rightly so, for it was not the tape she meant to make. Although, since the dying says of 1953 when all this happened,  Brian Eno has taught us to honour our errors as hidden intentions, Marigold Chew never counted herself as an Enoist, and forever regretted that she had not caught up with the cows and peasants, the badgers and brooks, for which, as far as she was concerned, the Blattnerphone had been invented. In any case, as she wrote in a letter many years later:

I had to listen to Dobson’s kitchen groanings day in, day out, for as long as they lasted,  and I did not consider them to be sound art. If I want sound art, like any sensible person I will listen to ill-tempered Germans shouting their heads off, or to cows and peasants and rutting badgers and babbling brooks. Dobson’s kitchen groanings, like all his other groanings, were to me merely the groanings of an out of print pamphleteer. He ought to have been writing, not groaning in the kitchen with his head in his hands as the Blattnerphone whirred and hissed, and the stunned ungodly magpie lay on the windowsill, away with whatever fairies clutter the tiny heads of birds.

blattnerThe Blattnerphone

The Cosmological Blurtings

And the sea too will vanish, it will boil and seethe and become vapour, just as I foretold, Dobson wrote. It is the final sentence on the final page of the final pamphlet in the notorious series of so-called “cosmological blurtings” he composed during the Space Age. Upon publication, these essays met with a level of derision comparable to the reception given to Philip Gosse’s Omphalos (1857). But at least Gosse – the “father” of Father And Son (1907) by Edmund Gosse – had a coherent, if preposterous, argument to make, trying to reconcile his scientific observations of the fossil record with his Christian beliefs as a member of the crackpot Plymouth Brethren. Dobson, on the other hand, in his blurtings, makes no sense whatsoever. It is as if he is issuing a series of grand statements about the nature of the cosmos, past, present and future, which are wildly contradictory, bonkers, and incomprehensible. Even his prose loses its shine in some of these pieces, where he chunters on about, say, stars and gravel, endlessly repeating himself and, it seems, quite forgetting the niceties of grammar and punctuation.

Marigold Chew tried to dissuade the pamphleteer from making a complete fool of himself. Fearing that what reputation he had would be damaged irreparably by the blurtings, she hid all his pencils in her mysterious cabinet. Dobson outwitted her by ingratiating himself with a charcoal burner, who gave him a couple of sticks of charcoal with which he scribbled away until Marigold Chew discovered them and ground them to obliteration with a pestle and mortar. Dobson hurried back to the declivity in the hills where he had come upon the charcoal burner, but the man had vanished, and in his place was a sparkly-eyed dwarf all dressed in green, with bells upon his cap and a startling affinity with rabbits and hares. He was like a figure from a folk tale, and Dobson wondered if, in that case, he might be persuaded to magick up some writing instruments out of thin air, perhaps as a reward for answering a riddle or three. But the dwarf was merely a dwarf, albeit a flamboyant one who was fond of rabbits and hares, so the pamphleteer trudged back home in a foul temper.

Entering the kitchenette, he rifled through the cupboards, poured all the breakfast cereals out of their cartons into a sack, and retreated to his study. With scissors and a tube of Brian Eno’s Proprietary Extra Sticky Gum For Pasting Purposes™, Dobson painstakingly cut out words from the cereal packaging, arranged them into sentences, and stuck them into his notebook. Not surprisingly, the sections of the blurtings which resulted are particularly dimwitted. He quickly exhausted his supply of cardboard words, and thumped his head repeatedly upon his escritoire in the ravages of despair.

At this stage, Marigold Chew tried to tug Dobson’s head out of the clouds and to fix his attention upon other, mundane topics.

“Why don’t you give these cosmological blurtings a rest, Dobson, and write a pamphlet about an everyday subject? Think what you could make of something like, oh I don’t know, a sack full of mixed breakfast cereals, or a dwarf with rabbits and hares. Those are the sorts of topics that are screaming to be written about, I would have thought. And who better to address them than you?”

Dobson merely banged his forehead upon his desk again.

That night, the pamphleteer lay on his back in the middle of a field, staring up at the stars. The mania was still upon him. He had come to the field, towards dusk, armed with a paperback botanical guide, wondering if he might find a clump of Isatis tinctoria, or woad, or glastum, from which he could eke some blue dye to daub further blurtings. But he had left it late in the day, and there was not light enough for him to identify with certainty any of the clumps of foliage in the field. And so he stared up at the stars all night, barely blinking, transfixed.

They found him in the morning, flat on his back, soaked in dew. There were four of them, togged out in the apparel of hikers, each of them beardy and bug-eyed and carrying rucksacks packed with enigmatic cargo – measuring instruments and metallic meters with dials and Coddington lenses and bakelite blocks from which dangled wires and clips and hooters and Mackenzie beams and scanners and nozzles. They had maps, too, and big fold-out diagrams, and logbooks of full of arcane jottings. And they had pencils.

Dobson woke up.

“Good morning,” he said, to the quartet of lanky eccentrics looming over him, “And who might you be?”

“We, sir,” said the lankiest, beardiest, most bug-eyed one, “Are the Brethren of Plymouth. Not to be confused, I hasten to add, with the Plymouth Brethren, a sect of Christian crackpots. We are men of science, men of parascience, of superscience, of uberscience! Our project is to untangle the knot of nature, to lay bare the secret workings of the universe! That is why our rucksacks contain an array of paraphernalia the likes of which will not be found in the rucksacks of ordinary, mortal hiking persons. Here, take a look.”

And so saying, he plumped his rucksack on the ground and unfastened its flaps and gave Dobson a glimpse of wonders.

“This is all very interesting,” said the pamphleteer, addressing the four of them as one, for now they were huddled so close together that they might have been a single beast with eight legs and four beardy heads, “I am Dobson, the pamphleteer, and I am currently engaged in a series of blurtings which tally uncannily with the aims of your project. Perhaps we should join forces. I see you have pencils.”

Thus it was that, rather than returning home that morning, Dobson threw in his lot with the Brethren of Plymouth. For three weeks he lived with them at their encampment a stone’s throw from the declivity where he had met both the charcoal burner and the dwarf, and with the aid of borrowed pencils, he completed his cosmological blurtings. When his work was done, he went back to Marigold Chew, in triumph.

Of course, when the pieces were published and comprehensively demolished by the pamphlet-reviewing critics, Dobson’s reputation suffered just as Marigold Chew had said it would.

“I am not an ‘I told you so’ sort of person, Dobson,” she said one morning as she was spreading marmalade substitute on a potato-based snacking treat, “But have you seen what it says in today’s Daily Keep Up To Speed With The Latest Pamphleteering Shenanigans? No? Let me read it to you. ‘Dobson’s reputation will take a long time to recover from the plunge into the uttermost depths it has taken since he published his so-called cosmological blurtings. These witless works are evidence of a weak brain. The best thing Dobson can do is to go into hiding for a decade or so, perhaps by taking up a janitorial post in some farflung place like Winnipeg.’”

Of course, that is exactly what Dobson did do. Marigold Chew did not join him. She stayed to hold the fort. It was a big fort, with delightful crenellations, and many flags, and it had the shiniest portcullis outside of Navarre.

Meetings With Remarkable Owls

Dobson’s pamphlet Meetings With Remarkable Owls (out of print) is a curious work. Ostensibly, it is a simple account of a walk he took through the owl sanctuary at Scroonhoonpooge, and of the owls he came across there. Given the unfathomable depth of his ornithological ignorance, one is tempted to suggest that the pamphleteer only knew the birds he “met” were owls because of the big neon signage at the gate of the sanctuary.

