The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• SUNDAY •
Was reading a sermon by an eminent Montreal divine on the subject of frivolity, of which the divine disapproved. Pleasure, he said, was a legitimate indulgence; he would even go so far as to say that people needed pleasure in their lives; but he warned most seriously against frivolity. This interested me so much that I looked up the word in my dictionary, and found that it meant more than I had thought—“trivial, empty, paltry, lacking in character and depth of concentration” were only a few of the scathing comments in the definition…. Sighed heavily, for my schoolmasters used to accuse me of frivolousness; my inclination toward untimely levity annoyed them. And it has grown with the years. If I tended toward frivolity as a boy, I am incorrigibly settled in it now.
• MONDAY •
Watched a group of children playing school today; it seemed to me to be a depressing game for the holidays, but they enjoyed it hugely. Not many lessons were taught, but there was a great deal of spanking, asking permission to leave the room, and being sent to the principal. The most prized role was that of Teacher; the largest child got that by sheer physical prowess and the smaller ones were reduced to submission by violent threats…. I recall playing school when a child with a group of Roman Catholic children; the oldest was given the prized role of Sister Mary Somebody, who must have been an uncommonly severe disciplinarian. As a mere Protestant, I was only allowed to be the janitor; from time to time I was permitted to say “Is it warm enough for you, Sister?” whereupon Sister Mary Somebody would give me a stately nod of the head. I soon tired of the limited possibilities of the janitor’s part and went off to play by myself, while Sister Mary Somebody went on happily spanking, cuffing and scolding.
• TUESDAY •
Business took me to Toronto today, and I was amazed at the number of dead animals I passed on the highway. Most of them were skunks, though from time to time one saw a defunct rabbit, a squashed squirrel or a jellied groundhog. Why are skunks more prone to die on the highway than other animals? Is it because skunks, for thousands of years, have been used to stopping everything by sheer force of personality, and have not yet accustomed themselves to the automobile age? Certainly it is a lesson in the mutability of all earthly things to see a skunk, once nobly menacing and vainglorious, lying—a poor rag of grizzled fur—by the roadside. But it cannot be said of skunks, as it is of men, that they all smell alike in death…. And speaking of skunks, was it on purpose that the City of Toronto arranged that symphony of vile effluvia which assaults the nostrils on Fleet Street? Gas works, tannery, glue atelier and soap-rendering emporium all unite in a ferocious stench compared with which the bazaars of Calcutta are as morning roses washed with dew.
• WEDNESDAY •
My garden is a failure again this year. My morning-glory is not more than an inch above ground; my castorbeans (which should be like trees by now) are sickly shoots; a cow appears to have nested in the remains of my peony bed. The only things that are doing well are my runner beans, and some gourds, which are growing like Jack’s beanstalk and seem likely to push down a wall…. And do I care? No! If Nature doesn’t want to co-operate with me she knows what she can do.
• THURSDAY •
Because there is to be an Orange Walk5 tomorrow, I was drawn into a discussion of the Battle of the Boyne by two men who regarded it as a matter of the utmost contemporary importance. But I soon found that the Battle of the Boyne they were talking about was not the one I learned about in school; my Boyne was merely one in a series of small battles, and it was fought on July 1, and not on the Glorious Twelfth; and in my battle King William’s forces were principally composed of Dutch, French, Danish and English troops, and not of valiant Ulstermen; and in my battle the victory of King William was thought to have something to do with the fact that he had 35,000 men to his opponent’s 25,000, causing King James to run away, which was wise if not precisely valiant…. But my friends seemed to be talking about an entirely different fight. I quoted them Bernard Shaw’s wise dictum: “Peter the Fisherman did not know everything; neither did Martin Luther.” But they would pay no attention. If we were all robbed of our wrong convictions, how empty our lives would be.
