Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 40

Robertson Davies


  WHILE ON THE train today I sat near a man who was wearing a particularly fine example of a $5 wig. Like many other things, the excellence of wigs increases directly with their cost, and $5 procures the absolute minimum of deception and aesthetic satisfaction. This fellow had bought a somewhat larger wig than he really needed, perhaps in the hope that his head would grow, and in consequence it shifted a little every time the train lurched. Sometimes it dropped down over his eyes, and I was treated to the spectacle of a growing gap between art and nature at the back: at other times the thing jerked backward, giving him a high forehead, like pictures of Shakespeare; when it tilted over one eye he had quite a rakish appearance. His hair alone entitled him to challenge Lon Chaney’s right to the name of “The Man With A Thousand Faces.” I should judge that he had owned this wig for many years, for it had grown a trifle mangy, and he had tried to rejuvenate it by smearing it with brilliantine. The result was rather as though he had decorated his pate with a piece of cotton waste which someone had used for cleaning an engine.


  I WENT TO SEE John Gielgud’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. I have never understood why some people call this an “artificial comedy”; true, it does not sprawl, and it wastes no words in foolishly reproducing the emptiness of everyday speech, but it is no more “artificial” than the music of Mozart is “artificial.” … It has been a long time since Canada saw comedy acting as perfect as this…. It is a wonderful thing to watch the audience at a performance of this quality; every time they laugh they seem to roll forward a little in their seats, and the cumulative effect of this movement is as though the whole theatre had given a tiny hop toward the stage. And what a wonderful thing it is to see an Ontario audience laugh! Those stony, disapproving, thin-lipped faces, eloquent of our bitter winters, our bitter politics, and our bitter religion, melt into unaccustomed merriment, and a sense of relief is felt all through the theatre, as though the straps and laces of a tight corset had been momentarily loosened.


  I ATTENDED A meeting of a Strength Through Joy committee of which I am a member this afternoon, and we talked about the encouragement of hobbies. There was no mention, however, of Ill Health, which is the hobby of a lot of people I know, and a very satisfactory hobby, too. You can pursue it anywhere, with simple materials which are to be found in every home, such as a bed, a rug, an easy-chair, or even a box of bicarbonate of soda. If you want to go in for it in a big way it is well to spend a dollar on a clinical thermometer, which you can carry in your pocket, and a watch, so that you can take your own pulse. The object of a hobby is to broaden your outlook and develop your personality, and mild invalidism will do both. Once you establish the fact that you are Poorly, you will be able to impose on your friends in a variety of delightful ways, and as a means of dominating your married partner, and subduing your children, it has no equal. It is a mistake to omit Ill Health from any list of hobbies, for it has its devotees in every class; I think it would be a good scheme to get all the Ill Health hobbyists together, and let them be Poorly at one another, and select a Champion. And instead of an annual Festival they could hold a Depresstival.


  I BOUGHT MYSELF a small bag of dragées yesterday; life has been using me rather shabbily, and I thought I deserved a little treat. They are delicious sweetmeats, my favourites. The modern dragée is an almond coated with hard sugar, delicately flavoured with (I suspect) talcum powder; eating one always reminds me of my childhood when I was occasionally commanded to kiss ladies who tasted just like that; old ladies tasted like mauve dragées and young ladies tasted like the delicious pink and white dragées; I always gave them a little unobtrusive lick as I kissed, to test their flavour. Modern face powder affords no such delights…. The dragée has not always been an innocent indulgence. A century ago physicians concealed their most detestable purges in those sugar shells, and poisoners have also made use of them…. Dragées are the sugar-plums about which one reads in old children’s books, and they are still more wholesome than chocolates. I sat before my fire sucking, champing and wallowing in the nostalgia which the sweets evoked.


  WHILE DRIVING this morning near a lake I saw a large group of seagulls swooping and wheeling over its surface. Among the most graceful of birds, they have the ugliest faces; in the countenance of a seagull we observe all the bitter hatred and malignance which we usually associate with the faces of moneylenders or book censors. To my mind the inland seagull is misnamed; it ought to be called a lake gull, and as seagull is commonly pronounced seagle, I suggest that lake gulls be known as lagles. I have several ornithologist friends to whom I shall mention this, but I do not expect that they will pay any attention. Ornithologists like to give birds a Latin name, with a Latin version of their own names stuck on the end. But it is rude, untutored nature-lovers like myself who give birds their common, deeply poetic names, like the Marsh Grommet, the Wheat Teazle, and the Double-breasted Ninnyhammer, or Film-Star Bird.


