Four Last Songs

Tra La La, The Drainage Ditch is one of the Four Last Songs by elegantly-bouffanted sociopath Lothar Preen. It is, for the majority of critics, the best of the quartet, a brain-numbing racket of melodic astringency with oompah thumping, over which a rich contralto voice sings words torn from the innermost depths of Preen’s creative being. There is also some yodelling, which rarely goes amiss, and reminds us that Preen often claimed to be channelling the spirit of Christopher Plummer in the film version of The Sound Of Music. Preen also claimed to be Swiss, which he patently was not, but that is a matter on which a quietus should be put.

It was long believed that Preen wrote the Four Last Songs in his deathbed, out on a balcony in the mountains, while in the final ravages of tuberculosis. New research shows that in fact he composed these towering pieces on horseback, while riding along various clifftop paths, and it was his horse that was tubercular. Armed with this knowledge, we can make much more sense of the second of the songs, Tra La Lee, Dennis Is Coughing Up Blood, Dennis, of course, being the name of Preen’s horse.

It was long believed, up until a few seconds ago, that Lothar Preen had a horse called Dennis. I believed this myself, but I have just received a message tapped out by a spirit medium which suggests that Preen’s clifftop journey was an elaborate fiction, that he had a goat rather than a horse, that the goat was penned in a goat-pen in a field behind his shack, and that he wrote the Four Last Songs while holed up in the back room of a rough tough seaside tavern while avoiding the bailiffs. This has the ring of truth, as Preen spent the best part of his life being pursued by bailiffs, sometimes across continents. It is not clear if the goat was called Dennis, and it would be interesting to know, but the rapping of the spirit medium ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and now the only sound I can hear is the eerie whistling of the wind in the pines, or possibly the larches. I cannot tell one tree from another. Nor could Lothar Preen, if we accept that the words of the third song, Tra La Loopy Loo, What The Hell Are Those Things Growing In The Orchard?, are autobiographical, as surely they must be.

One curious feature of the Four Last Songs which has exercised the brains of some of our finest musicologists is that there are only three of them. It has been proved, in a breathtakingly pompous essay by Van Der Voo, that Lothar Preen never even considered writing a fourth song in the set, so all those hours and days and weeks and months and years, good God, years, that people like me have spent rummaging in dustbins in Switzerland, hoping against hope to find a “lost” manuscript, have been a complete waste of time. Van Der Voo is a very arrogant man, with suspicious stains upon his bomber jacket, but his argument is watertight, and we must, all of us, bow to his superior wisdom, much as it rankles to do so. That is not the only thing that rankles, my word no!, but if I were to catalogue a full list of my ranklements you would lose patience, I fear, and put me down as a tiresome, complaining git. You would not be wrong.

The Bleakest Link

Thrilling TV news! A fantastic new quiz show called The Bleakest Link begins tomorrow. Each week, the ghoulish wraiths of long-dead polar explorers, caked in ice, compete with each other to answer really hard questions. The winner is the icicle-dripping phantom who intones his answers in the bleakest, most ghastly tones. Filmed at an abandoned Antarctic weather station, the quiz features a tethered goat. A brain scanner attached to the goat measures the extent of its dreadful awe as each answer is boomed at it through a funnel, while a goat-physiology monitoring mechanism registers its fearful trembling. The quizmaster is Dale Winton, in a reindeer-hide anorak.

The Crunch Of Credit (Part 94)

Hey there Key!, writes the insufferably jaunty Dr Ruth Pastry, The crunch of credit seems to be turning into complete economic meltdown. If you don’t believe me, read the papers. Anyway, from my bolt-hole here in the paradise that is an out-of-season English seaside resort, I have a solution to the whole bloody mess. We know, from listening to the news on the wireless, that economists witter on about a “basket of currencies”. No wonder we face fiscal Armageddon if all the money is put in baskets! If everyone did as I do, and kept their cash in a pippy bag, I think we would see a dramatic about-turn in the global economy. Now I am going to take my dog Skippy for a seashore walk. Bye bye.

