The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 5Robertson Davies
• SUNDAY •
Had a heated argument this afternoon with one of those well-meaning people whose democracy is a burning faith rather than a belief based on reason; a majority, he roared, while his eyes brimmed with sentimental tears, must always be right and must always have its way; he talked feelingly about the wisdom of the Common Man. “But,” I protested, “why should you assume that a group of people, all of mediocre ability and restricted information, possesses more wisdom than the same people as individuals? For instance, if I told a group of fifty average people that the cube root of 100 is 1,000,000 it is most unlikely that anyone would dispute my word, because they do not think; but in actual fact the cube root of 100 is 4.641.” He was nonplussed, and I saw that he had fallen for my bit of sophistry himself…. I am a democrat, but the idea that a gang of anybodies may override the opinion of one expert is preposterous nonsense. Only individuals think; gangs merely throb.
• MONDAY •
Quite a number of people, I notice, have taken to calling me by my first name: I was hailed as “Sam” this morning by a young fellow whose name I do not even know. This does not distress me; if he thinks that he makes the world a cheerier place by calling everyone by a first name or a nickname, I am content that he should do so. But I wonder if people do not attach too much importance to the first-name habit? Every man and woman is a mystery, built like those Chinese puzzles which consist of one box inside another, so that ten or twelve boxes have to be opened before the final solution is found. Not more than two or three people have ever penetrated beyond my outside box, and there are not many people whom I have explored further; if anyone imagines that being on first-name terms with somebody magically strips away all the boxes and reveals the inner treasure he still has a great deal to learn about human nature. There are people, of course, who consist only of one box, and that a cardboard carton, containing nothing at all.
• TUESDAY AND ST. VALENTINE’S DAY •
It was warmer today than it has been for many weeks. The snow sagged, and I sagged with it. My overcoat, which has seemed like a wisp of cheesecloth in bitter weather, felt like the coat of a shepherd dog…. Nobody sent me any Valentines which seems a little shabby, considering that I sent out more than a dozen, including a few anonymous insulting ones to the leaders of the principal political parties and high-ranking churchmen…. Rereading Dickens’ Dombey and Son. What an easy life children have nowadays! A century ago a child expected to be beaten, pinched, shaken, cuffed, locked in dark cupboards, bastinadoed and told it would go to Hell all day and every day, even in the happiest homes. And with what result? They grew up to be the Gladstones, Huxleys, Darwins, Tennysons, and other Great Victorians whom we all admire. Nowadays, with our weak-kneed kindness, we are raising a generation of nincompoops and clodhoppers. The revulsion against progressive education may be expected any time now. Eminent child psychologists are already beginning to advocate cruelty as a theory of training. Is your child disobedient, saucy and self-willed? Shove red-hot gramophone needles under its nails, and be a pioneer in the new movement!
• WEDNESDAY •
A fellow who is very much in the know at Ottawa tells me that there will be no relief of the stocking shortage until after the Opening of Parliament. All the best stockings are being held for the Prime Minister, the Supreme Court Justices, the Senate and Common Speakers, and the Black Rod and Sergeant-at-Arms. The Prime Minister refuses to wear anything but the best of silk, though the Supreme Court is rather advanced in its views and favours nylons…. There is an ugly story of a Senate Speaker a few years ago who turned up at the Opening wearing an old pair of gun-metal lisles of his wife’s: he got what-for from the Governor-General’s aide, this man said.18
• THURSDAY •
To Toronto on business. The Royal York was the scene of a Better Roads corroboree, and in the Gentleman’s Powder Room, I was accosted by a young rustic who had apparently been attending a committee-meeting in a beverage room.19 He was wandering about, trying to find the exit, but the multiplicity of doors confused him. When I met him, he had just finished an unsuccessful tour of a row of doors which, as they did not come to the floor, may have looked to him like the entrances to further saloons. He was hanging on to the soiled towel bin, lost in admiration of the wonders of the great city. Perhaps I reminded him of someone from home, for he hailed me. “Say, this here’s certainly one swell toilet,” he cried. I nodded. I did not want him to think that I was fully accustomed—indeed indifferent—to such splendours…. Toronto is a depressing place. Riding up Yonge Street in the trolley, past all those postage stamp stores, dress-suit renters, used car bazaars, pants-pressing ateliers, bathtub entrepreneurs and antique shops specializing in leering china dogs, my heart was heavy. This, I thought, is Canada’s answer to Bond St., to Fifth Avenue, to the Rue de la Paix.20