  A CHILD WHO IS interested in music was telling me about her favourite composers today; according to her they were all desperately poor, and never had a square meal. “Where did you pick up that notion?” I enquired; “you are wasting your pity on Chopin, who was really very well off; Beethoven had a pretty bank book, Haydn was well-heeled, Mendelssohn was born in the lap of luxury, and made a small fortune on his own account, Handel made and lost a couple of fortunes, and even Bach was in easy circumstances, according to the standards of his day. The only poor composer of the first rank that I can think of was Mozart. Dry your tears, my poppet.” But she did not want to be comforted and was annoyed by my array of facts. Why people like to think of composers as poor I cannot say, but they do. My observation has been that most musicians were as sharp as a tack in their attitude toward money, long before the days of Petrillo.


  THE WEEKEND approaches, and I want to collapse with a book during the whole of it, seeking surcease from the cares of the world. But what book? Ah, there is the question! For when I am in this spiritually depleted condition I lack the strength to tackle a book with any substance to it, but I am too cranky to endure a foolish book. Today in a bookshop I picked up a new novel and, as is my custom, looked for a picture of the author on the back of the jacket. I judge most books by the pictures of the author. If he looks a congenial fellow, I read his book; if not, not. Upon the back of this book was a picture of a fellow with large intense eyes and his hair combed forward in a fringe. Obviously, I thought, this fellow has a grievance of some sort, and his novel will fall into the great category of Gripe Novels. So I looked at some others, but found none with pictures of authors who pleased me. They all looked like Gripers, or people with a Social Conscience, or Oh-God-The-Pain-Of-It writers. I like authors to look sassy and bright, like Evelyn Waugh.


  I WATCHED A CHILD attracting a bit of steel with a magnet this afternoon, and realized with a sudden shock that the bit of steel was a five-cent piece; I can remember when those coins were made of silver, and were much in vogue for Sunday School collection. As a child I was a regular Sabbath Day scholar, graduating from the Infant school to the Intermediate, but never rising to the Bible Class, which was taught by a lawyer whose scriptural teaching was inextricably mingled with his deeper knowledge of baseball; sometimes he would devote most of a lesson which was supposed to be about the Prodigal Son to an analysis of the Babe’s batting form. This led to a widespread belief in his class that the Prodigal passed his years of riotous living as a professional ballplayer. Sunday School teaching is one field into which the modern pedagogical approach has never penetrated. And I still think that children learn more about life and conduct when an interesting man is given the run of his tongue, and is not chained to
a syllabus which dictates everything, including the opening and closing of the classroom windows.


  “DON’T YOU THINK Mr. X looks very distinguished?” the lady on my right asked me just now. As a matter of fact I think that X looks as though he had a clinker stuck in his grates, so I gave her an indirect reply. I never know what people mean by “distinguished” when they apply it to a man’s appearance. Often the person so described looks as though he smelt a bad drain, or had a nail in his shoe, or had been to the barber and got his hair down his neck; the alliance between distinction and an appearance of suffering appears to be unbreakable. Nobody who looks as though he enjoyed life is ever called distinguished, though he is a man in a million. For some reason the world has decided that an expression suggestive of pain and disgust is a mark of superior mental power, for the world assumes, quite wrongly, that to be happy is a simple thing, within the reach of any idiot.


  I WAS THINKING about the Faust legend today, and began to wonder what I would ask for if I had sold my soul to the devil, on condition that the devil grant my wishes on earth. Faust was a painfully unimaginative fellow; he asked for youth—I would prefer a hearty middle age. He asked for a fortune; I would prefer a purse which at all times contained an exact $1,000 in five dollar bills. He asked for that tiresome simpleton Gretchen, and what a sanctimonious mess she turned out to be! And in Marlowe’s play Faust asked for Helen of Troy, a notorious troublemaker. In fact, as a philosopher, Faust appears to have been in the dunce class; money, women and the torments of youth—what a choice! I cannot think what the devil wanted with the soul of such a numbskull. With his opportunities I think that I should devote myself to politics, and for recreation I would demand the power to transform myself into a beautiful woman, and in that guise I would overthrow governments. And after a few years I would command the devil to explode himself forever. How would he meet that situation, I wonder?

  1 Since Marchbanks wrote this the Phoney Westerner has added two new items to his costume—the shoelace necktie and cowboy boots (made in Switzerland) of richly worked leather. Because these boots have uncomfortably high heels the PW not only walks as if straddling a barrel, but hobbles as if afflicted with terminal bunions…. Every politician now has a large white Stetson that he wears when travelling in the West, beseeching the prairie-dwellers for their votes.

  2 The Women’s Lib groups should investigate Ingomar; it has much to recommend itself to them, though they might find it sentimental. The reiterated couplet—

  Two minds with but a single thought,

  Two hearts that beat as one—

  might get on their nerves, as it does on mine. But some rewriting, and the setting of the play changed to some fashionable theatrical milieu of our day, such as a prison or a madhouse, would work wonders.

