Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds was one of the fattest pamphlets Dobson ever published. The title is something of a misnomer, for the remarkable thing about this work is that it contains not a single fact about birds whatsoever. Indeed, apart from the occasional passing mention of starlings (page 49), shrikelets (page 92) and a swan (page 119), birds are signally absent from the text. In spite of this, the pamphlet has been hailed by the upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack as “the most informative text on ornithology that I have ever read”. Cack is not always the most intellectually agile of critics, though, so perhaps we should not take him too seriously, the way we might furrow our brows in deep concentration at even the merest squib from a theoretical colossus like, say, Terry Eagleton.
Dobson wrote the pamphlet at a time when he was preoccupied with moles. He was fascinated by their burrowing habits, near-blindness, and twitching snouts. Although the snouts of moles twitch less than those of shrews, particularly elephant shrews, Dobson was enamoured of what he considered the more “moley” twitching of the snouts of moles. Why, then, did he not essay a pamphlet of unusual and arresting facts about moles, rather than birds, when it was moles that intrigued him during this period? It should be noted that his tract makes no mention of [insert Latin tag for moles here] either.
A clue may be found in the fact that at the time of the pamphlet’s writing, Dobson was engaged in a feud with a bellicose undertaker from down Pointy Town way. No one can be quite sure any more what caused the vendetta, not even Ted Cack, who admits to utter beflummoxment about the whole matter. But there was an exchange of letters, among much else, and in one of these the out of print pamphleteer wrote as follows:
“Not only are you a singularly bellicose undertaker, sir, but you keep the seats in your death carriage in a very greasy condition. My dry cleaners had the devil of a job returning my trousers to their usual impeccability after last I sat upon those seats when attending the funeral rites of Thruxtonshaw Beppo, the noted mole- and bird-expert whose friendship I had come to treasure. It is true that I have not sought from you financial recompense for the cost of degreasing my trousers, but that is only because I have a more terrible revenge in mind.”
The authenticity of this letter has been questioned, chiefly because the last thing one tends to associate with Dobson is a pair of impeccable trousers. I am not suggesting that he was forever covered in grease, far from it, but a certain shabbiness, even grubbiness, was part of his general aura, even the aura detected by our psychic brethren and sistren, as attested by the redoubtable Madame Boubou, who sometimes did “readings” of the pamphleteer’s ethereal being. Dobson himself was unaware of these, as the turbanned Madame was given to following him about, skulking down alleyways or creeping after him as he reconnoitred picnicking spots in fields and parkland. She would target him, from behind, with her fearsome gaze, and make visible his aura for long enough to allow her to scribble a few notes into her psychic notepad. Often such notes contained the words “grubby”, “grimy”, “dishevelled”, and “splattered with muck”… and remember, that was his spiritual aura, not his solid, earthbound person.
Anyway, whether it is genuine or not, it is the reference in the letter to Thruxtonshaw Beppo that concerns us here. Dobson – or the counterfeiter pretending to be Dobson – correctly identifies the deceased Beppo as a mole- and bird-expert, as indeed he was, and one who the pamphleteer met often in the final days of his, the mole- and bird-expert’s, life. They first encountered each other at a football match (Red Star Hoon versus Pang Hill Academicals), where Dobson had gone to make a tape recording of turnstile-clacking noises and Beppo was present as a turnstile-clacking counter. It may seem to be unusual employment for a mole- and bird-expert, but Beppo was the kind of impoverished amateur who was perpetually short of cash, and on this particular day he was actually very close to starvation. It is thought that Dobson took pity on the skeletal clack-counter and tossed him a pastry from his bag, much as one might feed a zoo animal. The two men rapidly hit it off, and indeed there was something juvenile in their camaraderie. They addressed each other by foolish code-names, “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy”, using these soubriquets as an excuse to practice their impersonations of Richard Burton and Michael Hordern in the film Where Eagles Dare. Incidentally, the film’s screenplay, and the novel on which it is based, were written by the alcoholic Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, who is buried just yards away from Richard Burton in a Swiss graveyard. Several of MacLean’s novels include the phrase “the huddled shapelessness of the dead”, suggesting that this was an idÃ©e fixe lodged in the writer’s gin-soaked cranium, perhaps an unvanquishable memory from his war service in the Royal Navy, where he was involved in action in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast; in 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean Sea; and in 1945, in the Far East theatre, escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. MacLean’s late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese and tortured have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings. The Huddled Shapelessness Of The Dead is also the title of an exceedingly rare and out of print Dobson pamphlet, a piece of fluff about dead bees.