• FRIDAY •
Home tonight on a local train. Was interested in its electrical apparatus: when the train stopped the light was so poor that the filaments in the bulbs could be clearly seen, but when we worked up a good speed it was reasonably bright. How was it produced? By the friction of the wheels on the axles? Or more romantically, by the beautiful wife of the engineer, standing in the tender, brushing her thick auburn locks, the electricity so generated supplying our own light? At each station she stopped brushing (to lean down and whisper some delicious secret into the hairy ear of the station agent, her teeth flashing the while like pearls imbedded in a pomegranate) and our light failed…. Whatever the cause, the light was too poor to read by, and I shall write and tell the president of the line that the axles must grind harder, or the engineer’s wife must brush more vigorously, or I shall see that ugly questions are asked at the next session of Parliament.
• SATURDAY •
Have received many letters relating to my recent fearless attack on the Salted Nut Traffic—that spawning-ground of juvenile delinquency and broken homes. A typical missive today from an apologist for the nut-growers: “Surely you are intolerant in your desire to take salted nuts from us all; the moderate nut-eaters far out-number the nut abusers.” This is merely specious. Another writes: “My father, as good a man as ever lived, always kept nuts on the sideboard, and we children saw him eat them, though I never saw him debauch. When I was twenty-one, he took me into the dining room, and said, ‘Jasper, you’re a man now; there they are—cashews, brazils, filberts, everything; use nuts, but don’t abuse them; the nut is a good servant, but a bad master’. I consider your nut-prohibition plans fanatical.” But I am not to be deterred in my war on salted nuts by such letters as these, or the insidious propaganda of the nut-gorged press. I shall not sheathe my sword until we have a nut-free Canada.
• MOTHERING SUNDAY •
It is at this time of year that I begin to think seriously about suicide. My interest in the matter is not practical; I never reach for the bread-knife or the poison bottle. But I begin to understand what it is that people see in suicide, and why they do it. They have seen too many Februaries; they have lugged too many cans of ashes; they have shivered on too many bus stops. Rather than face the remaining two months of official winter, and the likelihood of a bitter May, they commit the Happy Despatch. The rest of us, the cowards, live on and see the summer come once more…. Snow and ice have backed up somewhere on my roof and water has begun to leak down an inside wall, to the serious detriment of the wallpaper. Shall I send a man up there, and pay his widow $50 a week for life if he falls and breaks his neck, shall I risk my own neck, or shall I pretend that it is not happening until the strain becomes too great and I go crazy? Canada’s high rate of insanity is caused by just such problems. Meanwhile water comes down my stairs like the rapids of the Saguenay, and I shall not be surprised to see a salmon leaping upward from step to step.
• SMOTHERING MONDAY •
Yesterday’s suicidal mood persists. Contemplated throwing myself from my office window, as so many despairing men did duri
ng the Great Depression. But it is only one storey above ground, and at worst I would break a leg, and look foolish. Anyway there are storm windows, and I can’t be bothered to remove one of them. What Canadians need in February is a painless, simple, and definitely retractable method of suicide…. At one time I used to see a man every day who had tried to cut his throat several years before; it had left him with a wry neck and a livid, weeping scar. After making such a mess of himself it was clearly his æsthetic duty to finish himself off, and get himself out of the way, for he was a public eyesore. Failure to succeed in suicide is the ultimate ignominy, but criminologists tell us that hundreds of people try to shoot themselves every year, and miss; inability to concentrate their energies, which brings them to the verge of death, inadvertently yanks them away from it.