More remarkable than the owls themselves, surely, is the fact that Dobson was able to get anywhere near them in the first place. Ever since the so-called Inexplicably Spooky Events that centred on Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard, the entire area had been cordoned off by a massive security fence patrolled by wolves and wild hogs. There had always been talk of the eerie barn and the mutant albino hens and the disturbing well, to say nothing of the farmyard itself, but after what happened on that wild and windy October weekend, so great was the terror in the surrounding villages that the fence was erected overnight, and the wolves and wild hogs let loose around the perimeter.

Dobson says nothing of this. We are asked to believe that he was out and about pounding the countryside one day when he found himself at the gate of the owl sanctuary and decided to investigate. This cannot be right. To get to the gate, he would first have had to find a way through the security fence without being savaged by wolves or wild hogs, then have had to cross the perilous bogs, avoid the piano wire strung across the pathways, clamber up the impossibly steep sludge banks, find his way through the mist-enshrouded field riddled with concealed pits in which killer spiders lay in wait, and pass through the notorious spinney of poisonous trees. Even had he accomplished all that, he would somehow have had to persuade the sentries at the owl sanctuary gate that he was a bona fide visitor, or they would have shot him on the spot and buried his corpse where it would never, ever be found. The sentries were hand-picked, undergoing rigorous psychological testing to flush out any who had a less than fanatical protective instinct towards owls.

Dobson was not a particularly boastful man, but he did have an operatic diva’s sense of drama, and it seems scarcely credible that he would let pass the opportunity to prattle on about so death-defying a journey. So we must be grateful for the research done by indefatigable Dobsonist Ted Cack, whose recently published paper suggests that some weird properties in the atmosphere around Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard may have actually modified Dobson’s brain, one such modification being a complete wiping clean of his memory between eating a choc ice at the ramshackle kiosk adjacent to Sawdust Bridge and arrival at the gate of the owl sanctuary three days later.

Some traditionalists have had harsh words to say about Ted Cack. After all, he made his name as a young firebrand with a deliberately provocative book arguing that Dobson was not the true author of the Bilgewater Elegies and that the pamphleteer had never set foot in Winnipeg, let alone worked there as a janitor in an evaporated milk factory. These were, and are, preposterous theories, and Cack did himself no favours with his shoddy scholarship, cavalier approach to source material, and pomposity. Yet with his Anthony Burgess hairstyle, hornrim glasses, and barking voice he was a natural for television chatshows, and even the crustiest Dobsonists still speak in awe of his legendary appearance on Russell Harty Plus. TV critic Loopy Sebag wrote at the time that “Ted Cack, with his Anthony Burgess hairstyle, hornrim glasses, and barking voice, is the best thing I have ever seen on television, apart from It’s A Knockout”.

In his attempt to unravel what happened to Dobson on the day of his visit to the owl sanctuary, Ted Cack put himself in the pamphleteer’s sturdy Hungarian Flying Officer’s boots, and recreated the journey. Of course, Scroonhoonpooge is much changed. The whole area around the farmyard has been flattened, and there is no longer any sign of the eerie barn or the disturbing well or the albino hens or indeed of the owl sanctuary. In their place stands a derelict and abandoned shopping precinct in which feral beasts and teenagers cavort and carouse. Only a branch of the plumbing chain Spigots R Us remains open, and its stock is covered in dust and breadcrumbs. Characteristically, Ted Cack was undeterred. He had read a lot of books about psychogeography, and though he did not really understand what he read, he was determined to pretend to be the pamphleteer in that place at that time on that day so many years ago, so much so that he prepared by eating a breakfast of bloaters and wearing a grubby pair of trousers. And, just as the painter Oskar Kokoschka had a life-size rag doll made to replace his lost love Alma Mahler, Ted Cack created a simulacrum of Marigold Chew using string and wool and scrunched-up dishcloths, and waved it goodbye as he crashed out of the door on his way to Sawdust Bridge.

The crucial paragraph in his research paper is this:

There I stood, he wrote, in a puddle outside a boarded-up milk bar where once had stood the gate of the Scroonhoonpooge Owl Sanctuary. I had absolutely no idea how I got here. It was as if my brain had been modified in some sinister way and my memory wiped clean. This leads me to the irrefutable conclusion that exactly the same thing happened to Dobson, and that is why he never wrote about his perilous journey in his pamphlet Meetings With Remarkable Owls (out of print). What I do not yet know is how permanent this brain modification will prove to be. God help me.

I cannot see any holes in this argument whatsoever, so I am prepared to state that Ted Cack, pompous and irritating as he may be, has solved one of the enduring mysteries of the pamphleteer’s career.

As for the pamphlet itself, as I said, it is a curious work. Trudging through the owl sanctuary, Dobson from time to time comes across an owl perched upon the branch of a tree. He attempts, first, to describe it, and this is where his lack of ornithological knowledge lets him down. Each description consists almost entirely of the words head, beak, wings, big round eyes, talons, and hooting sound in various combinations. But it is the second part of each “meeting” to which we turn, wherein Dobson tries to, as he puts it, “commune with the owls”. He hoots at them. He flaps his arms as if they are wings. He pounces upon a squirrel or a fieldmouse and savages it and swallows it. He hoots again.

I am Dobson, he writes, and for today at least, I am become an owl.

It is, I think, not the owls which are remarkable in this instance, but Dobson himself.

Lord, Love A Duck

When we consider the relationship between God and humankind, we tend to think of God as the one who issues commands and decrees and ukases that mere mortals must obey. Occasionally, however, it is the other way about. I have in mind the Cockney cheeky chappie who will, from time to time, exclaim “Lord, love a duck!”

What are we to make of this? Is our loveable scalliwag telling the Lord to bestow His ineffable benificence upon a denizen of the local duckpond? Or is it the case, as I prefer to think, of a command to God to engage in sexual congress with a duck? After all, there seems little need to be telling God to direct His abounding love upon any particular one of His creatures, for that is what He is doing all the time, apart of course from when He is smiting the sinful. It is a rare thing for a duck to require smiting, for by and large ducks do not sin.

We must ask why a chirpy eastender would command God to have sex with a duck, and the answer must be in the hope that the duck falls pregnant. For of course, a duck into whose womb wiggles a divine seed will eventually lay an egg from which will hatch, not an ordinary duckling, but a being that is half duck, half God – a duck-god, if you will.

The sexual link between Gods and aquatic birdlife is not without precedent. The most famous example is probably the story of Leda and the swan, although there the waters are muddied somewhat by the fact that God, in the form of Zeus, inhabited the body of a swan and proceeded to rape Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux. None of Leda’s children, either by the swan-God or by her husband King Tyndareus, turned out to have aquatic avian characteristics.

On one of his infrequent visits to Cockney haunts, Dobson overheard many ragamuffins and urchins shouting “Lord, love a duck!”, and he was led to wondering just how many duck-gods may have been spawned and were perhaps plashing unremarked in the ponds of the city’s parks. Armed with a notebook and pencil, and some sort of pneumatic scanner device of his own invention, the out of print pamphleteer plodded around those very ponds during a wet October weekend. Sadly, he never wrote up his findings in pamphlet form, and the only record we have of his researches is a fragment from a letter Marigold Chew wrote to her cousin Basil.

