The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• WEDNESDAY •
Went to see an entertainment describing itself as Russian Ballet tonight. But it had sacrificed all the grace and carefully concealed art of Russian Ballet for a kind of athletic joyousness which was about as amusing as a high school gym exhibition. In the art of ballet, inspiration is most decidedly not ninety-five per cent perspiration.
• THURSDAY •
If the purchase of costly, foolish little gadgets will do it, I should have a magnificent garden this year. Today I bought a hose-reel, a charming toy with a lot of green paint on it, for rolling up my hose and trundling it around the garden. The fact of the matter is that since the purchase of my wheelbarrow, I have lost all sense of values, and am ready to buy anything which looks like a garden tool. Although the wowsers pretend that men come to ruin through drink and women, the real truth of the matter is that more men are ruined by the purchase of expensive domestic junk than in any other way. Drink imposes its own limit, and women soon become a weariness of the flesh, but the passion for saucy little garden gadgets, bedizened with green paint and ballbearings, is never stilled. It gnaweth like a serpent and wasteth like a fever.
• FRIDAY •
In the morning paper, I see some pictures of flower arrangements done by Toronto interior decorators. In one of them some Arum lilies had been painted blue! Such tricks are not in the great Japanese tradition of flower arrangement. Indeed, when I studied the arrangement of flowers with the Hon. Miss Morning Mouth at the Imperial Greenhouses at Tokyo, we were forbidden even to bend the stem of a flower or strengthen it with wire. I recall that one student (a pretty little creature called the Hon. Miss Bursting Cocoon) was caught by the Hon. Miss M. M. pressing the stem of a calceolaria with a warm iron, to make it straight, and she was in danger of expulsion. However, she made amends by writing one of those moving Japanese poems. It went like this:
I pressed a stem;
Now, when the moonlight falls on the jade
roof of the Imperial Brewery,
I am desolate.
• SATURDAY •
Had an inaugural use of my hose-reel today. It was not a success, being designed for hose of the type which some people attach (for reasons unknown to me) to their hot-water bottles. My hose was too strong for it, and the pretty little barrel kept unwinding just at the moment when I most wanted it to remain firm. The green paint came off on my hands in gobs, and the little hook which was supposed to keep the whole thing in a beautiful, shipshape roll, came off at once, and had to be replaced with a piece of string. What is more, when the machine is loaded with hose, the little wheels won’t revolve. Some day, perhaps, I may learn to resist the soft appeal of garden appurtenances which belong strictly in the category of toys.
• SUNDAY •
Dirty weather today, culminating in hail later this afternoon. When I read about other people’s hailstorms in the papers, the hailstones are always described as being as big as pigeons’ eggs, and sometimes as big as baseballs; my hailstones were no bigger than grains of tapioca, and melted as soon as they reached the ground. It was a disappointing performance. Frankly, I think that there is a tendency deep in the human soul to exaggerate the size of hailstones. To combat the cold I relit my furnace, using some odds and ends of coal, coke, dust and semi-liquid black goo from the corners of my cellar. The fire gave off a strangling black smoke, but no heat whatever, and deposited something like coal tar on all my furniture, upholsteries, and even on my person. I was noticeably swarthy when I went to bed.
• MONDAY •
I see that the movie magnates think of reviving The Sign Of The Cross, with Charles Laughton having his feet tickled, Elissa Landi being eaten by lions, and Claudette Colbert bouncing up and down prettily in a bath of asses’ milk. It was one of those films in which Christianity and Romantic Love were inextricably confused; Christianity and Pure Love were equated with marrying the girl and restraining premarital caresses to an occasional light kiss on the lips; Paganism and Impure Love meant not marrying the girl, and occasionally joining her in her asses’ milk bathtub. But the most fascinatingly repulsive confusion of Christianity and Hollywood Mush that I have ever seen was in Ben Hur in which lovers were shown in the foreground of the scene of the Crucifixion, with the caption, “He died, but Love goes on forever.”
