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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 7

Robertson Davies


  Raked and rolled my lawn this afternoon; some of my neighbours are gardeners born and bred, and thoroughly enjoy an afternoon of back-breaking labour in the great outdoors; but to me it is nothing but toil and a concession to popular opinion. I am afraid that people will look down on me if my lawn is a hayfield, and I would rather work myself into a decline than have them think that I am lazy (which is the real truth of the matter)…. As a result of this unwonted activity my spine shrank a couple of inches and I was forced to walk in an uneasy posture, and when I sat down invisible daggers assailed me in the small of the back. Some of us are built for physical toil, and some for mental toil; every time I lift a rake I get a pain, but I have not had a headache in twenty years. But alas, most of us have to spend many hours a week at work for which we are unsuited.


  • SUNDAY •

  Had lunch out-of-doors for the first time this year, and further welcomed the fine weather by getting a touch of sunburn. Went for a stroll in the afternoon and admired babies; I find that the most successful approach to the subject of babies is to discuss them as though they were hams; the firmness of the flesh, the pinkness of the flesh, the even distribution of fat, the sweetness and tenderness of the whole, and the placing of bone are the things to praise. Carrying on the ham approach, you may safely say that the baby makes your mouth water, and you may pinch it appraisingly, but if your enthusiasm gets the better of you, and you stick a fork in it, you had better prepare to sell your life dearly.

  • MONDAY •

  Magnificent spring day, recalling to my mind those lovely lines of Keats:

  Oh, how sweet the morning air,

  Oh, how sweet the morning air,

  When the zephyrs,

  And the heifers,

  Odoriferous breaths compare!

  Met a man who must have been deeply affected by spring, for he wanted to talk about love, a subject on which he had no particularly novel or interesting views. But he gave me a description of how he proposed to his wife, and of his nervousness upon that occasion. He asked me if I thought most men were nervous when proposing? I replied that I thought that formal proposals were rather uncommon, and that couples usually arrived at an understanding without ceremonious palaver, kneeling on the drawing-room carpet, blushing, fainting, bursting a corset-string, and the like; I have never heard of a formal proposal between people of reasonably equal age, and I have given more advice to the lovelorn than Dorothy Dix,25 in my time.


  Some people I know were telling me of a curious experience which they had recently; they put a collection of old and rejected household articles in their car and drove to a dump to dispose of them. While busy at the dump, they were accosted by a strange figure, a woman of tall and stately presence, wearing a paper crown and carrying a staff in her hand, who strode majestically through the avenues of ashes, tin cans, dishonoured wash-boilers and superannuated bathtubs, attended by a rabble of admiring children. This apparition hailed my friends in a strange, incoherent, but musical language, and her breath was richly perfumed with bay-rum, or it may have been lilac lotion; she was in fact as high as a kite and as mimsy as a borogrove. Having said her say, she strode off in queenly style, and she and her raffish crew were soon lost in the mazes of the dump…. My theory is that this was Titania, the fairy queen, fallen upon evil days, but magnificent in ruin; or it may simply have been some rumdumb old bag with a sense of humour. In either case the matter is worth investigating.


  Received news today that a friend of mine, a scientist of highly complex mentality, is about to marry a lady who is also a scientist of equally daedal intellect. This impresses me as an excellent scheme; then when they are tired of love they can always talk about science, and if love grows cold, science will keep them together, until it warms up again. I have long held the opinion that community of interest is more important to a marriage than scalding passion. People who mean to marry should make sure that there is something more than love between them. In the words of the old song:

  Will the love that you’re so rich in

  Light the fire in the kitchen

  And the little god of Love turn the spit, spit, spit?

  Love, like ice-cream, is a beautiful thing, but nobody should regard it as adequate provision for a long and adventurous journey.


  Had to do some motoring today. I have two characters, my Pedestrian Character, in which I am all for the Common Man, the freedom of the roads, and the dignity of Shank’s Mare; and also my Motorist Character, in which I am contemptuous of the rights of walkers, violent in my passion for speed, and arrogant in my desire to kill anybody who gets in my way. Although not a driver myself I am a tireless adviser of the person who drives me and assist her in shouting insults at the other users of the roads. As I have never ridden a bicycle, I am the enemy of cyclists in both characters. If I am walking, they sneak up behind me, and slice the calves off my legs with their wheels; if I am driving, they wobble all over the road, never signal, and seem to be deaf, blind and utterly idiotic. In spite of their stupidity, cyclists rarely get themselves killed; the roads are slippery with defunct cats, squashed skunks and groundhogs, and hens who have been gathered to Abraham’s bosom, but I have never seen a mass of steel, leather windbreaker and hamburger which was identifiable as the cadaver of a cyclist.

