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 Ã€ 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 machÃ©, 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 idÃ©e 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!”