• TUESDAY •
Heard about the engagement of two people known to me. Immediately the old question sprang into my mind; “What can they see in each other?” Pondered on this and decided that it was a stupid question. After all, I suppose everybody is lovable to some degree, if you approach them in the right way. Very often when I am introduced to women, I think, “What is she really like behind the disguise which she wears?” And very often I discover that she is pleasant enough, and probably would expand and glow if she received enough affection…. This habit of mine is not unlike that of the wicked villains of French novels, who were frequently described as “stripping women with their eyes”; when I was younger I used to do that, but as my eyesight grew worse, I had to depend more and more on guesswork, and finally gave it up altogether. Nowadays I never even take off a woman’s overcoat with my eyes. I am far more interested in the detection of wigs and false teeth than in conjectural revelations of a beauty which rarely exists.
• WEDNESDAY •
My kitten Tiger is making the acquaintance of the whole world out-of-doors, and her amazement at such things as grass, plants and flower beds is pretty to watch; give her a border full of iris, and she thinks that she is in a jungle, and prowls realistically. Perhaps God made cats so that man might have the pleasure of fondling the tiger…. The kitten has a luxurious, Bohemian, unpuritanical nature. It eats six meals a day, plays furiously with a toy mouse and a piece of rope, and suddenly falls into a deep sleep whenever the fit takes it. It never feels the necessity to do anything to justify its existence; it does not want to be a Good Citizen; it has never heard of Service. It knows that it is beautiful and delightful, and it considers that a sufficient contribution to the general good. And in return for its beauty and charm it expects fish, meat, and vegetables, a comfortable bed, a chair by the grate fire, and endless petting. The people who yelp so persistently for social security should take a lesson from kittens; they have only to be beautiful and charming, and they will get it without asking.
• THURSDAY •
Was not pleased this morning to receive a circular from an insurance company, addressed “To The Householder Or Roomer.” It is not the implication that I take roomers which annoys me; I have nothing against boarding houses or boarders and have indeed filled the role of Roger the Lodger myself in many homes. No; it is the word “Roomer” itself which I dislike. The English language contains excellent and honourable words to meet all cases; a man who eats and sleeps in a house kept by somebody else is a boarder (unless he is an in-law, of course); a man who merely lives there and eats elsewhere is a lodger. If we accept the nasty word “roomer” into the language, we must accept its beastly counterpart “mealer.” “Do you room at Mrs. Murphy’s?” “No, but I meal there.” … What is more, I hate letters addressed to “The Householder Or Roomer,” because they try to cover altogether too much ground with a miserable circular and a one-cent stamp. Furthermore, I loathe and condemn all circulars printed in type which tries to look like the print of a typewriter; I regard them as even baser than letters signed with a rubber-stamp of a signature. I have never bought a cent’s worth of insurance from any company dealing in such nasty deceits, and I never will.10
• FRIDAY •
Long letter today from a friend who loves cats, who calls me an “ailurophile,” which I realize, after a little thought, is Greek for cat-lover. “Glad you have a cat,” he says; “I don’t know how you managed so long without one. Every writer needs a cat. But you are wrong in saying that the names of the cats of great men are not on record. The earliest known cat was Bouhaki, who belonged to King Hana of the eleventh Egypt
ian dynasty; and you must have heard of Mahomet’s cat Abuhareira. What about Mark Twain’s four cats, Apollinaris, Blatherskite, Sourmash and Zoroaster? What about Victor Hugo’s two—Chanoine and Mouche? What about Carlyle’s cat Columbine? What about Rossetti’s cat Zoe? What about Matthew Arnold’s cats Blacky and Atossa, and Horace Walpole’s two cats Fatima and Selima, and Theophile Gautier’s two, Seraphita and Zizi, and Swinburne’s Atossa, and Dickens’ cat Williamina (first called William, by mistake) to name only a few? Dr. Johnson owned not only Hodge, whom you mention, but also a kitten called Lily. I am surprised that you could write without a cat; no other writer of the least consequence has been without one.”