• FRIDAY •
The Orange Walk today. I had to go to Toronto again and missed it, but all the way along the road I passed Orangemen gorgeously arrayed and wearing the set, determined expression of men who might have to fight for their convictions and rather hoped they would. Some of them carried bottles of fife-oil; this is a special lubricator which you drink yourself and then blow into the fife…. Arrived in Toronto, which is the Rome of the Orange Order, too late to see the parade there, though I kept meeting Orangemen and Orangewomen all day long, and even saw an Orangeinfant, so covered in rosettes and ribbons that it could hardly breathe…. It was a hot, exhausting day, and during the afternoon I was forced to refresh myself with a pot of Orange Pekoe tea.
• SATURDAY •
Should have worked in my garden, but lay in a deck-chair and read Damon Runyon instead. It is about this time of year that my gardening enthusiasm, so hot in the Spring, fails me, and I make my annual discovery that a weed is just as pretty as a flower if you look at it the right way…. Sometimes I think I got too much gardening when I was a boy, and I know that many people suffered in the same way. Indeed, a friend of mine tells me that his father won a prize for the finest garden in his home town for two years in succession, and that this triumph was based firmly upon the back-breaking labour of my friend and his brothers and sisters. Thus it is in many families; the father is the planner and overseer; the children are the toilers and fieldhands; and from this uneven division of labour a fine garden springs. Gardening is an undemocratic pursuit. Somebody crawls through the flowerbeds, weeding and grovelling like the beasts that perish; somebody else strolls in the cool of the evening, smelling the flowers. There is the garden-lord and the garden-serf. When we are all socialists gardens will vanish from the earth.
• SUNDAY •
Agog today, preparing for the second instalment of my annual holiday. This year I had difficulty in finding a place to stay; for some reason no place where I have once been is ever able to give me a reservation again, and I had to do a lot of writing and wiring before I finally got a favourable answer from a place called Camp Laffalot, at Skeleton in Muskoka. I have packed my sola topi, my butterfly net, and—as I know Muskoka—my fur coat for wear after sundown. I can hardly contain my impatience until tomorrow. Yo-ho for Camp Laffalot!
• MONDAY •
On the road at dawn this morning. Stopped at Orillia to see Stephen Leacock’s manuscripts in the Public Library, but the Library was closed for all but a few hours a day; the Little Town is still a Little Town, apparently. Looked at the Champlain Monument in Couchiching Park, which is magnificent; another monument, called Somebody’s Mother, and flanked by four drinking fountains, assaults the vision as one enters and leaves the Park…. Drove on until I came to a sign—“You Are Now Entering Lovely Skeleton.” Appropriately enough this village consists entirely of frame houses. Without difficulty I found Camp Laffalot, and at once my nostrils were assailed by that pleasant and characteristic smell of damp woodwork which is peculiar to summer hotels. Three young females with legs of vivid scarlet and peeling noses mounted the stairs ahead of me; the custom of the burnt human sacrifice still persists in Muskoka, I observe…. This place has tolerable inside plumbing; all will be well.6
• TUESDAY •
Woke at 4 a.m. to find that I was freezing; looked from my windows at Drowned Skeleton Lake, over which lay a heavy mist; pulled the bedside rug over me and shivered till morning…. A bell rang at 7:30, and the first thing I saw from my window as I crawled out of bed was two ample ladies, well advanced in middle life, hiking down to the lake in their bathing suits. Appalled by such hardihood, I huddled into a heavy suit and two sweaters, and went to breakfast; felt better after fruit, porridge, two eggs, a heap of toast, and an i
mperial gallon of hot coffee. By ten o’clock I was roasting, and had to discard everything that decency would permit; soon I shall be as half-baked as the girls I saw yesterday…. The name Laffalot, which I assumed to be Indian, is a droll contraction of Laugh A Lot, I find, and the invention of the proprietor, who hopes to put his guests in a good mood with it. He explained this to me himself. Ha ha, I thought; and later, after more reflection, tee hee.