Dobson has returned from his tour of east end ponds, she reported, and appears to be convinced that a wigeon (or baldpate) he spotted plashing in a pond in [illegible] had a spark of divinity about it. I argued that a mere spark was surely insufficient, and that a true duck-god would be immediately recognisable as such, for it would probably emit a blinding efflorescence of heavenly majesty and be surrounded by duckling apostles bowed in worship of its mighty duck-god omnipotence and of its boundless love and mercy. I added, perhaps unkindly, that Dobson’s ornithological ignorance was of such an unfathomable depth that it would not surprise me if he had mistaken a wigeon for a pigeon, and, the latter not being a duck at all, his whole theory would come crashing around his ears. He took umbrage at this, and retired to his escritoire to scribble some twaddle about another topic entirely.


Vargas, the moustachioed Mexican cop played by Charlton Heston in Orson Welles’ classic Touch Of Evil (1958), had a walk-on part in one of the more curious episodes of Dobson’s life.

Mystery surrounds the sudden appearance in Mexico of the out of print pamphleteer, although the oft-repeated story that he hove into view on the very spot where, a few seconds earlier, Ambrose Bierce had vanished, never to be seen again, can be discounted on the basis that it is chronologically incoherent. What makes the idea of Dobson-in-Mexico so perplexing is that he was notoriously unsuited to hot temperatures. Like Horace Walpole, he often had a bucket of ice close to hand, though not, of course, when he was in Mexico, for in the high noon of a sweltering day such as the one when he made his inexplicable appearance in that hot land such a bucketful would have melted away within seconds. As one might expect, Dobson was dressed inappropriately. Witnesses record that he was enwrapped in a fur muffler and some sort of reindeer-hide kagoul, his large ungainly feet slotted in to a pair of padded boots as worn by Alpinists.

It would be helpful, I think, to have a goodly supply of words in Spanish to deploy when setting the scene. Alas, that language is not among my accomplishments, nor are most of the languages spoken and written in the world, so you will just have to picture the pamphleteer tottering unsteadily down a dusty road in a Mexican village. No one knew where he had come from, how he had got there, nor what the ramifications of his presence would be. And you can bet there would be ramifications. There always were with Dobson. He was not, to be blunt, the sort of pamphleteer who could shrink into the shadows, like a discarded and overlooked violet. If he did not always make a lot of noise, he somehow seemed to. Things would crash around him, or he would disturb the kinds of animals that howl and screech, such as dogs and wolves and screech owls and monkeys, or he would set off clanging alarm bells. At least, such rackets occurred on his foreign trips, for when he was at home in his dismal backwater silence could sometimes reign for days on end, broken only by the endless thrumming of rain upon the roof.

There was no rain here in Mexico, not today, just a broiling and battering sun in a sky innocent of clouds. Beneath it tottered Dobson, a pencil in one hand and a notebook in the other. Had anyone dared ask him what he was bent upon doing, he would have explained that he was engaged in what he liked to call “pamphleteering in the field”. By this he did not mean the sort of field he was used to at home, with its cows and rusty farm equipment, but the abstract “field” beloved of anthropologists and ethnographers, and indeed of all sorts of persons who charge about the place imagining that they are grappling with the “authentic”. Dobson did not care two pins about authenticity, delusional or otherwise, but he fancied himself as the kind of pamphleteer who could wring a pamphlet from whatever circumstances he found himself in, and once he had hit upon the “pamphleteering in the field” phrase, he made a meal of it. Thus in the year of which I write he had been stumbling aimlessly from one place to another, pencilling pamphlets as he went.

Now, in Mexico, he slumped against an adobe horse-related street appurtenance, lit one of his crumpled cigarettes, and wrote in his notebook:

Pamphlet In The Field, Number Ten. I appear to be in a Mexican village. There will be ramifications, but as yet I do not know what they will be.

It was at this point that Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas came upon the scene. He was off duty from his top job in the Mexican narcotics bureau, but his presence in the small dusty village has never been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps, like Dobson, he was just there, for no real purpose. History is full of such apparently meaningless conjunctions. Consider that Stalin and Trotsky first met each other in what is now a McDonald’s restaurant on Whitechapel Road in east London, or that Richard Milhous Nixon left Dallas from Love Field mere hours before John F Kennedy flew in on that fateful November morning in 1963. Can the encounter of Dobson and Vargas be said to have the same resonance? Certainly, what passed between them seemed unimportant at the time. Remembering that he had to buy some fruit pastilles for his wife Susie, and wishing to jot down a note, Vargas asked to borrow Dobson’s pencil. The pamphleteer obliged, mindful of the quiet authority of the Mexican lawman, but as he handed over the pencil he managed, in that Dobsonian way of his, to frighten some hens who were coming to eat some grain that had been scattered near the adobe horse-related street appurtenance. If you have ever seen a gaggle of panicked hens fleeing from a pencil-brandishing pamphleteer, you will know quite well what chaos can be wrought in a dusty village. There was uproar, and shouting, and the clattering of many cooking pots, and semi-automatic gunfire. By the time things settled down a few minutes later, after the village hen person wove his henly spell over the hens to placate them, Vargas had forgotten all about Susie’s fruit pastilles and Dobson had quite lost his train of thought. Both men might have forgotten the entire incident, but their lives were changed forever.

It is not clear precisely what happened when Vargas returned to his motel room fruit pastilleless, and it would be foolish to speculate. We know, however, that Dobson underwent a neurasthenic miasma when he found he was incapable of completing Pamphlet In The Field, Number Ten. By nightfall, he had left the Mexican village as suddenly as Ambrose Bierce had vanished. Indeed, he had left Mexico altogether, and was aboard a packet steamer, bound, eventually, for home. He spent the entire voyage, and the connecting voyages on any number of other seagoing vessels, huddled in his cabins, sucking on vitamin tablets and mopping his brow with wrung-out dishcloths. His notebook remained unopened, unwritten in, partly due to the neurasthenic miasma and partly because, in all the mayhem of the panicking hens incident, Vargas had popped Dobson’s pencil into his pocket, and he had neglected to return it.

The pamphleteer fetched up at home months later, still wearing his fur muffler and reindeer-hide kagoul and padded Alpine boots. The rain was thrumming on the roof and Marigold Chew was fixing a tarpaulin over the guttering. She greeted Dobson brightly.

“Hello Dobson! How was the field?”

“I am done with the field,” he muttered, “It has broken me. From now on, I shall write all my pamphlets sitting at my escritoire, a pot of pencils and a pencil sharpener in easy reach.”

And without another word, he went and sat at the famed escritoire, and began to write the pamphlet we know today as The Unutterable Chaos Caused By Panicking Hens (out of print). As you probably recall, he dedicated it to Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas.

Diaries Of The Dead

I would like to pin a medal on the person who first realised that the blog format was a perfect way to republish notable diaries of the dead. Now we can read Samuel Pepys, Gilbert White, and George Orwell, among many others, day by day, often with annotations. I know it is entirely possible to do this with a paper edition, but the experience is not quite the same. Somehow, reading a long ago diary as a contemporary blog gives it new life. (Incidentally, in a related move, an admirable maniac is currently posting Moby-Dick; or, The Whale line by line, hour by hour, on Twitter.)