An Advertisement For Chumpot’s

Chumpot’s Patent Rarefied Pigfat ‘n’ Sourdough Paste comes in handy tubes. Spread thickly on a digestive biscuit, or between two slices of sliced-up solidified milk sludge, it makes for a perfect picnic snack.

You will well know, if ever you have been held responsible for the packing of a picnic hamper, the difficulty of picking the appropriate picnic snacks. How common it is, to be sat in a meadow, pipe clenched in your teeth, moustache bristling, to be lambasted by your fellow picnickers as the picnic hamper is unpacked and harsh words are said about, say, the sausages or the unsliced, unsolidified milk sludge. Many an idyllic picnic has been destroyed before it has even properly begun because of hamper-contents fury. Many meadows have resounded with unseemly imprecations. Many moustache-ends have been tweaked with spiteful tugs by the fingers of furious picnickers reaching across the picnic rug to assault the hamper packer. It is a sorry state of affairs, but one which Chumpot’s aims to make a thing of the past. Our pastes are beyond reproach.

We have been manufacturing pastes, in tubs and tubes, for over a century, from our pasteworks in Pointy Town. Old Pa Chumpot, who founded the firm, and whose moustache was as magnificent an example of the walrus variety as has ever been grown in this town, made it his business to end picnic unpleasantness good and proper. It is easy to chuckle at those early promotional leaflets, with their clunky slogans such as “There will be no more unwarranted tweaking of moustaches at picnics when you pack Chumpot’s pastes in your picnic hamper”, but they bespeak a great moral purpose. It was a time when meadows were loud with the din of moustachioed men wearing boaters, pipes clenched between their teeth, venting their fury at the choice of snacks packed into their picnic hampers. Bebonneted ladies blushed and held their dainty hands over their ears and, in some cases, swooned. Into this maelstrom stepped Old Pa Chumpot, with pastes specifically designed to bring due decorum to our meadows. For more than a hundred years now, the firm that still bears his name has continued to manufacture exciting and toothsome pastes, usually quite edible, for use at picnics. We are proud to do so.

Test Questions

Here are some questions designed to test your comprehension of, appreciation of, and response to In The Park (below).

1. Imagine you are the person with pimples. How do you think your sense of self-esteem and integration within your community hub would be affected by being shouted at by a person with a loudhailer when you are sitting on a bench in the park at dusk spitting into a beaker?

2. Try to inhabit the mind of the dog which belongs to the person with pimples. Pretend that dogs can write in coherent English. Re-write the scene from the dog’s point of view.

3. The bird which remains on its perch on a branch of a tree in the park at dusk is clearly unconcerned at the din created by a person shouting through a loudhailer. Using your vast store of ornithological learning, identify what type of bird you think it is, and argue your case with vivacity and bloody-mindedness.

4. The narrator seems to be quite ill-tempered, and there is a hint that he or she is an authoritarian figure who takes none too kindly to having their authority baulked. Is there anything in the text to suggest that the narrator is a disgruntled Maoist at sea in the twenty-first century?

5. What kind of town do you think this is?

In The Park

A person with pimples sat on a bench spitting into a beaker. In the park, in the park at dusk. I stood on the lawn and shouted at him through a loudhailer, and birds fled their perches on branches of trees in the park at dusk. The dog that belonged to the person with pimples was pissing against a tree. I shouted at the dog. One bird stayed on its perch on a branch. It was looking straight at me. The bird was looking straight at me. I dropped the loudhailer and turned and walked off the lawn on to a path in the park at dusk. A red loudhailer on a green lawn, and a person with pimples spitting into a beaker and a pissing dog and a bird on a branch. I turned my back on them and walked away along the path in the park and somewhere in the distance I heard bells clanging, dusk bells clanging, and I headed towards them, towards the bells clanging, out through the gates of the park and across the railway bridge and past the allotments and the clanging bells grew louder and night fell on my town. The blanket of night. It muffles our rage. The bells stop clanging. Muffled, muffled.