• WEDNESDAY •
Have scraped acquaintance with some of the other denizens of Camp Laffalot. We sat on the lawn this morning, and in the fashion of guests at summer hotels, lied about our importance in our hometowns and hinted that we were richer than we looked. The only reason we were not at the Royal Muskoka or Bigwin Inn, we implied, was that we could not stand the stuffy crowd there, preferring the genial company at Camp Laffalot. We agreed that Drowned Skeleton Lake was the gem of the Muskokas, and that Laffalot had distinction and exclusiveness not granted to other summer hotels. These things settled, some of us went for a drive, to enjoy the scenery. Personally I get all the scenery I can conveniently hold in half an hour; and after a four-hour drive I estimated that I had said, “magnificent!” 422 times, “astounding!” 146 times, and “lovely!” 1066 times. These are the only words I know which apply to scenery, except “redundant,” which I use only in my thoughts.
• THURSDAY •
There is always a good deal of romance at a summer hotel. Was talking today to a pretty girl who told me that a young man was going to canoe twenty miles, portage five miles, and motor sixty miles to take her to a dance that night. I said that I wasn’t a bit surprised, and she would have flushed prettily if she had not already been cooked to the colour of underdone beef by the sun. She then pointed out islands in the lake to me, saying that there was a home on this one which cost $20,000, and that a nasty old miser who lived on another had a yacht for which he had had the effrontery to pay a mere $25,000. I was glad that somebody else was taking her to the dance; I am never comfortable with girls who can think higher than $3.50 at one time.
• FRIDAY •
Was talking this evening to a maiden lady of uncertain age who was thrown into a fantod when she discerned that I was a writer. “Don’t you dare to put me in a book, you naughty man,” she trilled. I toyed with the idea of saying that it would be a rare pleasure to press her between the sheets, but decided that there was a hint of indelicacy about such a remark which might be misconstrued. I then thought of saying that it would be a privilege to embalm her in prose, but that was worse. So I kept my mouth shut and tried to look mysterious, which gave me eyestrain. She did not know that I was a very base sort of writer; she probably thought I wrote novels, or perfume advertisements for Vogue.
• SATURDAY •
Left Laffalot today; it would be effective, but untrue, to say that my going caused a pall to fall over Skeleton; the emotion, such as it was, was all on my side. In the course of a short week, I had learned to cope with the tropic days and Arctic nights of Drowned Skeleton Lake; I had learned to listen to the astounding tales of personal prowess told by the other guests, and to counter them with a few choice untruths of my own; I had learned to say, “Gad, what a beauty; I never saw such a big fellow” whenever I saw another guest come in from the lake with a fish the size of a minnow. I had learned to eat enormous meals with an appearance of merely picking at my plate. But the time had come to leave, and I left…. Motored to Toronto, and put up at my club, the Junior Deipnosophists,7 for the night. As usual, I forgot my toothbrush, and may have to go back to Skeleton to get it. I have had it for years, and it has sentimental value which no new, luxuriantly-bristled, hard toothbrush could equal.
• SUNDAY •
Not long ago a friend of mine opened the door of the garage at her summer cottage, and found a man inside who had hanged himself about two months before; what is more he had been cut down. She is deeply anxious to know (a) why he hanged himself; (b) if he hanged himself or was hanged; (c) who cut him down; (d) what it was about her garage that appealed to his morbid fancy. She will probably never know any of these things. It is thus that life falls short of the movies; in a film she would immediately have been accepted by the detective in the case as a full partner and would have shared his risks of life and limb until the criminal was in the hoosegow, and the full story in the newspapers. But the real-life detective never even asked her to sit all night in the haunted garage and shoot on sight anyone who came down the ladder from the loft. We deplore this lack of imagination on the part of detectives, who never seem to catch anybody, anyway.