One dead diary yet to appear online is the journal of Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer who bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus. As one of the most indefatigable Dobsonists of the day, I have often been approached by people asking if I will undertake such a project. Sometimes these pleas come in the form of polite emails, sometimes as mad screeds scrivened in blood over dozens of tatty pages, and once I was set upon by men wielding cudgels as I sat upon a picnic rug at a Mendips picnic spot eating a picnic. No sooner had I popped a sausagette into my mouth than a group of Dobson-fixated fanatics hove into view from atop a Mendip hill and bore down upon me, screaming their heads off and demanding that I transcribe the Journals and post them on a dedicated website on a daily basis. In view of such continued entreaties, let me explain why I have neglected to do so.

On the face of it, the pamphleteer’s mostly unpublished journal would be a magnificent addition to the interweb. When you consider the seething mass of clotted twaddle that does appear online, the absence of Dobson seems somehow insane. And just how hard would it be for me, or for anybody, to type up a few lines of Dobsonia every day and to share them with the world? However, as I said to the cudgel-wielding nutcases at my Mendips picnic spot, as they rained blows upon my thankfully well-cushioned balaclava, things are not as simple as that.

The great attraction of the dead-diary-as-blog is what I could dub calendrical integrity. So, what X scribbled in his diary on September 3rd 1847 is posted online on September 3rd 2008. We are always aware that we are reading a snapshot of X’s life on precisely this day many years ago. There is no express requirement for it to be this way, but that is how it is, and how we want it to be. Of course, few transcribers will take account of anomalies such as the change, in Britain, from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when September 2nd was followed immediately by September 14th. Unfortunately, the anomalies thrown up by Dobson’s journal are far more complicated.

Dobson, you see, used neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendar, but one of his own devising. This in itself would not be problematic were the calendar itself not ludicrous, absurd, and senseless. Even the pointyheads at the Pointy Town School Of Dobson Studies Dobson Calendar Study Group have thus far been defeated in their exhausting efforts to elucidate it. Indeed, the leader of the Study Group, a ferociously intelligent bluestocking with a brain the size of several planets, has been seen wandering the hills around Pointy Town, drooling and mumbling, glassy-eyed and chewing on sticks, and will soon be carted off to a House of Befuddlement far away. Those of her team who remain working at their benches, deploying their slide rules and astrolabes and weird tungsten algebraic rolling pins, are fast losing their wits.

It is worth looking at Dobson’s calendar very briefly, to see what has driven these pour souls to the brink of mental ruin. To begin with, the Dobson “year” is divided either into fifteen or sixteen months, and those months have a variable number of weeks, from three to twenty, and the weeks themselves may be of seven, seventeen, or forty days. The names of the months and weeks and days follow no identifiable pattern, and one wag has even suggested that Dobson was making the whole thing up at whim. For example, in the “year” he insisted was 1967, in the month of Topple, there were three weeks, named Barn Owl Biscuits, Potting Shed and Ray Milland. The latter was a week of seven days, Lamont, Pepinster, Hopton, Baxter, Preen, Flap, and Tentacle. Quite how one is meant to correlate this farrago of drivel to the standard calendar is a mystery, which, I suppose, was Dobson’s point. It would appear that he did not want later readers to know on which particular day he clumped along the canal towpath in his ill-fitting Ivory Coast Postal Service boots on his way to an ice cream kiosk, stopping along the way to pluck a petunia for his buttonhole, nor did he wish history to know the exact date on which he inadvertently dropped a handful of pebbles on to the head of the infant Sarah Palin during that mysterious day trip to Alaska he wrote about in his pamphlet My Mysterious Day Trip To Alaska And What I Did With A Handful Of Pebbles While I Was There (out of print).

One looks in vain, in the journals, for mention of any newsworthy events which may help us identify specific dates. In any case, such a find would be of limited use, as the journal’s millions of words were scrawled by Dobson with a blunt pencil on the backs of cardboard sheets torn savagely from cartons of Kellogg’s cornflakes. These sheets were stuffed higgledy-piggledy into filthy greaseproof paper bags and the bags themselves tossed into a series of sheds and outbuildings. The idea that it is possible ever to arrange the extant sheets into any kind of coherent order is preposterous.

An intriguing addendum to the whole sorry business recently came to light. In a tape-recorded interview with a reporter from the Bodger’s Spinney Pest & Bugle given shortly before her death, Marigold Chew denied emphatically that Dobson had ever kept a journal. Every word he ever wrote, she insisted, was destined for his pamphlets. If that is indeed the case, who wrote the oodles and oodles of words on those torn cereal packets in those teeming thousands of bags that are stored now in a temperature-controlled sanctum in the lead-lined cellar of a monstrous building in the very heart of Pointy Town?

All Around My Hat

All Around My Hat is an English folk song, popularised in the 1970s by folk rock titans Steeleye Span. Their version was very similar to the one published in A Garland Of Country Song by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1895. Apart from folk song and folklore collections, Baring-Gould wrote hymns, a sixteen-volume Lives Of The Saints, many novels, a study of werewolves, grave desecration and cannibalism, and a biography of Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875), the eccentric country vicar who spent much of his time smoking opium in a clifftop hut made from driftwood, talked to birds, dressed up as a mermaid, excommunicated his cat, and had a pet pig.

“All around my hat” are also the opening words of one of Dobson’s more curious pamphlets, in which he describes wearing a hat lined with lead to deflect weird invisible rays aimed at his brain. It is not clear who, or what, is sending these putative rays, nor why the Dobsonian cranium needs to be protected from them.

“All around my hat” writes the pamphleteer, “the air is a site of constant barrage from weird invisible brain rays!” Note the exclamation mark, an uncharacteristic touch which has convinced some critics that Dobson was fooling around. The idea that this pamphlet is an unserious blotch on the canon has gained ground in recent years, with Nestingbird, for one, going so far as to claim that Dobson did not even write it, but simply copied out random paragraphs from a booklet given away as a free gift with a packet of breakfast cereal. This argument loses a certain force when Nestingbird has to admit that he has not managed to identify the said booklet, nor the breakfast cereal. In any case, as upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack has pointed out in a series of increasingly aggressive letters, Dobson usually ate bloaters for breakfast.

The Nestingbird-Cack correspondence is a perfect example of the way in which the minutiae of Dobson studies can be magnified to the point where common sense is blotted out, much as the bulk of a pig the size of Robert Stephen Hawker’s pet pig would blot out the sun if you were sprawled in a particular patch of muck in its sty. It was a very large pig. Thus, the senior critic floats the idea of the breakfast cereal booklet, the upstart counters with the point about bloaters, the elder counters that the packet of breakfast cereal may have been purchased by and munched by Marigold Chew, the youngster replies with a computerised database of known breakfast cereal free gift booklets for the period in question, the old man picks out flaws in the research, the rookie lets loose a vituperative attack on his opponent’s atrophied brain sinews, and before long the columns of a reputable literary journal read like the ravings of H P Lovecraft in his more hysterical passages. All of this can be great fun for those entertained by Dobson-related pap, but sober-minded scholars are, I think, ill-served. There is a great temptation to take both Nestingbird and Ted Cack by the scruffs of their necks and crack their heads together. Hairline fractures in the skulls of both might just allow in thin shafts of light, akin to the weird invisible rays Dobson feared may be beaming towards his own brain. Or, I should say, the weird invisible rays Dobson possibly feared, unless of course he was just fooling around for reasons which must remain obscure to us.