• SATURDAY •
Have been thinking about what my correspondent said yesterday; maybe the trouble with modern literature is that too many writers have deserted cats and gone over to dogs; a dog is a physical, not an intellectual companion. Perhaps, after all, the Indians had a good idea in their system of totems; certainly some people seem to be Dog-men, whereas others are died-in-the-wool Cat-men; I have known quite a few Bird-women, and once I met a Monkey-woman, who was never happy unless accompanied by a small monkey which appeared to have had its trousers patched on the seat with bright green. It’s a strange world, and we are all more in the grip of primitive ideas than we care to acknowledge. The other day I saw a little girl trying to walk on a hardwood floor without touching the cracks. “The cracks are poison,” she explained, “and if you walk on them you’ll die.” Children invent magic; later in life we are still subject to this sway, but we invent “scientific” theories, and “philosophies” to make it intellectually respectable.
• SUNDAY •
The first picnic of the season, somewhat complicated by the difficulty of finding a piece of ground dry enough to sit on without receiving the impression that one had put one’s hind-quarters in cold storage. At last found a charming dingle (or gully, if you insist) and spread the refreshments; after all, a picnic is essentially a meal in the open air and there is no point in disguising the fact with attempts to appreciate the over-rated beauties of nature. There are two kinds of picnic which I hope to enjoy before I die; the first is the kind exalted in so many French paintings, in which the men lie on the grass and play mandolins and drink wine, while the ladies remove their clothes and paddle in a nearby river (see Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet); the second is an English Victorian picnic, with plenty of fine silver, a wine-cooler, a footman and a maid to serve the grub, and everybody dressed to the nines in sporting costume. The modern picnic, with peanut butter sandwiches and coffee, is good in its way, but lacks breadth and richness.
• MONDAY •
One of the candidates for the Prime Ministership11 is advertising that he was born in a log cabin, and apparently has a movie of the event to prove it. Why do so many people think it admirable to be born in a log cabin? To be born in a log cabin, during the past sixty or seventy years, merely indicates that one’s parents were shiftless; all the best people, whose parents were up-to-date in their views, were born in hospitals. A log cabin, with a dirt floor, wind whistling through the chinks in the walls, rain falling, snow drifting, and wolves howling outside the door, is no place to usher a child into the world; it is likely to pick up all kinds of nasty ailments right away. To the truly progressive mind, being born in a log cabin is a shameful circumstance, to be concealed from political opponents, who may insist that a child so born is likely to break out, even in middle age, with croup, or thrush, or diaper rash, or some other humiliating and unstatesmanlike disease, right in the middle of a peace conference.
• TUESDAY •
Without either effort or invitation on my part, politics has begun to colour my whole life. In Canada this is inevitable; what horse-racing is to Irishmen, or singing-contests to Welshmen, politics is to the Canadian. It is his absorbing passion, bred in the bone and coursing through his blood. It weighs upon him like atmospheric pressure, sixteen pounds to the square inch. There are Canadians who take no interest in politics, but they are chiefly drawn from the class which converses in sign-language, eats with its hands, and cannot count above ten. The true Canadian can be brought back from the grave, lured from his treasure-chest or beguiled from his mistress’ bower by two things—an argument about religion or an argument about politics. I have seen elderly ladies who looked like waxwork advertisements for Mother’s Day become raging tigresses when politics has been mentioned, and babes scarcely weaned bash babes of uncongenial opinion with their dollies, as election day draws near. Indeed, as a babe I swung a mean Teddy Bear myself in defence of my party prejudices.
