Reading an item in yesterday’s Guardian about tiny lethal phantasmal poison frogs, I was reminded of Dobson’s pamphlet My Terrifying Encounter With A Tiny Lethal Phantasmal Poison Frog (out of print). It is by any measure one of his most exciting works, guaranteed to have one panting for breath and to cause beads of sweat to break out upon the brow. This is due to the pamphleteer deploying, as he so rarely did, his remarkable ability for building suspense. Alerted by the title, we are in a state of heightened expectation for the appearance of the minuscule killer, so tiny yet so toxic. But Dobson is in no hurry to come face to face with the lethal frog.
He begins by recounting, in exasperating detail, how, in preparing for a morning trudge along the towpath of the old canal, he discovered that the aglets on his Batavian Crimebusters’ boots had become rusted and brittle, the bootlaces fraying as a result. Reluctant to don a different pair of boots – for reasons he enumerates over five pages – Dobson describes his search, in drawers and cupboards and hideyholes, for a replacement pair of bootlaces. Throughout this “desperate fossicking”, as he calls it, Marigold Chew is staring out of the window at the incessant rainfall, picking out a tune on her celeste, composing in her head the words of the song that would later be known as The Ballad Of Incessant Rainfall.
In his monograph on Dobson’s various items of footwear, Aloysius Nestingbird asks why the pamphleteer did not simply remove the laces from one of his other pairs of boots and reuse them when it became obvious that he had no pristine bootlaces to hand. He answers his own question by delving into Dobson’s infamous pamphlet Every Lace Has Its Own Boot (out of print), the work which plumbed in excruciating detail the unfathomable depth of the pamphleteer’s neurosis in these matters. Those of us who have read our Nestingbird will have his commentary in the back of our minds as we follow Dobson crashing about the house on his futile search. Twenty pages in, we are no closer to our own encounter with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, but the tension is becoming unbearable. At the point where Dobson describes tipping out onto the floor the contents of a battered cardboard box kept under the kitchen sink, we are ready to put the pamphlet aside and to put the kettle on for a calming cup of tea.
Next, we take a nap, and when we return to the pamphlet we find that is what Dobson did too. Giving up hope of finding new bootlaces for his Batavian Crimebusters’ boots, and leaving Marigold Chew plinking and musing and staring out of the window, the pamphleteer retires to his nap-hub. Now he cranks up the suspense by treating the reader to a detailed account of his period of unconsciousness, accompanied by masterly, if somewhat florid, descriptions of his pillows, his coverlet, and his mattress. Nestingbird has remarked that “no one has ever written about the nap as brilliantly as Dobson. The only wonder is that he never devoted an entire pamphlet to the subject.” This is uncharacteristically careless of Nestingbird, who has overlooked the mid-period pamphlet Fifty Pages Of Prose About Daytime Naps In Theory And Practice (out of print). It is an inexplicable lapse on the part of the greatest of Dobsonists, one I am minded to attribute to his habit, in later years, of mulch ‘n’ mop cloth bish bosh flossy flapping.
And so we are put on tenterhooks, still awaiting the terrifying encounter with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, wondering if perhaps when Dobson wakes from his nap it will be to find the diminutive assassin perched within his bouffant. But no. He wakes, he grunts, he stumbles to his escritoire and begins scribbling. What we now come upon is not the fatal frog, but one of the central mysteries of Dobsonist scholarship. This is what the pamphleteer tells us:
I woke, I grunted, I stumbled to my escritoire, and thereupon scribbled ten pages of mighty prose, putting the finishing touches to my pamphlet Six More Lectures On Fruit.
The puzzle is that no such pamphlet exists. Given the importance within the canon of the original Six Lectures On Fruit (out of print), it seems barely credible that Dobson could have completed a sequel only to destroy it so utterly that not a trace remains. As Nestingbird has demonstrated, though the pamphleteer wrote innumerable fragments and scraps and unfinished doo-dahs, whenever he considered a work complete he invariably published it, including the stuff that can only be described as bollocks. That is Nestingbird’s word, not mine. There is no other reference, anywhere, to this pamphlet, and in fact Marigold Chew, in a late interview, directly denied its existence. “Everything Dobson had to say about fruit,” she said, into a tape recorder, “is contained in the Six Lectures. The very idea that any further essays could have been wrung out of his brain is preposterous. He simply didn’t know enough about fruit.” As with all of Marigold Chew’s tape-recorded pronouncements, this has the ring of truth, and it is backed up by the remarks of the Pointy Town fruiterer Sigismundo Figorplumtree, who recalled that Dobson used to stand in front of his market stall fruit display scratching his head and wearing an entirely vacant expression for hours upon end on many a market day morning. As if that were not evidence enough, we have the famous incident when the pamphleteer took part in a charity fruit quiz on the radio and failed to answer a single question correctly.
