Telephone 0845 053 1166 Go Shopping My Cart
The Times 15th October 1991

...and moreover

I once owned a Boy Scout’s diary. It contained all sorts of useful information. At the back, there were illustrations to help identify the footprints of the rabbit, stoat, badger and deer. There were the (lags of the world, a list of British monarchs, and a handy guide to cloud formations. At the front, there were knots galore, a picture of Baden-Powell sending messages across enemy lines by means of a kite, and a reminder of the Scout's Promise, including, of course, “A Scout makes good use of his time and is careful of his possessions and property.”

Alas, no sooner had I committed the Scout’s Promise to memory than I lost the diary while out wasting time with friends. It was only halfway through January, and I fell sure that I wouldn't be able to get through the year without it. But as each day went by, I felt that a great burden of Union Jacks and badger's feet and cumulo-nimbus and reef knots had been lifted from my back. There is no prospect more tiring to contemplate than an approaching year jam-packed with useful information.

For the next twenty years, while my friends made the grim progress from Boy Scout diaries to sporting diaries to Melody Maker diaries to university diaries to executive desktop diaries, I was rather proud to manage very happily without a diary at all. Then, at some lime in the mid-1980s, I was browsing in the most captivating of Suffolk antique shops, The Clare Collector, when I chanced upon a pile of diaries called The Dodo Pad.

It was described on its cover as “a combined memo-doodle-engage-diary-message-ment book”. The minute I looked inside, I knew that I had stumbled across a diary of such irresponsibility and uselessness that I had to have one. As I paid, the owner of the shop told me proudly that her husband, John Verney, was the creator of the pad. “They're very popular,” she added.

How right she was! The Dodo Pad, published by Collins, is now in its 25th year and going strong. It consists of doodles, cartoons and very pretty drawings, of quotations and jokes and riddles, of unexpected anniversaries and dotty information. It is, in its way, a hymn to frivolity over industry, to charm over earnestness and to the scatty over the dogged.

Now aged 78, John Verney has earned every right to be the standard-bearer for the great cause of irrelevance: he served with the SAS during the war, was awarded the MC and was twice mentioned in despatches, details you will not find in The Dodo Pad, where he takes on the merry persona of the omniscient Lord Dodo. ln fact, what he once wrote of Edward Ardizzone's drawings could just as well be applied to his own: “In their tender and satiric fashion, they reaffirm human values and show the comic spirit everywhere bursting through the bonds of uniform even in the midst of tragedy.”

The 1992 Dodo Pad has a European theme. August 26, we are reminded, is the anniversary of the Battle of Crecy. A cartoon shows two knights in armour, one saying to the other, “I was mustered at Crecy”. Henry James’s death on February 28, 1916, is marked by his comment on the casino at Bordeaux: “quite the air of an establishment frequented by gentlemen who look at ladies’ windows with telescopes”. Elsewhere, the unlikely figure of E.P. Thompson is quoted from 1975: “This ‘going into Europe’ will not turn out to be the thrilling mutual exchange supposed. It is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting in a darkened bedroom in a Brussels hotel for a Group Grope.”

What happened on May 29? In the Boy Scout diary it would have been the anniversary of some horribly practical invention. In The Dodo Pad, it commemorates the birth of T.H. White, in 1906, with a lovely drawing of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone alongside the following anecdote: "T.H. White was a tall impressive man with a white beard. Once, answering the door of his house in Alderney, he was confronted by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses asking for money. ‘Splendid,’ he said, ‘I am Jehovah! How are we doing?’ For those who want to make rather less good use of their time, and want a welcome break from worrying about their possessions and property, I recommend spending next year in the company of Lord Dodo.

Craig Brown

Read more reviews?