A Celebration Of The Bufflehead In Prose And Song

Everyone has their favourite type of duck, and for Prudence Foxglove it was the bufflehead. In the summer of 1894, the unsung Victorian genius took a break from writing her daringly modernist plays and compiled a fat volume entitled A Celebration Of The Bufflehead In Prose And Song. It was illustrated with her own cack-handed pencil drawings which, it has to be said, look much more like teal or mergansers than buffleheads. The dramatist had thousands of copies of the book printed at her own expense, a cost she could easily afford after the astonishing success of her plays such as See How The Intoxicated Brute Wallows In A Swamp Of Moral Turpitude Until His Ravaged Soul Is Uplifted By Muscular Christianity In The Personage Of A Pugilist Vicar (1894). The closing scene in that fine play, in which the Reverend “Nobby” Attenborough rains his beboxinggloved fists down upon the head of the intoxicated brute, is unforgettable.

Prudence Foxglove had been collecting snippets about buffleheads from books, periodicals and food packaging since childhood. Most girls of that era would have pasted their cuttings into a scrapbook, but Prudence disliked both paste and scrapbooks, and instead she stuffed her snippings into an ever-burgeoning accumulation of burlap gunny sacks. When a sack was plump and full, she stitched it up using exemplary needlework skills, and entrusted it to the keeping of one of her many gardeners for use as a pillow. The Foxglove family estate had extensive grounds, grown wild over generations of neglect, and it was Prudence’s mother Hepzibah, improbably green-fingered, who determined to tame them, employing hundreds of snag-toothed peasants from the surrounding hovels to dig and prune and hoe and harrow. Under the spell of the social reformer Rufus Crank, Hepzibah Foxglove built a model village for her gardeners to live in. Each had their own hut, with guttering and drainage and a spigot and a sink and a pallet with a mattress and a shelf of improving tracts and prayerbooks and a picture nailed to the wall of Christ commanding the woman to throw the sack full of beetles and locusts and flies and snakes and hornets and wasps into the sea. It was unusual in those days for gardeners and other servants to have pillows, so Prudence’s gunny sacks were particularly welcome. At her mother’s insistence, she had taken the precaution of seeking approval from Rufus Crank himself. By then over ninety, the reformer wrote back to her in the famous “pillows for gardeners” letter, in which he laid out a set of principles we would do well to abide by today, if, that is, we still had gardeners in huts in the grounds of our estates.

“Be warned,” he wrote, “that a gardener plucked from his hovel and given a hut with modern appurtenances such as a sink and a spigot may get hoity-toity if allowed to rest his oddly-shaped head on a pillow. Yet Christian compassion tells us he must be given the chance so to do. The risk of hoity-toityness can be tempered, if not wholly eradicated, by observing some general principles. Rent the pillow to your gardener rather than giving it to him outright. Stuff it not with kapok nor duck feathers nor soft downy empadment, but with gravel or pebbles or sand. Paper and cardboard cuttings on the subject of buffleheads are an acceptable stuffing, in extremis. Use burlap gunny sacks or other rough fabric. Forbid pillow-cases.”

Young Prudence got herself into a tizzy when trying to decide how to charge the gardeners for pillow rental, for they were unfamiliar with coinage, being peasants. Then, at one of her mother’s regular soirées, she met the so-called “potato economist” Hicks, an extraordinary man whose theories ought to have resounded down the ages, but did not, possibly because he expounded them in prose so dense and clotted and awash with spelling errors that it was, and still is, mistaken for gibberish. When he spoke, however, Hicks was a model of clarity, and as he stood next to a blazing hearth at the soirée, his massive Victorian beard at risk of catching fire, he told Prudence to accept payment of pillow rent in potatoes. It was advice she took to heart, so much so that as the years passed, and she grew to adulthood, and found worldly success as a playwright, still she found time each week to potter from hut to hut in the grounds of the estate of which she was now the mistress, demanding – and receiving – a potato from each of the increasingly creaky gardeners who at night rested their heads on pillows stuffed with her collection of bufflehead clippings.