My own theory about this perplexing mystery is that Dobson is deliberately pulling the wool over our eyes. By claiming to have written a pamphlet for which no credible evidence exists, he guesses, rightly, that our bafflement will be sufficient to make us forget all about the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, at least temporarily, so causing us greater terror and alarm when he reminds us about it a few pages later. It is an inspired display of narrative fireworks. Here is how he makes our hearts thump:
Having pocked the final full stop on my majestic fruit sequel, I decided to go a-trudging along the canal towpath in the incessant downpour after all. I determined to wear my Latvian Civic Cavalry boots instead of the Batavian Crimebusters’ boots, for the laces in the former were, I knew, in tip top condition. Earlier in the week I had run them through a pneumatic bootlace testing contraption hired from Hubermann’s. It was worth every penny, though when the time came to return the machine to that most gorgeous of department stores I admit I shed a few tears. As I trundled it along the lane atop my cart, I wondered if I would ever be able to afford to buy one of my own. Then all my bootlace problems would vanish in the ether! Perhaps, I thought, as I rounded the sordid duckpond, if I could write a pamphlet that would outsell a Pebblehead paperback, I might – oh, hang on, I am forgetting myself. You will want to know about my terrifying encounter with a tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog.
Aloysius Nestingbird rightly numbers this as among the top one hundred paragraphs ever committed to paper by the out of print pamphleteer. Yet even after this, Dobson continues to twist the knife. It seems the suspense could not be brought to a higher pitch, but it is. I have read the pamphlet a thousand times, studied it, subjected the text to the most abstruse critical scrutiny, and even discussed it with frightening Continental literary critics, all hornrimmed spectacles and atrocious beards and Gitanes and arrogant hand gestures, but still I cannot work out how he does it. No sooner has he reminded us of the tiny toxic Epipodobate with which he is destined to come terrifyingly face to face than he postpones the awful moment by spending dozens of pages wittering on about other types of poison dart frog, frogs in general, toads, green things, things with legs, tiny beings, poisonous beings, radiant beings, Ecuadorian and Andean life-forms, and – weirdly – the Flemish painter Dirk Bouts. Now we are unable to let the imminent encounter slip from our minds. There is no relief from the tension. (Dobson’s ability to shoehorn Bouts into his frog nightmare is sheer genius.) If the reader manages to get through all this without swooning or just dropping dead, it is a capital idea to toss the pamphlet aside and put the kettle back on, or, if there is a dog in the vicinity, to take it for a walk, and let it off its leash, when one reaches an expanse of greensward, and throw a stick for it to fetch, repeatedly, and then perhaps to head to a pond, and take from one’s pocket the paper bag of stale breadcrusts one has brought with one, and chuck the crusts one by one into the pond as nutriment for ducks, if there are ducks in the pond, or swans, if there are swans, and unleash the dog again and allow it to leap friskily into the pond for a swim, if the bye-laws permit the swimming of dogs in the pond, then on the way home pop in to the orphanage to distribute alms, and perhaps leave the dog there, to serve as the orphans’ pet, unless the orphanage is in a designated risk o’ rabies zone, in which case Skippy, or Praxis, or whatever the dog is called, will have to be returned to wherever it was one gathered it, from outside the post office perhaps, or the dog pound, and then as one skips lightly along the path towards one’s door, becalmed, becalmed, one will be both physically and mentally prepared to face the final hideous revelation of the Dobson pamphlet, the encounter, so long threatened, with the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog of the title, so, once safely back in the parlour, thirst quenched by that nice cup of tea, one can fling oneself into one’s armchair, à la Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu books of Sax Rohmer, and in hands no longer shaking with fear, pick up the pamphlet, and read…
And then, as I crept from the wreckage of the aeroplane onto an Andean slope, so incredibly high above sea level, out of the corner of my eye I saw something. It was tiny. It was lethal. It was phantasmal. It was poisonous. It was a tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog! I was transfixed with terror. My whole body stiffened, as if I were a piece of timber. The slopes of the Andes are steep, so immediately I began to roll downhill, just as a piece of timber would.. As I rolled, so the distance grew between me and the tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog, until I could no longer see it. By the time I came to rest at the foot of that Andean slope, I was no longer paralysed with fear. The tiny lethal phantasmal poison frog was far, far above me now, in the thin air, and it was so tiny I calculated that even hopping as frantically as it could, I would be long gone before it reached sea level. I stood up, in Ecuador, and walked away from the mountain, delivered from peril, sound of limb, numb of brain, writer of pamphlets.