  • FRIDAY •

  Went today to view the X-rays which were taken of my inside some weeks ago. They were hung up on a rack and lighted from behind. I saw what was wrong at once; a long, thin, jagged monster was gnawing at my vitals; it was at least two feet in length, and on every joint there was a cruel hook. The doctor was very kind. He showed me my pylorus, and commented pleasantly on the nice appearance my spine made in the picture. But I could not take my eyes off the monster. Was it a tapeworm? Or was it something infinitely worse—something hitherto unknown to science? How long could I last with a thing like that in my vitals? As the doctor drew attention to the wonders of my inner world I grew more and more apprehensive, for I knew that he was saving the worst for the last. But the time came when he seemed to have finished. Summoning up all my courage, I asked the fatal question. “And that, doctor,” I said; “what is that?” He lowered his voice, in case one of the nurses might overhear. “That is your zipper, Mr. Marchbanks,” said he.26


  Was in a bookshop today, reading a magazine on the sly, when a man and a woman came in and bought a school-book for their child. Neither one had the look of a reader (this is understatement) and as they left the man said, “Jeez if they were onto their job they’d put all this school stuff in one book, and then I wouldn’t be all the time wastin’ money.” This seemed to me to sum up much of the popular attitude toward books and education. There was a time when reformers thought that if education were available to the masses, the masses would love it, and every humble cottage would be bursting at the seams with cheap reprints of the world’s classics. In this supposition, as in many another, the reformers were somewhat optimistic. A real dictatorship of the proletariat—if such a thing existed—would quickly result in a bookless world.

  1 Marchbanks was of course mistaken because in this, as in so much else, he regarded himself as the measure of mankind. There were diarists everywhere in Canada, scribbling away like mad, but in secret. One of the most voluminous was the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King. Their diaries are now the Bread of Heaven to scores of editors and historians, as the Diaries of Marchbanks are to me. Ah, Sam, how little do you know of the avidity and hunger of posterity!

  2 Marchbanks always smokes a pipe—dirty, stinking things, many inherited from his forebears. He also smokes cigars of the vilest, cheapest varieties. When no more than a lad he acquired this socially objectionable habit, and is still in its loathsome toils.

  3 Even in his private Diary, Marchbanks was never fully candid about his
love-life, and the above statement is open to doubt. Careful research has enabled me to amplify this aspect of the story of Our Hero, and what I have discovered is included in the Introduction.

  4 An “iron fireman” was a reputedly labour-saving device, basically a revolving metal worm which moved coal from the coal-pile to the maw of the furnace (of which more later). But the “iron fireman” frequently choked on stones, pieces of metal and other rubbish which had become mingled with the coal. When this happened it was not unusual for the contents of the worm to ignite, spreading backward to the coal supply, causing fires at worst, and, at best, dreadful stenches and effusions of coal gas.

  5 Marchbanks read music with ease, and played several instruments excruciatingly. He is the only pianist I have ever known who played with a stutter.

  6 As time passed more, and older, more toothsome girls kissed Marchbanks under the mistletoe, but as they frequently kissed him on the top of the head and were heard to murmur “Sweet old man!” the Erotic Quotient of these kisses might be graded as Minus Seven.

  7 See Dr. Ernest Jones’ classic Freudian study On The Nightmare. It is not sufficiently recognized that Dr. Jones wrote this remarkable book while resident on Brunswick Avenue in Toronto, while he was employed at Ontario’s first psychiatric clinic, just before the First World War.

  8 Marchbanks, a fine classical scholar, is doubtless alluding to Aesop’s fable of The Belly and the Members. The Belly, of course, is the Dominion Government, which gobbles up everything, and the Members are the constituent Provinces of Canada, who don’t like it.

  9 As the furnace, in the form in which Marchbanks knew it, is now almost wholly unknown, some explanation is needed. It was a large metal cylinder, made of galvanized iron, usually placed in a part of the cellar difficult of access, and made even more so by huge pipes which extruded from it about four feet above the ground, so that it had to be approached in a crouching posture. With difficulty a fire of household trash might be made in its gizzard, or grate, and upon this coal was heaped by the hopeful householder. If the coal ignited (which depended on the proportion of it which was in fact brown stone) a feeble heat might in time mount to the upper floors, accompanied by a variety of toxic gases. The furnace had other attachments, called dampers and draughts, upon which the expert householder played as upon some mighty organ. Marchbanks never really got the hang of his furnace, and was much afflicted by it. His approach was anthropomorphological as the above entry amply testifies.

  10 Canada is ever mindful of her puritan heritage, and every government defends its monopoly of the liquor trade by saying that it seeks, not profit, but control of a loathsome traffic. Of course, the sale of booze brings profits that would make a pirate blush, but governments avouch that they spend this money on the poor and needy, and on such necessities as the airplanes in which politicians speed about the globe, bent upon their holy work.