Many of these potatoes were destined for the grubby lodgings where Hicks lived in penury. Every Thursday morning, Prudence Foxglove emparcelled a potato and took a horse and cart down to the village post office, where a new-fangled pneumatic funnel system sent packages whizzing across the land. What Hicks did with all these potatoes is an enduring mystery, for his diary is, if anything, even less comprehensible than his published writings. At one point it was thought a small clue was to be found in the startlingly fat book Table Talk Of Bearded Victorian Intellectuals, wherein nestles a report of a figure thought to be Hicks standing next to a blazing hearth making canny observations upon the dietary habits of impecunious bearded Victorian intellectuals, in which the potato features prominently. But Hicks, famously, viewed the potato as a currency, and he is unlikely ever to have eaten one. He was, in any case, an unrepentant carnivore, having trained his stomach to digest liver and gravy in huge quantities, as recommended by the nutritionist Bristow, another bearded Victorian intellectual but one who had never, so far as we know, been invited to one of Hepzibah Foxglove’s soirées.

After her mother was killed as a result of a cartographic mishap, Prudence at first continued with the soirées. Hicks, Jetsam, Baxter, Coughdrop, Fig, and Figby were all regular visitors, trudging across the filthy fields to the estate in all weathers, keen to propound their various nostrums and being plied with hibiscus syrup and water biscuits while Prudence’s sister Drusilla tinkled sentimental songs at the piano. Drusilla’s repertoire was small, but she compensated for it by devising hectic improvisational passages, so that a mournful dirge such as Bring Me Your Winding Sheet, Oh Mother Of Mine, which lasts about two minutes when played straight, could last up to sixteen or seventeen hours, by which time the assorted bearded Victorian intellectuals had often become so argumentative that shouting and fisticuffs were not uncommon. Prudence’s drudge complained about forever having to mop up bloodstains from the rug adjacent to the blazing hearth, and threatened to seek drudgery elsewhere. Petrified of losing so tireless a mopper, Prudence decided to call a halt to the soirées. This left Drusilla at a loose end, until she was persuaded to transcribe her piano pieces for a chorus of voices, and, on their afternoons off, she trained and rehearsed the gardeners, leading them on loud and lusty singsongs roaming across the fields and hills and alarming cows and pigs and ponies.

Without a drawing room full of pontificating bearded Victorian intellectuals, Prudence Foxglove too may have found herself in want of anything to occupy her. But instead she relished the solitude, and took her first faltering steps towards writing. The plays which would make her rich and famous lay in the future, and her early efforts were in verse and prose. She tried her hand at detective stories, ballads, non-fiction (A History Of Eggs), an epistolatory novel, and automatic writing dictated from the spirit world. For the latter, she had her arm hoist in a canvas sling, her hand grasping a steel pen, and stunned herself with laudanum. Publishers rejected everything she sent to them, with the single exception of the magazine Mawkish Chaff, which accepted her poem The Hopeless Hollyhocks. Her excitement was somewhat dimmed when it turned out that the editor was a Hicksite, and paid for her poem in potatoes.

Nevertheless inspired by her appearance in the public prints, albeit in a magazine with a tiny circulation, Prudence fired off a series of similar pieces, including The Lugubrious Lupins, The Dismal Dahlias, and A Spinney Choked With Marshland Weeds, and impressed the editor with her industry. He invited her to visit his office, in a grim northern mill town, and so it was that Prudence found herself taking her first ever railway journey. The trip itself was uneventful, but not so her arrival at the grim northern mill town railway station. The editor of Mawkish Chaff came to meet her in person. He was a dashing cad with exquisite manners and the morals of the sewer, and as she disembarked from her train, he swept her into his arms, protested his undying passion for her, crossed the platform to bundle her on to a small branch line train and carried her away with him to a boarding house in a shabby seaside resort for a week of sinful debauch. Initially smitten, Prudence soon came to her senses. On the pretext of popping out of the boarding house to buy a couple of choc-ices from a sea front kiosk, she went straight to the police station and shopped her seducer. As the cad was carted off to clink by a team of rozzers, she took the train back to the grim northern mill town, let herself into the offices of Mawkish Chaff with a key she had secretly had cut, and set about running the magazine herself.