Without wishing to generate further controversy over what is, in any case, a pointless and trivial matter, I should add that I have recently completed a lengthy work, at fifteen volumes just one book short of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Lives Of The Saints. It is a comprehensive study, with lots of illustrations and diagrams, of all Dobson’s known and suspected hats. I conclude that not a single one of them was lined with lead.

Crushed And Squashed

For many years, Dobson worked intermittently at a taxonomy of crushed things and squashed things. He kept two notebooks, one with a blue cover, on which SQUASHED was written in big black bold capitals, and one with a yellow cover, on to which he stuck a Dymo-Tape® strip punched out with the word CRUSHED. Asked once by a bespectacled devotee if there was any significance in the blue and yellow colouring of the notebook covers, Dobson’s reply was drowned out by the screeching of a flock of linnets. Ornithologically alert readers will say “Oi! Hang on! Linnets don’t screech”, and they would of course be correct, but the linnets in question were rare screeching linnets, a flock of which Dobson had corralled in an annexe to the room in which he granted an interview to the bespectacled devotee, in Winnipeg, or a suburb thereof. It is important to be precise about these things.

Had the rare screeching linnets not screeched, the bespectacled devotee would nevertheless have been disappointed by Dobson’s reply, for the colour coding of his crushed and squashed taxonomy notebooks was the sort of thing the pamphleteer preferred to keep under his hat. I can reveal, however, that when he bought the notebooks, Dobson was under the spell of the colour symbolism theories of Faffington.

Herne Bay, Herne Hill, and Hoon were the places Faffington trod, though which one was the site of his breakthrough discovery is not known. But in neither the Hernes nor Hoon does he have any commemorative plaque, probably because his theories have been utterly discredited. If Faffington is remembered at all, aside from Dobson’s short-lived championing of him, it is as a deluded monomaniac. He insisted on publishing his magnum opus in a stodgy German translation, thinking that this would give it more heft with beetle-browed intellectuals. Having no German, Dobson had the ludicrously dense and lengthy text Englished for him by a distressed polyglot he met on a sandbank. The polyglot was grubbing for worms, while Dobson had got lost on his way to the post office.

Dobson had something of a knack for finding himself on sandbanks, in tar pits, or stranded in drainage ditches, without ever knowing quite how he got there. Marigold Chew had suggested that he get himself a pair of shoes with a compass concealed in the heel, such as were once worn by venturesome tinies, but the pamphleteer was far too fond of his padded Bulgarian Security Police hiking boots to contemplate a change of footwear. In any case, it was one of Dobson’s physical peculiarities that he emitted violent magnetic discharges, so that compasses in his vicinity went wildly spinning. By all accounts, Faffington too was subject to anomalous magnetic phenomena, although it is mere myth that the popular cartoon character Magnet Boy! The Boy Magnet was based on him.

During the period of his infatuation with the muddle-headed colour symbolist, Dobson considered writing a potted biography of Faffington, but found facts hard to come by. After a fortnight of tough and grizzled research, all he could say for certain was that Faffington had an extremely large head. Hatters were known to have baulked at his approach, and more than one practising phrenologist had been driven to fits and vapours when attending to him. That much gave Dobson about half a page of material, not nearly enough for a pamphlet, however potted it might be. He scrunched up the page on which he had jotted his notes and tossed it into a canal, an act of wanton littering which earned him withering looks from the lock keeper for the next twenty years.

The lock keeper, by coincidence, was the brother of the distressed polyglot Dobson encountered on that sandbank. In infancy, they had been briefly famous as a variety theatre act known as The Diminutive Cavorting Brothers. The future lock keeper cavorted sideways, and he who would a polyglot be cavorted up and down. They earned a small fortune before the elder one was six years old, but every penny was frittered away by their ne’er-do-well parents, a pair of rascals who came to a deservedly sticky end. Polyglot and lock keeper drifted apart in their teenage years, and were completely estranged by the time Dobson employed the one and disgruntled the other.

Had Dobson carried out a bit more research on the subject of his abandoned potted biography, he would have learned that Faffington also had a sibling from whom he was estranged. His sister was by turns a flapper, a bluestocking, an aviatrix, and the president of a small republic rich in bauxite and tin, and she was potrayed on film by both Mabel Normand and Constance Binney.

Dobson was watching the hoofing of a horse in a blacksmith’s yard one Wednesday morning, when an anvil toppled from its temporary hoist, weakened by rainwater, and fell into the mud, crushing an encampment of goldenback beetles. It was this incident which led to his interest in crushed things and squashed things, the project to create a proper taxonomy of which remained incomplete at his death.

Disquieting Ploppy Noises From Behind The Panel

Dobson wrote extensively during the period when he was hunkered down in a janitorium. The key pamphlets from this time were collected in a compendium and published as a thick paperback with a garish cover design suitable for sale at airport bookstalls. It is thought to be the only instance where Dobson’s name was embossed in gold. Alas, this failed to impress the reading public, and very few copies of the book were sold, although we should bear in mind that I write of a time before mass commercial aeroplane travel, so there were fewer airports, and even fewer airport bookstalls, and only a handful of customers frequenting those that did exist.

One early airport bookstall worthy of note was that opened at Tantarabim Rustic Airfield by Marigold Chew’s cousin Basil Chew. Basil was a peg-legged pear-shaped man with tremendous Ruritanian moustachios, a fuddle-headed entrepreneur whose every business scheme failed. He simply had no grasp of reality, his view of the world being at once mistaken, hallucinatory, and plain wrong. If one were unkind, one would call him a blockhead. But he had charm, and winning ways, and when he twirled those fine moustachios people swooned with besotment. Thus he was able to convince a few foolhardy financiers to back his airport bookstall, where, under the delusion that aeroplanes flew at the speed of a peasant trudging along a muddy country lane and that passengers would need extremely fat books to keep them occupied, he stocked only mighty tomes of great and forbidding length. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy, Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Comprehending An Account Of His Studies And Numerous Works, In Chronological Order; A Series Of His Epistolatory Correspondence And Conversations With Many Eminent Persons; And Various Original Pieces Of His Composition, Never Before Published: The Whole Exhibiting A View Of Literature And Literary Men In Great-Britain, For Near Half A Century, During Which He Flourished, and Henry Darger’s The Story Of The Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal, Of The Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused By The Child Slave Rebellion were, in fact, the only books available at Basil Chew’s bookstall until, under pressure from his cousin, he agreed to carry the gold-embossed Dobson compendium. During the six months the business lasted, he did not sell a single book, and was kept afloat only by his sideline in toffee apples, in-flight pastry novelties, and moustachio wax.

A compelling reason for the lack of success of Dobson’s big fat book is not so much its preposterous length but that, curiously, he did not include an account of the most interesting thing that happened during the janitorium period. This was the series of events that have elsewhere been described as Dobson And The Disquieting Ploppy Noises From Behind A Panel, the title given to a ravishing essay by ravishing essayist Maud Glubb. A close reading of La Glubb’s text reveals many fascinating details, but is far from complete. Most annoyingly, we have no idea of what the panel, from behind which Dobson heard disquieting ploppy noises, was made. Was it teak, or tin, or mahogany, or lead, or hardboard, or deal, or zinc, or beaten gold, or corrugated cardboard, or iron, or papier maché, or bauxite, or empacted goat hair, or plastic, or balsa wood, or formica, or stitched-together pelts from slaughtered wolves, or bronze, or marble, or dough, or gases suspended in a solid state? Glubb does not tell us.