• MONDAY •
Visited some people today who had just moved into a new house. They were leading a circumscribed life, not walking where the varnish was tacky, not leaning where the paint was wet, and not falling too often into buckets of decorators’ paste. They had moved in, driven by necessity, before the workmen had finished, and the workmen resented it, as they always do. There is nothing a party of painters and decorators likes better than a large house, all to themselves, in which they can lead an ample and gracious life, occasionally doing a little work. The only way to oust them is to move in on top of them, and let the children play with all their more valuable tools after they have gone home at night.
• TUESDAY •
Received a letter written on Reform School stationery from a little girl who takes me to task because I spoke slightingly of Gregory Peck; she tells me that Photoplay Magazine esteems this Peck highly. I do not care a fig for Photoplay Magazine; I write for a highly exclusive public, subtle and pernickety in its tastes, and they are not to be bamboozled by any such pretentious tripe, nor by the antics of Master Peck, either. She concludes, “you better apologize.” The day I apologize to you, you contumacious mammothrept,8 there will be two moons in the sky.
• WEDNESDAY •
To the movies tonight to see The Song of Bernadette, which opened with these words: “To those who believe, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” This seemed a very fair statement of the case, calculated to please all the Catholics, Orangemen and nullifidians present. The audience seemed to find Bernadette amusing at times. Up in the gallery something stirred; was it a bird, was it a bird? … I wonder what the Church of Rome thinks of Hollywood, its new ally? With so many Catholic films appearing, and a firm hold on the Hays Office, things are looking up for the Propaganda Fide. But I warn the hierarchy that Hollywood is fickle; five years ago it was whooping it up for the Jews; any time I expect a series of films extolling the spiritual grace and mystical fervour of the Continuing Presbyterians, in which Gregory Peck, Bing Crosby, and Jennifer Jones will all be pressed into service as pawky Scots, hooting and skirling the granite pieties of the Auld Lichts.
• THURSDAY •
Circumstances have made a movie fan out of me this week. Tonight was haled to see Gypsy Rose Lee in a drama which told of the reclamation of a crook by a tavern entertainer who held him in lubricious thrall; this palsied theme, handled with pleasant irony, made good entertainment…. I was especially impressed by Gypsy Rose Lee, and hereby publicly announce that she is my movie queen and, in my view, the most lovely and accomplished of all Hollywood’s lallapaloozas. She has elegance, wit and a charming voice, and if I were a younger man I should write to Hollywood and offer her a half-interest in my chicken farm…. It was a similar upsurge of emotion which led my uncle, the Rev. Hengist Marchbanks (author of the popular theological work Scatology and Eschatology) to offer marriage to Miss Lottie Gilson, known professionally as “The Little Magnet” in 1888. Needless to say she refused him, but he kept a picture of her (in red silk tights) pasted in the front of his copy of Cruden’s Concordance until he was called to his long rest in 1902.
• FRIDAY •
Conversation today with a young man of eleven who confides to me that a girl at his school loves him. Ask how he can be sure. “She gobbed on me yesterday,” he replies. I ask for an explanatio
n and he tells me that in the young unmarried set in which he moves, it is a sure sign of affection if the male or female party hawks up a substantial quantity of spit and ejects it upon—or ‘gobs’—the loved one while lining up to enter school, where the presence of a teacher makes reprisal difficult. Astonished at this new gambit in the sex-life of the nation and as I walk home espy a girl of considerable charm just in front of me. Shall I gob on her? For a few enchanted moments I toy with this notion, but reject it as she might be old-fashioned in her ideas and fail to understand.
• SATURDAY •
Painted a fence today. Passersby greeted me with remarks like, “Doing a little painting, eh?” or “Well, I see you are painting your fence.” A short-tempered man might have replied, “Oh, you’re quite mistaken; I’m making a fretwork watch-cosy for my Aunt Minnie,” but I am not short-tempered. Such remarks, stressing what is obvious, are not meant to be taken literally. They are what psychologists call “phatic communion”—that is to say, talk intended to establish a sense of fellowship rather than to convey any intelligent meaning…. There are a lot of people whose entire conversation is composed of phatic communion; carried to excess it earns them a reputation for phatheadedness.