Prudence Foxglove proved to be an editrix of genius. Pages once filled with sentimental pap now played host to extraordinary talents, as she called on all those bearded Victorian intellectuals who had attended the soirées to pen essays and manifestos and epic poems and novellas and visionary burbling and, occasionally, automatic writing dictated from the spirit world while their arms were hoist in canvas slings. Hicks himself was given three entire issues to expound his theories of potato economics, and then a further three when he decided he had not quite finished, followed by a couple of supplementary issues to tie up a few loose ends, and a Christmas Special to repeat the more pertinent points. Prudence was the first to publish both Fig’s hallucinatory ravings and Figby’s twee nature notes. It was in Mawkish Chaff that Coughdrop predicted, in the coming century, the appearance upon the world stage of a pamphleteer he mistakenly identified as “Bodson”.

Throughout this blizzard of editorial activity, Prudence continued to cut out clippings about buffleheads and to send them to Drusilla, who had been charged with stuffing them into burlap gunny sacks and collecting the pillow rent from the gardeners. It is curious that not a single cutting was ever taken from Prudence’s own magazine. One can search through the bound volumes and never once find the word “bufflehead”, whereas the names of other types of ducks turn up frequently, particularly sheldrakes, which were an obsessional interest of Baxter’s, no matter what he was meant to be writing about.

Although she did not wholly neglect her own work during these years, penning a so-called “pneumatic romance” and a study of the beards of Victorian intellectuals, Prudence had yet to hit upon the formula that she would make her own. The germ of that first, ground-breaking play was a walk she took through a patch of broken ground in the shadow of a grim mill one Sunday. She chanced upon a derelict, sloshing a bottle of turps and babbling to himself, and approached him with a charitable tuppence in her outstretched hand. The human wreckage grabbed at her wrist and would not let go, and Prudence realised with an awful pang that it was her boarding house cad. His manners were no longer exquisite and his morals were no longer even of the sewer, for they had been utterly blasted away through strong drink and turpentine. She had him carted off to an asylum in the hope that he would one day recover, and visited him there on subsequent Sundays, listening to his incoherent jabbering as he told her his story, from the despair of prison to the greater despair of the broken ground in the shadow of the grim mill. She felt impelled to share this terrible tale with the world, and it became the basis of her play The Dashing But Debauched Cad And His Descent Into A Netherworld Of Turpentine-Fuelled Depravity (1894). Writing it, she realised her inborn talent for dramatic dialogue, stage directions, interludes of knockabout comedy, emotionally wrenching climaxes, and daring modernist interventions, the latter owing something perhaps to Drusilla’s piano and choral techniques. From the very first performance, in which the legendary actor-manager Sir Hector Bombast played the dashing but debauched cad, the play left its audience stunned. Prudence Foxglove had found her Muse, and her future was assured.

She returned the reins of the magazine to the now partially-recovered cad and headed back to her estate, where her many decrepit gardeners and her drudge welcomed her as a heroine. Drusilla, too, was overjoyed to have her sister back, for she had grown lame and the weekly traipsing from hut to hut to collect the pillow rent had become a sore trial to her. There was a folly next to a ha-ha in the grounds of the estate, and Prudence took it as her writing-room. The plays poured out of her, on an almost daily basis, and soon enough her dramas were being put on in every theatre in the land.

Thus it was that, come the summer, she decided to take a break. One fine Friday afternoon, she took delivery of a set of sandbags and wheeled them in a barrow around the gardeners’ huts, retrieving each of her burlap gunny sacks and leaving a sandbag in its place. Then, holed up in her folly by the ha-ha, she emptied out the sacks and laboriously copied out each and every bufflehead-related clipping into a series of exercise books. When she was done, she took the horse and cart to the village post office and sent the embundled books to a printer. A month later, she received via the pneumatic funnel system thousands of copies of A Celebration Of The Bufflehead In Prose And Song.