What we do know is that, sprawled upon the floor one Tuesday morning in April, the pamphleteer was disquieted by ploppy noises, the source of which he soon traced to behind the panel, whatever the panel was, and whatever function it played within the janitorium. We know, too, that as a result of his disquiet he rummaged in a drawer for a chisel with which to prise apart the panel from whatever it was fixed to, in order to ascertain the nature of the ploppy noises and to staunch them. We know that he failed to find a chisel nor any chisel-like tool with which to accomplish the task. That nothing in the nature of a chisel was to be found in the drawer, within a janitorium, is perplexing, and it is a point to which ravishing essayist Maud Glubb returns later in her ravishing essay. We know that Dobson leaned against the wall and lit one of his acrid Paraguayan cigarettes and puffed upon it as he bent an attentive ear to the continued ploppy noises, and we know that anon the ploppy noises petered out and that Dobson stamped out the butt of his Paraguayan cigarette with his boot and that he clumped out of the janitorium into the April morning and took a turn around a nearby pond. We do not know what the weather was like, and we do not know whether the pond was populated by ducks, or geese, or swans, or indeed if it was home to a grampus or a kraken. Unlikely as the last two may be, remember that the pond in the grounds of the janitorium was no ordinary pond, as you will know if you have read Dobson’s pamphlet Some Arresting, Diverting, And Frankly Sensational Factoids Regarding Certain Ponds I Have Had The Pleasure To Take A Turn Around, In All Weathers, Arranged In Alphabetical Order By Pond Name. Some have pointed to the pamphleteer’s use of ‘factoid’ rather than ‘fact’ to cast doubt on the veracity of this pamphlet, but it should be borne in mind that it was written at a time when Dobson was beset by benign seizures in his cranial integuments and he was not his usual self.

The next time Dobson was disquieted by ploppy noises from behind the panel was a fortnight later. It was now May, the month in which the Dutch observe the Remembrance of the Dead and the Norwegians celebrate their Constitution. Being neither Dutch nor Norwegian, the pamphleteer had no reason to mark these events, yet he did so, loudly, with bellowing and strangulated cries, tears streaming down his face, and picnics. He was that kind of man, sometimes. It was on another day in May, however, when, shifting his writing desk from one side of the janitorium to the other, he again heard the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. He had not forgotten his fruitless search for a chisel in the drawer, and was not so foolish as to repeat it. Instead, he shoved his writing desk aside, leaving it halfway across the janitorium, tiptoed up to the panel, and pressed one of his ears against it. For some reason, La Glubb insists on telling us it was his right ear. She can be given to such unnecessary detail – presented without a shred of evidence – and yet remain silent on matters of greater import, which makes her essay as infuriating as it is ravishing. Be that as it may, note that on this second occasion Dobson’s attention to the disquieting ploppy noise from behind the panel was much more focussed. In April, after failing to find a chisel, he had leaned insouciantly against one of the walls, smoking while he listened, whereas in May, look, he is crouching, the side of his head flattened against the panel, and his gob is innocent of a fag. Maddeningly, we do not know how long he remained in this creaky posture. Perhaps he was there all day, growing increasingly disquieted. What is beyond doubt is that the very next day he wrote a note in his journal. His tone is tetchy and bespeaks grumblement rather than disquiet, and it is clear that the ploppy noises are “getting to him”, as they say. Soon enough, however, the subject is dropped, and the following sixteen pages of the journal are filled with a draft version of a pamphlet upon Chumpot Patent Soap bars he was later to abandon, together with a few notes on gale force winds, Hedy Lamarr, and that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.


Shortly after completing that journal entry, Dobson took an evening stroll. We do not know what phase the moon was in and, being quite staggeringly ignorant of celestial orbs, nor did Dobson. We do not know the precise route he took, once he left the grounds of the janitorium, although it is likely that he would have passed the canal lock and the tobacconist and the badger sanctuary and the recently-demolished community hub. Had he been eating cream crackers there would have been a trail of crumbs for a sleuth to follow, for the pamphleteer was a messy eater at the best of times, and especially so when in motion. We know, however, that he had sworn off crackers of all kinds at this time, mistakenly believing them to be the cause of the benign seizures in his cranial integuments. This idée fixe of his had caused a monstrous and prolonged argument with Dr Raymilland, and it was to be many years before their relations were mended. It is significant that Dobson never felt able to discuss his disquiet at the ploppy noises from behind the panel with his physician, for Dr Raymilland was a man with much medical experience of unaccountable noises, ploppy and otherwise, and he may well have been able to recommend a course of action, probably involving muffling, and cushions. All we know for certain is that, upon returning to the janitorium in darkness, Dobson poked his head around the door for a midnight check and heard again the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. It is unclear what made him snap, but he made a sudden dash across the room and gave the panel a resounding kick with his boot. We do not know if he cried out as he did so, but afterwards, in the darkness, there was silence. The pamphleteer lit one of his acrid Paraguayan cigarettes and waited. His toes throbbed, for his boot was old and floppier than it had once been. He waited in the darkness, in the janitorium, in the silence, flicking the ash from his cigarettes on to the feng shui monkey puzzle carpeting system, until dawn broke.

Maud Glubb’s ravishing scholarly apparatus collapses at this point in her essay, and the next thing we know it is September, the month in which the Zulu commemorate King Shaka, after whom, of course, bestselling paperback author Pebblehead was named. Had Pebblehead been writing at the time Basil Chew opened his ill-fated airport bookstall, the peg-legged and pear-shaped entrepreneur would no doubt have thrown out his Prousts and Burtons and Boswells and Dargers, and stocked his shelves with the countless fat glossy potboilers churned out by that most indefatigable of authors. Apparently, at every minute of the day, somewhere in the world, someone is reading a Pebblehead paperback. Glubb is a very different kind of writer, and while we suspect that Pebblehead would never let his apparatus collapse, and we would never forgive him if it did, it is the kind of thing we expect from the ravishing essayist, and we do not let it trouble us. So, when we skip from the scene of Dobson on a night in May, having successfully silenced the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel with a flying kick of his boot, to a torrential downpour in October, and the pamphleteer slumped scowling in a bus shelter, smoking a mentholated Bolivian stogie, we simply press on, agog.

We soon learn that little had changed except the weather and Dobson’s preferred brand of cigarettes. He was waiting for a bus in the rain because he had been summoned to an appointment with the official in charge of the janitorium and of several other outlying facilities. This official, a preening autocrat of many hats, had been inundated with letters from the pamphleteer begging to be transferred from the janitorium on account of the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. After that night in May, the noises had returned, insistently, and no amount of kicking the panel made them cease, as Dobson discovered to his cost. He had even gone to the expense of a brand new pair of sturdy boots with toughened toecaps, the better to kick the panel, but to no avail. So began his written pleas to the official. Dobson knew that among the outlying facilities attached to the janitorium was a cow byre, and it was to this dilapidated rustic hideyhole that he hoped to be sent. He did not confess, in his many missives, that he was unpractised in the niceties of cow care, and this may have been his undoing. As it was, the preening autocrat ignored all of Dobson’s letters, until they began to arrive at a rate of two or three per shift. The disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel were steadily driving the pamphleteer crackers, and the tone of his letters was growing ever more hysterical.