• WEDNESDAY •
Because I have let my furnace out I have to make grate fires every night, to dry out my armchair; otherwise its boggy embrace threatens me with sciatica and swimmer’s cramp. Making a grate fire means splitting kindling and lugging wood, and by the time I have finished these jobs, I am too hot to want a fire. There is a saying, attributed to Lincoln, that “he who splits his own wood, warms himself twice.” Frankly I don’t believe that Lincoln said any such thing; he split lots of wood himself, and knew what a bore it is. But when great men die, preachers and schoolteachers, and others who are in constant need of support in their battle against human nature, invent sayings of this kind and attribute them to the dead, who are unable to talk back. Probably when I am gone I shall be represented to posterity as a man who always ate all his spinach, advocated hard physical exercise, and never left undone what he could do today. These will be gross untruths, of course, and no child who bases his life upon them will ever be anything like me; it is thus that mentors of the young horn-swoggle their little pupils and prevent them from becoming wise and great.
• THURSDAY •
A holiday, which I observed by getting back to the land. That is to say, I cut my lawn for the first time this year. The pleasure-grounds at Marchbanks Towers present an interesting example of optical illusion applied to landscape gardening; they do not look particularly extensive, but when you begin to pace out their dimensions, behind a decrepit lawn-mower, then they take on the proportions of Versailles.
• FRIDAY •
I see that some of his political supporters are telling President Truman that it will do him no good to be known throughout the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave as a fellow who plays the piano for relaxation; this, the politicos fear, may give the impression that Harry is a “longhair,” and not a “regular guy.” Here is a quaint sidelight on democracy, as interpreted by politicians…. I fear that I have a reactionary mind; I like to think of my leaders as wiser, more cultivated and more intelligent than myself; if they are not, God help us all! But the proper democratic attitude seems to be that a national leader should be the intellectual peer of a barbershop loafer, and as illiterate and undistinguished as possible.
• SATURDAY •
Painted some verandah furniture this afternoon, so that when summer comes I shall be ready to enjoy all four hours of it. Decided on a rather delicate and refined design—red and green on a white background—and paid twenty cents for a special brush to accomplish this work; I have never been one to skimp money on materials; a workman is as good as his tools, I have always maintained, and if I have to blow twenty cents on a paintbrush, I do it without a murmur…. Completed my work, and, as I was admiring the effect, it began to rain; this means that my paint will probably not dry for several days, and will be tacky for years. Unwary visitors, sitting on my verandah furniture, will carry away impressions of my red and green arabesques which I never intended…. I already have a green screen door, painted at enormous expense by a professional housepainter, which leaves every visitor with a green thumb. I can make a mess of my own house, without paying a professional painter to do so.
• SUNDAY •
Read an article in an American Sunday paper about the proper way to treat British war brides. This was a tidbit; “Kidding is hard to get used to, b
ut you have to learn; it may consist of mimicking, to see if you can take it…. Later you may learn to kid back….” I pondered this, and my advice to war brides, in Canada, at least, is not to kid back; Canadians don’t like to be kidded or mimicked, though they are extremely fond of kidding and mimicking others. Stains on many a drawing-room carpet are all that remain of war brides who imitated the Ontario accent, or spoke slightingly of our folk-festivals, such as Mother’s Day. Kidding or mimicking is best done in your native land, with plenty of your compatriots around to see that the unfortunate foreigner takes it in the proper sporting spirit.
• MONDAY •
To a political rally tonight, a form of entertainment in which, like all Canadians, I take endless delight. Every country has its distinctive art form; in Spain the bullfight; in France the treading of the grapes; in Italy the battle of the flowers; in England the cricket-match; in Scotland tossing the telegraph pole and squeezing the bawbee; in Wales the Eisteddfod; and in Canada the political rally. The sight of six or seven serious-minded men in unpressed pants sitting on a platform on kitchen chairs throws us into an ecstasy; if their mild remarks are translated into hoarse roars by a public-address system, our joy knows no bounds; if the microphone is so cunningly adjusted that the stumpy have to strain to reach it and the lanky crouch to get near it, we are transported with delight. If we ourselves are sitting on chairs which squeal and complain when we move, we are happy; if a heckler is thrown out, we cheer; if the jamboree ends with the National Anthem three tones too high for our voices, we squeak like patriotic mice. O huzza for the political rally! Wow! Bam!! Powie!!