• BOTHERING TUESDAY •
Was chatting with a man who knows a lot about the coal situation. He tells me that things are now so bad that people are asked to come and cart away their own supplies. This frightens me. I do not drive a car myself, and I am quite certain that nobody would lend me one if he thought that I was going to put half a ton of coal in the back seat. I doubt if I could get a taxi to help me with a few hundredweight of coal, even if I did it all up in brown paper packages and held it in my lap, pretending it was bananas…. I crept down into my cellar, and viewed my dwindling bin with new eyes; I looked at my furnace, which seemed to wear a malignant leer on its ugly iron face; I did futile sums in my head about cubic footage divided by square shovelage, multiplied by backward springage. I wildly contemplated pulling up the floor of my cellar, on the off-chance of discovering a private peat-bog. I tried to recall something I had heard about tightly wrapped newspapers, dipped in molasses, making excellent fuel. By this time my teeth were chattering, and I went to look at my indoor thermometer; it said 70, and I felt better at once.
• WEDNESDAY •
To the movies this evening, and saw yet another of those films in which a young married couple, for no reason which would impress anyone outside Hollywood, see fit to behave as though they were an unmarried couple. By this feeble device it is possible to slip scenes past the Censors’ Office—scenes in bedrooms, bathrooms and hotel rooms—which would otherwise be deemed salacious. Why the spectacle of a young unmarried woman brushing her teeth should be considered inflammatory and lewd, whereas the same scene is merely cosy and chummy when she is married, I cannot understand, but such is the power of the wedding ring to anæsthetize and insulate the passions according to the Censors…. The mess concerned a young couple who met, married and laid the foundation for a posterity in four days, after which the husband went to war and faced the foe for a year and a half. He returned to find his wife a stranger, with a baby which looked, and talked, like Charles Laughton. This dreary incident, which was unfolded at a turtle’s pace, failed to grip my attention, and my right knee got a cramp; my right knee is an infallible critic.21
• THURSDAY •
Travelling again today, but not toward the fleshpots of Toronto this time. Instead I travelled upon a line which, if it does not already hold the title, I nominate for the worst in Ontario. Ancient and smelly rolling-stock, a roadbed laid out by a drunken manufacturer of roller-coasters, an engine with the disposition of a love-crossed billy-goat—it has all these and lesser iniquities which I shall not enumerate. Worse, there was a train-sick child aboard, for whom I was very sorry, for she was plainly in great distress. But her mother, like many other mothers, had got hold of a wrong idea and would not use her common sense, if she had any. “There’s only one thing to do,” she kept on saying, “and that’s to keep washing her stomach out.” So she poured the child full of water, orange juice, and soft drinks at five-minute intervals, and the child promptly threw it up again, noisily and agonizingly. I wondered how long it would be before I followed suit, but they got out somewhere in the wilderness, and the trainman threw a few old copies of the Globe and Mail over the shambles.
• FRIDAY •
Talked for a couple of hours to a group of young people today, and enjoyed myself very much. But I was amazed to find them so solemn; they approached every subject, however trifling, with knit brows and a high moral attitude; they obviously thought that seriousness and solemnity were the same thing. I made a few little jokes in an attempt to cajole them into happier mood, but they looked at me with pain, and pretended not to notice these excesses of ribald eld…. Met some of them tonight at a party, where jelly-doughnuts made up a part of the fare. It takes a high degree of social accomplishment to hold a cup of coffee in one hand, and eat a jelly-doughnut22 from the other, and this cannot be done by anyone who wants to indulge in deeply serious conversation at the same time. In consequence many of my heavy-minded young friends squirted doughnut-blood on themselves because they did not approach their food in a realistic frame of mind. A jelly-doughnut is deadlier than a grapefruit in the hands of an unwary eater.