As Maud Glubb observes, it would be instructive if we could compare the unrestrained prose of these desperate pleadings with the overwrought and majestic style of the middle-period pamphlets, but to date no Dobsonist of any standing has taken on such a task. There would, of course, be difficulties with the handwriting, for when Dobson’s brain was fuming his already crabbed and blotted scrawl became almost illegible. He is not alone among the greats in challenging the eyesight of those wishing to decipher his manuscripts. According to Jerome B Lavay, in Disputed Handwriting : An Exhaustive, Valuable, And Comprehensive Work Upon One Of The Most Important Subjects of To-day (1909), “Charlotte Bronte’s writing seemed to have been traced with a cambric needle, and Thackeray’s writing, while marvelously neat and precise, was so small that the best of eyes were needed to read it. Likewise the writing of Captain Marryatt was so microscopic that when he was interrupted in his labours he was obliged to mark the place where he left off by sticking a pin in the paper. Napoleon’s was worse than illegible, and it is said that his letters from Germany to the Empress Josephine were at first thought to be rough maps… Byron’s handwriting was nothing more than a scrawl. The writing of Dickens was minute, and he had a habit of writing with blue ink on blue paper”.

We must assume that, at some point in the first week of October, the preening autocrat smacked his forehead in despair at the tottering pile of letters arriving from the janitorium, for he took the unusual step of summoning the complainant to his headquarters. Fang Castle was situated high on a crag around which bats skittered and swooped. The bus from which the pamphleteer alighted in the teeming rain stopped at the foot of the crag, and Dobson had many, many steps to climb before he would reach the entrance to the castle. He was less than half way up when his ill-advised pink and yellow and polka dot Kennebunkport cap attracted the attention of several bats, and a passing crow. Startled, the pamphleteer lost his footing, sprained his ankle, and plunged into a clump of buttercups. He lay there helpless for three days, hidden from the bus route by a row of lupins and hollyhocks, Fang Castle looming above him high on the crag.

We know that Dobson was dismissed from the janitorium before the end of October, for there is a journal entry, clearly written on Hallowe’en, where he refers to his relief at no longer having to suffer the disquieting ploppy noises from behind the panel. What we do not know is whether he was writing from the cow byre. In a particularly ravishing passage in her ravishing essay, Maud Glubb drops hints that she has identified the precise location where Dobson was hunkered down on that Hallowe’en, going so far as to claim that she may even have it pinpointed on a map, but she does not say if she is talking about the cow byre or somewhere else entirely. Nor do we know what Dobson did at the end of his three days in the buttercups. When the sprain in his ankle eased, did he clamber up those many, many steps and confront the preening autocrat in Fang Castle, or did he shuffle to the bus stop and return to the janitorium? Meteorological records indicate that it was still raining heavily, so the pamphleteer would have been sodden through. Indeed, he may have been so soaked that he would have been forbidden to board the bus for fear that any puddles he created may have dribbled into the underfloor electrical wiring and caused the bus to explode or crash. Researchers other than Maud Glubb have pored over the records of bus mishaps for the relevant period, and there is a tantalising clue in a report in the St Bibblybibdib Parish Newsletter And Fold-Out Raffle Ticket which alludes to an exploding bus crashing near Fang Castle due to an underfloor electrical wiring fault during a torrential downpour, but the newsletter was only published twice a year and the date on this copy is unreadable, due to smudging.

In this morass of Rumsfeldian known unknowns, it is an unexpected delight to chance upon solid, incontrovertible fact. Here, reproduced without comment, is a passage from Digby Hoist’s memoir Out And About With Pebblehead:

That leap year, on the twenty-ninth of February, I joined the bestselling paperbackist on a hike. We roamed o’er hill and dale for mile upon mile, snacking on berries and weeds and drinking milk we eked from unattended cows in the fields. It should not have surprised me that Pebblehead had an enviable milking technique when presented with an udder. He is, after all, a man of parts. We investigated knots of furze and vetch and certain unnatural topiary sites as catalogued by Drain & Huffington. I demonstrated to Pebblehead a method of vaulting across rivers using a stick and a paperclip, and he showed me how to lure a badger from its sett with blandishments. Oh how we chuckled in a wry, manly way as we pranced across the loam! Scudding clouds overhead threatened drizzle, so in mid-afternoon we took refuge in a ruin. As we crouched on what looked to me like the ragged remains of a feng shui monkey puzzle carpeting system, once so unaccountably popular, I noticed that Pebblehead grew quiet. His moustache bristled, and his ears emitted wispy fumes. When I made to speak, he hushed me by wedging a shard of slate in my mouth and bashing the side of my head with his fists. The drizzle turned into a violent shower that lasted less than a minute, and then the sun blazed down on us again. I was all for leaving the ruin and continuing with our hike, for I was keen to show Pebblehead a pig enclosure I knew to be nearby, where the pigs were fantastic, but something in his demeanour gave me pause. He seemed strangely disquieted. Eventually, he began to speak, in a voice that was not his own. Instead of that familiar high-pitched, reedy squawk, like a drugged-up corncrake, his words boomed out, deep and deafening. I spat out the shard of slate and shoved my hands over my ears, but still that voice penetrated my soul as if I were in the presence of some ancient, terrible god.

“Behold the realm of Gaar!” said the Pebblehead who was not Pebblehead, “It is ruin now, but once, not so long ago, it was the place where dwelt my fiend. That spot where you crouch, puny specimen of humankind, was my panel, and behind my panel my fiend paid obeisance to me. To the imperfect ears of you earthly pipsqueaks, the horrifying and insane and magnificent and berserk ritual jabberings of my fiend sounded as but ploppy noises which caused disquiet rather than paralysing terror. One day my fiend shall return, and all shall be swept away. It will be swept away and gone.”

The voice ceased. Somewhere a linnet tweeted. The wispy fumes from Pebblehead’s ears dispersed, and his moustache stopped bristling. He looked at me, as if nothing had happened, and piped up “The rain has stopped, Digby. Let us go and take a cold hard look at those fantastic pigs you were telling me about!”

Jug o’ Paraffin

A curious tale attaches itself to the shortest pamphlet Dobson ever published. Of a light-hearted, even frisky, disposition one foul winter’s day, he wrote as follows:

Obtain a large jug of paraffin. Remove the cap from the jug and slosh the paraffin over a pile of something dry and brittle in a public place. Toss a lighted match onto it, stand back, and watch the resulting blaze. This will warm your cockles and provide a pleasing spectacle to pass the time of day.

Having nothing further to add, the pamphleteer persuaded Marigold Chew to set these four sentences in a particularly decisive and heroic typeface, and issued it under the unambiguous title Fun With Paraffin! For the cover, Marigold Chew chose a mezzotint by the mezzotintist Rex Tint, depicting his sister Dot Tint hand-tinting one of his mezzotints with a paraffin-based colourant. Before doing any typesetting or production work on the pamphlet, however, Marigold Chew had a fractious to-do with Dobson over his use of the word jug. She insisted that a jug was by definition an open-necked container, and that he should prefer the word canister, for a canister would have a cap, and be a more likely receptacle for paraffin, than would a jug, which, though it may be fitted with a plug or stopper, would never have a cap.

Dobson never took kindly to having his errors pointed out to him, believing that the sheer force of his prose, even in so short a pamphlet as this, ought to silence his critics. He was fond of quoting Christopher Smart’s line from Jubilate Agno, where the poet says “For I pray God for the ostriches of Salisbury Plain, the beavers of the Medway, and silver fish of Thames”. Sorry, wrong line. I was distracted there for a moment by a freshly-laundered dishcloth flapping in the breeze. The line Dobson liked to use to defend himself against detractors was “For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ‘em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made”.