Unlike her plays, it was not a success. The public had come to expect from her stern moral invective, drunken brutes, comedic japes, crippled orphans, vapid drivellings, pugilistic vicars, and daring modernism. None of these was to be found in what was, after all, just a forbiddingly fat anthology of miscellania about ducks. When Prudence Foxglove died in 1922, all but one of the copies was found rotting in packing cases in the cellar of her estate. And that single, presumably sold, copy? The story is told that its owner, a grand-nephew of Hicks, had it in his luggage when he stepped aboard the airship Hindenburg in Frankfurt on the third of May 1937.


Could It Be… ?

Dear Mr Key, writes Dr Stan Bismark, Whilst ripping out an old fireplace in my very own hovel I found, amongst a lot of bird poop, dead crows and other muck, a small package tied up with rusty wire.  On opening  the package all it contained was a small card-mounted photo of a style which I think is called carte de visite.  On the back of the photo in green ink was written the following: “Dobson, shortly befor he died” [sic].  Do you think this could be your very own pamphleteer?  I attach a copy of the photo.




















Slow Botany

You will be familiar with the slow food movement, particularly if you are a Guardian reader living in an ecotown. Less high profile, but more amenable to the Hooting Yard demographic, is slow botany. So I am going to tell you all about it.

Slow botany developed as a reaction against all those people who go galumphing about the countryside, across fields, through copses and spinneys and extensive forbidding woodland, or indeed through jungles teeming with exotica, and are forever shouting “Oh look! See the serried ranks of campion and bladderwort dotted among the bracken over yonder!” or “Gosh! If I’m not mistaken there must be thousands of snapdragons scattered along the railway cuttings!”

There is a lamentable tendency among the sort of people who know about plants to identify them immediately, and loudly, and this lacks decorum and is unseemly. Is it not far more rewarding to stumble about only dimly aware of the surrounding foliage, and then, if you see something arresting, to peer at it, agog, for hours upon hours, perhaps making a little pencil sketch of it on the back of your Nature Trail Map, and then, days or weeks later, to go to the library and consult a large and important illustrated reference guide to flora, trying your damnedest to match your memory and your pencil sketch with one of the umpteen pictures in the huge leatherbound volume, and thus to discover that what you looked at for so long with such interest and acuity was, for example, a marsh violet?

Compare that experience with what is likely to happen if you are accompanied on your bucolic meanderings by a planty know-all. He or she will probably have about their person a pair of binoculars, and will be wearing an ill-advised hat the sight of which will set your teeth on edge. As you trudge towards the marsh, your annoying companion will suddenly yell, “Ahead I can see a knot of marsh violets, Dennis!” and before you know it you will have been treated to a few marsh violet facts which may or may not be of any interest. What you will not have done is to focus every last atom of your attention on the marsh violets, blotting out everything else in the universe for a few precious hours.

And this is the appeal of slow botany. Granted, it is born of ignorance, indeed of an ignorance which can at times be fathomless, but therein lies its value. So next time you are accosted by a buffoon who – literally – knows his onions, offering to lead you pell-mell o’er field and green, just say no. Instead, strike off on your own, myopic, with an all but vacant head, wandering at will until you see perhaps a ground-nesting bird pecking at a plant that lures you towards it. Stop, stoop, and study.

The ground-nesting bird will almost certainly fly away at your approach. That brings us to the topic of slow ornithology, which is another matter entirely, and one we shall have to attend to on another occasion.

Comments Policy

I attended a seminar recently which had the jaunty title “Comments Policies For Bloggers : How To Make Them Harsh And Unforgiving”. It was all very tiresome, and the “facilitator”, as he insisted on calling himself, in spite of the fact that the facilities were woeful, had little understanding of a blog such as Hooting Yard. Here, the prose is defiantly sensible and the comments more sensible still.

It struck me, however, that I have never made the Hooting Yard Comments Policy clear. I will do so now. New visitors may not be aware that reading the comments here is compulsory, and is due to be enforced by an exciting – if somewhat alarming – software device. If, in future, you do not click on the comments, your computer will be disabled, your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth, your hovel will be infested with pale mutant creeping things, and you will no longer receive visits from outreach workers from your local Harsh And Unforgiving Community Outreach Cadet Squadron.