  3 Why not an epic on the evolution of the Male? We begin with Glug, the Cave Person who slew the sabre-toothed tiger. When Mrs. Glug said “Oh, Glug, you are wonderful!” Glug would blush and drag her around the cave a few times to show that Romance was not dead (though he was all of seventeen and thus, for a Cave Person, over the hill). Onward, by difficult stages to modern man, or the Apartment Person, who proves himself to his mate by opening packages that have been sealed in plastic—a severe test for the over-forties. This would be an historical novel on the grand scale.

  4 Marshall Saunders (1861–1947) was a Canadian author who wrote something like thirty books, of which the most successful was Beautiful Joe, an autobiography (1894), a stirring revelation of the beauty of the canine soul. Marchbanks, whose affection for the canine species was always under iron control, had reservations about the book but read it to children because it made them cry, which children love. He never failed, however, to point out that the book is also a vile racist attack on the Welsh people, for the cruel milkman who crops Joe’s ears and makes him hideous (his beauty was wholly of the spirit) was gloatingly described as a Welshman. The Welsh have enough to put up with without being set upon by the wealthy and influential Dog Lobby.

  5 Marchbanks made wretched the lives of countless good men and women who sought to teach him mathematics. He suffered from what Catholic theologians call Invincible Ignorance. But he has lived to see the coming of the Computer Age, when nobody has to know mathematics, because the computer knows it all, and if you press the right button will give a plausible but not necessarily a correct answer. Nowadays Marchbanks could take a job as a teller in a bank, or even as its President if he would get his clothes pressed.

  6 Not true. Marchbanks was vice-president of the Canadian Society for Italic Handwriting during its brief life. Like so many movements to elevate mankind it perished quietly after a few years, but he can still produce a few lines of passable script.



  A Nosegay plucked from

  the Musings, Pensées, Obiter Dicta,

  and Apophthegms as well as

  the Letters of Samuel Marchbanks

  and Some of his Friends

  (to say nothing of Enemies)

  provided with Notes

  and Explanatory Matter

  by Robertson Davies


  AS WELL AS being a keen guest at the banquet of life, as is shown in his Diary and Table Talk, Marchbanks has always been a voluminous correspondent, and as well as his published writings has accumulated many notebooks filled with his occasional thoughts and reflections. Printed in full, this matter would fill several volumes, and would doubtless deserve some such title as The Marchbanks Archive. But as both he and I have observed that the full correspondence of any man is a mind-numbing bore, and that most fleeting thoughts would do well to go right on fleeting, we have decided to offer a selection only, and to include letters received by him which throw light on his many-sided nature.

  The Editor


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  I hear that you are going on a trip abroad, and that you are going by plane. Of course I wish you the best of luck but I suppose you have been reading the papers lately? These plane accidents are the limit, aren’t they? Every day a plane or two seems to crash somewhere. This being so, will you be wanting your garden hose if anything should happen? I mean you won’t, of course, but what I mean is can I have it? We have never been very close friends, but I would like something to remember you by, and mine is going all to pieces.

  Bon voyage and happy landings,

  Dick Dandiprat.


  My good Dandiprat:

  No, you may not have my garden hose under any circumstances. If evil should befall me while in flight, it will become the property of my heirs. They will, I presume, have to water the grass just as if I were alive. Your attitude suggests that of the vulture.


  Samuel Marchbanks.


  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  Although it is some years since we met I am sure that you will remember me perfectly. I hear that you are going to Edinburgh by air, and I write at once to ask a small favour. Will you take my sewing-machine with you, and send it on to my sister in Aberdeen? For some years I have been looking for an opportunity to send it to her, but I would not trust it to unfriendly hands. The machine will reach you tomorrow. I know that you will not mind doing this, as I have read all your books in our Public Library.

  Yours sincerely,

  Minerva Hawser.


  Dear Miss Hawser:

  I am returning your machine, which weighs seventy-five pounds collect. I am only permitted sixty-six pounds of baggage.

  Yours without regret,

  S. Marchbanks.


  Dear Pil:

  You have often complained that the art of correspondence is
in decline, and I suppose you are right. Everything seems to be in decline, one way or another. The long eighteenth-century letter is a thing of the past. I seem to spend quite a large part of each day writing notes of all sorts, though I rarely get a chance to write long budgets of news to my friends—among whom I am proud to number you, you frowsy old pedant. I shall send you a postcard from abroad.

  With warm good wishes,



  Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

  As you are in Edinburgh I know you will not mind doing a favour for an old friend and well-wisher. I have long wanted to honour the land of my forebears in some striking fashion. Will you buy, therefore, sixteen or eighteen yards of material in the Hawser tartan—the Dress Hawser, not the Hunting Hawser—and bring it back to me when you come. You might as well see it through the Customs, to avoid any trouble. I shall cause an evening dress to be made from it, which I shall wear on any occasion that seems to warrant such a display. I hope you enjoy your stay in “the land o’ cakes.”