Dobson and Beppo began to meet daily, commandeering a corner table in The Cow And Pins tavern, where they talked for hours about both birds and moles. The expert knew his days were numbered, as he had already been diagnosed with the invariably fatal Withered Innards Syndrome, and it may be that he wanted to pass on his knowledge before he died. Intriguingly, in his eight decades, Beppo had not once put pen to paper, and his matchless store of information about birds and moles he carried entirely in his head. And what a head it was! The versifier Dennis Beerpint once described it, in conversation rather than in a poem, as “Beppo’s head, that great block of human head, dense and solid and mottled like a potato”. He made this remark during one of his rare television appearances, on the Shadrach & Abednego chatshow, on which he was a guest in the week after Beppo’s death. There were others lined up to extol the bird- and mole-expert, including songstress Kathy Kirby and bowler-hatted Avengers star Patrick McNee, but Beerpint would not stop babbling, and in those days of live broadcasts and a more spontaneous approach, he was allowed to continue until the next programme – a three-hour silent black-and-white documentary about swans – was due to begin. It was, of course, on a different edition of the same chatshow that Beerpint became the first person to utter the word “Ubuntu” on television.
If either moles or birds were mentioned in Dobson’s pamphlet Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds, we could draw the sensible conclusion that the pamphleteer had simply mixed up the fantastic amount of information pouring out of Beppo over that tavern table. But as we have seen, moles are not mentioned in the text at all, and birds only in passing. Wherein, then, lies the enigma of the seemingly gratuitous title? One possibility is that Dobson was using a code, akin to the childish “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy” with which the pair of ageing rascals addressed each other. If so, I do not think it is a code anyone is going to crack. Dobson left a teeming pile of notebooks and scribblings, catalogued by Aloysius Nestingbird and others with heroic diligence, and it seems to me that somewhere in that paper Kilimanjaro they would have found a scrap upon which the pamphleteer worked out his cipher, if cipher it was. The bumptious noodlehead and pretend Dobson scholar Emeric Vinvanvoo made a fool of himself with his claim that the pamphlet’s title was an anagram of Ubuntu And Dust Can Be No Fruits Of A Horrid SAS Salt Gas, chiefly because it isn’t. That did not stop him weaving a ludicrous fantasy that Dobson and Beppo were engaged in some kind of top secret paramilitary gas experimentation programme. Wittily, one commentator dismissed Vinvanvoo’s ravings as “like something out of an Alistair MacLean novel”, demonstrating a contextual grasp of the whole Dobson/Beppo affair which I quite envy.
I am doing my best, you see, but though I have studied the pamphlet for years now I can still make head nor tail of what Dobson was driving at. Usually, you know where you stand with his titles. How I Poked A Pointed Stick Into A Hedge is a pamphlet in which Dobson writes about poking a pointed stick into a hedge. Christ Stopped At Eboli is about Christ stopping at Eboli. Granted, in both these works, as with almost all his pamphlets, Dobson veers off into often surprising digressions, but generally speaking he takes his subject, his fad or whim of the moment, and wrings out of it all that can be wrung, and more. Even the youthful, callow Ted Cack has had the insight that “whatever the topic of his pamphlet, Dobson’s ambition was to have the last word, to make any further approach to the subject futile, for at least a century, and preferably longer. Whether writing about carpet beetles or electrical wiring systems or a dub version of the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos, Dobson worried away at his theme like a small predatory beast gnawing upon the limp body of a smaller, non-predatory beast from which the life was rapidly draining, as it were a tawny owl with a hamster, or a shrew with a newborn goat, for example.”
So if we take Ted Cack’s metaphor and think of Dobson as a tawny owl or a shrew, what kind of hamster or newborn goat is he tearing to pieces in Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds? Is that a question to which we can ever give a sensible answer? Well, I think we can. Not today, maybe, and perhaps not tomorrow, nor even this week. Nor next week, nor next month, nay even unto Saint Loopy’s Day. But I will promise this much. By the time you are all celebrating the next Saint Loopy’s Day, I will publish the mighty tome on which I have laboured like an idiot for the last God knows how many years. I long ago lost count of the number of tallow candles I have burned to light my futuristic flame-resistant reinforced plastic writer’s cabin where I crouch, scrivening away, through days and nights, year after year, sustained only by a peculiar soup-based nutrient slop and by a blinding conviction that my privations are worthwhile because I shall, finally, pierce the shroud of ignorance enveloping Dobson’s fattest pamphlet. And when, on that merry day, The Annotated Pop-Up Edition Of ‘Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds’ By Dobson, With A Preface, Introduction, Notes, Commentary, Afterword, Exegesis, Maps, Colour Plates, Exquisite Binding, Greaseproof Wrapper And Presentation Crate, Guaranteed Free Of Infestation By Microscopic Paper-Devouring Beings hits the shelves of your local supermarket, I shall smash my way out of my cabin and scamper through the meadows, flailing my arms and beaming with glee.