• SATURDAY •
Was talking today to a man quite High in the Civil Service about the censorship of books and put my question to him: What do the censors know about literature and, specifically, how can they decide whether a book is fit for me to read or not? I expected him to confess that the censors knew nothing, but instead he told me that the censors have a long and special training: first of all they attend a series of lectures on Sin, delivered by unfrocked clergy of all denominations, then they pursue a course of reading which comprises most of what is to be found on the Reserved Shelves of university libraries (the books you can’t get unless you know the librarian or his secretary); then they travel widely, taking in the spicier entertainments of Naples, Port Said and Bombay; then they are brought back to Canada, and if they still wear bedsocks, and blush deeply whenever they pass a cabbage patch or a stork, in mixed company, and are able to tame unicorns, they are decorated with the Order of the Driven Snow and given jobs in the censorship department.
• SUNDAY •
I meant to get up early this morning and cleanse my soul with hard work and godly reflection but a profound torpor settled upon me and I did not waken until a crash outside put me in dread that the chimney had fallen off the house. But it was no such thing; several large chunks of ice had dislodged themselves from the roof and had fallen to the ground. Dare I take this as the first hint of Spring?
• MONDAY •
A day of dissolution and thaw, and very welcome to me, for if all this winter’s snow were to melt at once, my cellar would be flooded, and my furnace might get wet feet, and a cold in the head, and be even uglier than it is…. During lunch the phone rang, and I galloped to it, chewing vigorously; it was a wrong number…. Mentioned my passion for bathtub reading to a lady of my acquaintance, who told me of an ingenious scheme devised by an aunt of hers, who hung a framed chart of Kings of England, from Egbert, son of Ealhmund (827–839) down to Victoria (1837–1901) in the bathroom in full view of the obligatory seat, with the result that all her children and visitors, over a period of years, gained a fine knowledge of the skeleton of British history, and were even certain of where such obscure kings as Stephen and Henry II came in. The shortest reigns, she informed me, were those of Ethelbald, Hardicanute, Harold II and Edward V; the longest, of course, was that of Queen Victoria with George III hot on her trail…. Phone rang at 7:30 and at 9:25; wrong number both times.
• TUESDAY •
Was asked today to look over a large manuscript volume of poetry by a lady who suffers from a poetical seizure two or three times a week. In a life almost entirely devoted to embarrassing situations, I have found that nothing is more embarrassing and difficult than complying with such requests. The best of poets are touchy; the worst are basilisks and scorpions. As long as that book of verse stays in my possession I shall feel like the sailor who had an unexploded shell in his thigh; one false move and I am a goner…. Two more false alarms on the phone today. This is getting past a joke….
• WEDNESDAY •
Decided to t
ake a firm line with wrong numbers today; in the past I have feebly said, “I’m afraid you have the wrong number,” though in actual fact I am not in the least afraid; usually the boob at the other end of the line, who dialled the wrong number in the first place, grunts nastily as though it were my fault. So when my first call came today, it was, as I had expected, a wrong number, and a voice said, “Is Mrs. Blank at home?” “Not to the likes of you!” I roared in a feigned Irish accent. My next chance came in the afternoon; “Can you send me out a dozen fresh eggs?” asked a voice; “Sure thing; right away, lady,” I promised. At 7:30 the phone rang again; “Is Effie there?” inquired a mouse-like voice, “She is,” said I, assuming the tones of a schoolgirl, “but she’s too drunk to come to the phone; shall I ask her to call you when she can stand up?” … Altogether it was a most successful day, and I shall adopt this procedure in future with all wrong numbers.
• THURSDAY •
Observed a young lady of my acquaintance using a man’s handkerchief to stanch her cold. This seems to be the final and decisive piece of evidence that women have emancipated themselves from the superstitions which have surrounded them for centuries. A generation ago no woman, whatever her needs, ever carried a handkerchief larger than four inches square, with nose-abrading lace at the edges. This was tucked in her bosom, from which insecure rest it usually descended inside her clothes to the region of her stomach, so that she could not get at it without unseemly self-exploration. If she had a cold and really wanted to blow her nose, she had to retire to a private place and blow on a duster, or a torn-up piece of nightdress; sometimes, in moments of extreme stress, petticoats were thus violated.
• FRIDAY •