Marigold Chew, though, was a stickler, and challenged Dobson to produce, in the real world rather than from the skewed universe inside his skull, a jug sealed with a cap. Characteristically, the pamphleteer tried to shirk this by muttering some nonsense about his urgent need to examine a nest of stints in a shrubbery over by the pond. Why on earth he persisted in his lifelong delusion that ornithology could rescue him from any pickle he found himself in is a question for wiser heads than mine. Marigold Chew made short shrift of his stinty babblings, of course, and Dobson was left with no choice but to head off to Hubermann’s in the hope that somewhere on the shelves of that unutterably gorgeous department store he might pounce upon a capped jug.

And therein lies the strangeness of this tale. For as he approached the plaza where Hubermann’s loomed enormous, he found the building enshrouded in a weird mauve mist, like the purple cloud in M P Shiel’s novel of that title, and he wandered into the mist, and through the doors of Hubermann’s, and there in the foyer he came upon a tottering tower of jugs, all with screw-top caps, and all filled to the brim with paraffin, and he was convulsed by a desire to toss a lighted match upon them, and to pass an entertaining time watching the blaze, just as he had described in his yet-to-be-typeset pamphlet. But as he reached into his pocket for a box of lucifers, he was felled by an eagle-eyed Hubermann’s security guard, a titanic monster of a man whose epaulettes glistened in the mist and whose buttons glistened in the mist even more than his epaulettes so glistened. And Dobson was kept under lock and key in a broom cupboard in the basement of the department store until bailed by an eerie, cadaverous magistrate who roved the land on horseback, following the mauve mist wherever it settled.

Home again, fuddled and with mysterious mauve stainage upon his clothing, the pamphleteer told his tale to Marigold Chew, who, despite raising a skeptical eyebrow, skipped at once to her shed and cranked out Dobson’s pamphlet with the text as Dobson wanted it, the world once again cast from the mould his words had made.

Dobson’s SWAT Team

One wintertime, in a period when he was watching far too many action films, Dobson decided that he wanted to have his own SWAT team, to deploy as the fancy took him. Marigold Chew pointed out to the pamphleteer that this latest notion of his was particularly demented. She asked him where he expected to billet his team, how he proposed to pay them, in what delusional circumstances he might order them out on a mission, and, crucially, what resources he had to ensure they were given a thorough debriefing, with access if necessary to post-traumatic stress disorder counselling. Dobson replied with a series of low grunting noises, before clambering into his new oversized Uruguayan fair trade kagoul and crashing out into the downpour. The kagoul was second-hand, stained and rent in many places, but it was new to Dobson and he thought he cut a dash in it, though of course he did not, for Dobson rarely if ever cut a dash, and then only by accident.

As he trudged along the canal towpath into town, Dobson composed in his fuming brain the advertisement he planned to place in the “Situations Vacant” column of the Evening Sofa & Last Trump. It duly appeared, remarkably free of misprints, a few hours later.

Wanted. SWAT team to carry out engagements on behalf of out of print pamphleteer. Some of the missions may be perilous. Applicants should be armed to the teeth and preferably dressed from head to foot in black, with big black boots and shiny black helmets with visors. You will be able to give a full account of the vitality of your pneuma, in the ancient Greek sense of the fiery essence in the air, the creative and animating spirit drawn into the body through the lungs and generating your innate heat. Benefits include free pamphlets and lots of smoking breaks.

It did not escape Marigold Chew’s notice that the advertisement failed to address any of the questions she had raised with Dobson earlier. That evening, on the way to a peasant theatre adaptation of Airport Chaplain, she tried a different tack.

“Assuming for a moment that a sufficient tally of persons with vibrant pneuma apply to be on your SWAT team, Dobson,” she said, “What sort of missions do you intend to send them on?”

“SWAT team missions!” replied Dobson, excitedly, as their tram ploughed through a puddle of ice, “Missions that will test their valour and grit as well as their pneuma!”

Pressed to supply just one tiny example before they arrived at the dilapidated barn that had been converted by goateed trust fund gits into a “performance space”, Dobson suggested that he would deploy his SWAT team in the event of a calamitous tram collision resulting in dozens of dead and injured tram passengers. Marigold Chew pointed out that as there was but a single tram that plied the tram tracks of the town, no such collision could take place. Dobson countered that the tram might collide with a bus. Marigold Chew pointed out that the timetables and routes of the tram and the bus had been designed with just such a calamity in mind, and so clever had the planning been that a collision of bus and tram was both theoretically and physically impossible. Dobson thought she said “implausible” and clutched at that straw for a few seconds until corrected. He then aired the idea that the tram might collide with wild roaming cows. Marigold Chew was forced to admit that wild roaming cows did sometimes roam wildly through the town, and could conceivably roam wildly into the path of the oncoming tram. Dobson looked smug. Marigold Chew then landed the killer punch by asking Dobson pointedly what his pneuma-inspired SWAT team would do if sent to intervene in a scene of smashed-up tram and the tangled and bloody bodies of tram passengers and wild roaming cows dead, dying, wounded, scarred, fractured, and hysterical. Dobson had not thought beyond the excitement of his SWAT team descending on cables from their whirring helicopter, and had no ready reply. But at the very moment that he was going to improvise some unconvincing flimflam, the tram clanked to a halt next to the dilapidated barn, and the conversation was forgotten as both Dobson and Marigold Chew alighted in the snow and rummaged in their pippy bags for their Airport Chaplain tickets.

Remarkably, in the ensuing weeks, Dobson received several applications from SWAT team wannabes. It is to his credit that he granted each one a lengthy interview, less so that irrespective of what they said he rejected them all on the grounds that their pneuma was deficient. One hopeful felt crushed by Dobson’s decision, called on him armed with documentary evidence of absolutely fantastic pneuma, and became belligerent. Marigold Chew set the crows on him and he fled. The following spring, he and Dobson passed each other in the street. They spat at each other.

Plotinus, Porphyry, Dobson, Chew, Willis

Plotinus, the philosopher of ancient Greece who gave us the six Enneads, had atrocious handwriting, did not properly separate individual words, and did not bother himself with the niceties of spelling. His student Porphyry, who edited, polished and arranged the Enneads for publication, had the thankless preliminary task of transcribing Plotinus’ shoddy and near-illegible scribbles. That was almost two thousand years ago, yet in many ways it describes perfectly the working relationship that obtained between Dobson and Marigold Chew. The out of print pamphleteer had an abysmal scrawl, possibly because of the unusual way he clutched his pencil, like a monkey with a pin-cushion. It may be difficult to make sense of that simile, but go and lie down in a darkened room and screw your eyes tightly shut and everything will become clear. For salvaging any clarity at all from Dobson’s notebooks, we have Marigold Chew to thank. Without her, not one of those majestic pamphlets would ever have been tucked lovingly on to the shelves of a motorway service station or airport bookstall.

Among much that they had in common, Porphyry and Marigold Chew were excellent proofreaders, capable of spotting the tiniest error and correcting it. This is not a job you would give to the American cinema player Bruce Willis. Mr Willis is apparently a keen contributor to blogs and chatrooms, and when other readers pointed out his many infelicities of grammar and spelling, he issued the immortal retort “proofreading is for pussies”. He will not be considered for a work experience placement at Hooting Yard.