I have taken this step to ensure that readers do not miss such treats as the discussion of pippy bags to be found here, or – to pluck just one of numerous profundities – wst’s emotionally wrenching comment on The Roads To Jaywick.

Moves are afoot to make the writing, as well as the reading, of comments equally compulsory, but the boffins in the software lab have all gone on a well-deserved autumn break to the eerie Land of Gaar.

How To De-fang Your Venomous Serpent

Sooner or later, most owners of venomous serpents will wish to de-fang their cold-blooded pets. Neighbourhood Watch gauleiters and local busybodies often make life difficult for the venomous serpent owner, particularly when the paths and lanes in the vicinity are littered with the bodies of poisoned innocents with tell-tale puncture marks and faces frozen in a rictus of twisted horror. You have to weigh up the pleasure of having a happy serpent giving full vent to its instinctual drive to sink its fangs into the flesh of a passing greengrocer, and the opprobrium which is an almost inevitable result. Social death, and a want of invitations to elegant drawing-room soirées, are regrettably the lot of the venomous serpent owner, as if somehow it is the keeper rather than the pet who has been slithering about, dropping unexpectedly from the branches of trees, and injecting lethal toxins into everybody from the postmistress to the community hub outreach worker.

It should be noted that I am referring to singularly aggressive venomous serpents, those which attack without provocation, due to their being agents of Beelzebub.

Comes the time, eventually, when one tires of black looks from one’s fellows in the bus queue and of always being served last in the butcher’s shop. It is at this point that the venomous serpent owner concedes that the only solution is to de-fang their pet. Doing so is not without its risks, especially if the venomous serpent gets an inkling of what is afoot and decides to strike first. The obituary columns of the village newspaper are chocker with the names of rash wannabe de-fangers whose venomous serpents turned on them. Particularly quick-thinking venomous serpents have been known to plunge their fangs into the neck of their owner as a pre-emptive measure, before the owner has even resolved to go down the de-fanging route.

The only guaranteed method of de-fanging your singularly aggressive agent of Beelzebub is to mesmerise it. Once it has been placed in a trance, it is a simple matter to extract its fangs with a pair of pliers, and then to dab on to its gums some sort of dual-action antiseptic anaesthetic jelly. There are plenty of proprietary brands to choose from at your local chemist, if of course you have not been barred from there following the agonising death of the pharmacist, struck down by your venomous serpent on an otherwise unremarkable village afternoon. If that is the case, which it probably is, you will have to go further afield, to a different village, and in such circumstances it is best to place your venomous serpent in a creche facility while you are away. Taking the venomous serpent along for the ride has its pitfalls, such as the novelty of a fresh set of victims unlikely to be on their guard against its sudden, lethal attacks. You will not want to be a social pariah in two separate villages, as this will only compound your problems.

When you snap your de-fanged venomous serpent out of its trance, it will become fractious. Deprived of the ability to cause almost instant death by biting, it will seek new ways to express its inherent malevolence. And remember that Beelzebub will be taking an interest in its welfare. Unjust as it may be, you will quite possibly find yourself held responsible for a plague of stranglings and crushings in the village, depending upon the size of your ex-venomous serpent. Just as you were looking forward to a mantelpiece crammed with invitations to sophisticated dinner parties and potato show prize-givings, your hopes may be dashed, and you may have to mesmerise your serpent again. It is never easy the second time.


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.

Popular Scientific Recreations, Profusely Illustrated

Further to the thrilling item about the Dobsonmeter, the admirable Richard Carter has begun posting excerpts from an 1882 book entitled Popular Scientific Recreations, Profusely Illustrated at the Friends Of Charles Darwin site. He begins with that most useful of innovations, the dog-powered sewing machine. More outlandish “recreations” are promised, so do make sure you keep an eye on the site in the coming weeks and months, indeed years.