  11 Bernarr McFadden (1868–1955), the Father of Physical Culture and one-time aspirant to the Presidency of the United States, was a zealot on behalf of the healthy life, urging cold baths, wearisome calisthenics and a meagre diet on everybody who would buy his books and magazines. He made a fortune, as the magazines offered pictures of healthy girls, lightly clad, doing extraordinary and thought-provoking things. Unhappily for his reputation, a book by his divorced wife called Dumbbells and Carrot Strips (1953) revealed that McFadden was a miser, and liked health because it was cheap.

  12 No, no Marchbanks! David slew Goliath by hitting him in the forehead with a stone, and when the giant fell David cut off his head with his own sword, which was insulting. But David was a very insulting boy; he called Goliath “uncircumcised,” which was discrimination, and against the Bill of Rights.

  13 The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924) summed up in himself much that is most fascinating about the Church of England. He was well-off, as every churchman should be, and he was squire of Lew Trenchard, in Devonshire, and was thus able to appoint himself vicar of the local church. He fell in love with an illiterate mill-girl, paid for her education, married her and lived happily with her from their marriage in 1868 until her death in 1916. They had five sons and nine daughters (all reputedly beauties). In addition to his clerical duties he wrote 159 books. A productive life indeed. He died in 1924 at the age of ninety. He is chiefly remembered as the writer of the militant hymn, Onward, Christian Soldiers.

  14 It is one of the most pleasing characteristics of Marchbanks that he is always ready—nay, eager—to say a word on behalf of those who are generally abused, such as Royalty, and the Rich. “Are they not also God’s creatures?” he demands, trying to shout down the rising chorus of “No!”

  15 This was written, of course, in 1947. How times have changed since the establishment of The Canada Council, so aptly called (quoting from the dear old hymn) “Help of the Helpless.”

  16 This was at the peak of Canada’s great Spy Scare. I cannot believe that Marchbanks’ role in it was quite as he represents it here. The flat refusal of the Soviet Embassy to afford me access to their Code Book for 1947 makes it impossible for me to check. Was this the notorious Joy of Cooking Code of which rumours may still be heard? … Espionage in Canada has long had literary connotation. It is noteworthy that in 1954 Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor-General’s Medal, was awarded to a writer, not otherwise known, calling himself Igor Gouzenko, for a novel called The Titan. As it seems most unlikely that Canada would make such an award to a non-Canadian, writing in Russian, the titillating suspicion arises—was “Igor Gouzenko” one of Marchbanks’ innumerable pen-names?

  17 Never in his lifetime did Marchbanks or any of his contemporaries ever receive in a pay envelope the full sum designated as his salary by his employer; the fell hand of the tax-gatherer had always dipped into it before he got it. This is a modern adaptation of the hateful medieval droit de seigneur, which ensured the local boss first crack at every bride. The modern taxpayer is, in a very real sense, the Cuckold of the State.

  18 This was at a time when ceremonial dress was more common than it now is, and the Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King looked especially fetching in a gold-laced Windsor uniform. Marchbanks has frequently advocated that Canada dress all its Civil Servants in uniforms, of a splendour indicating their rank and salary, so that humbler folk may recognize them, revel in their number, and applaud them at baseball games and other public functions. The call for gold braid alone would support a large industry, and re-open some of our quiescent mines.

  19 This quaint name was formerly used to identify a pub.

  20 The area so described is now called The Strip, and its transvestite population alone rouses the envy of Hamburg, Copenhagen and other foreign sin centres.

  21 Marchbanks has lived to see the whole world of sexual activity revealed in the movies, the goatishness of which frequently appals him. His delicate mind shrinks from the thought of the day-long rehearsals that must lie behind these depictions of what appears to Hollywood as the Chief End of Man. He has lived to see Sex replaced by Fat as the Ultimate Sin, and at the annual shows of the Ontario Society of Water-colourists pictures of Christ Forgiving the Woman Taken in Adultery have given way to a new theme—Christ Forgiving the Woman Suprised in Laura Secord’s.

  22 See? These innocent young folk had not yet learned that confectionery is bad, Bad, BAD!

  23 Marchbanks was compelled to give up sealing-wax when the Post Office introduced the Atomic and Computerised Letter-Sorter; which chokes on wax and cannot bear an envelope of any unusual size. For younger readers some explanation must be offered of Marchbanks’ use of the word “gay”; to him it meant light-hearted, carefree, sportive or off-hand. His letters were often gay, in this now outmoded sense.

  24 Marchbanks was at this time a member of the committee of his local Community Concert Association, a body which undertook to provide four heavy injections of musical culture every winter, rather like chemotherapy. The concerts took place in a school hall that smelled in equal proportions of Educa
tion (chalk) and Youth (feet). Much of the fun of these concerts was to see how the artists compared with their publicity photographs, Grobian Smout the bassoonist looking decidedly the worse for wear and somewhat green about the dress suit, whereas Lanugo Pott who played the neutered piano and could be got cheap because he was young, seemed to be wearing a tail coat inherited from a larger and much older relative.

  25 Dorothy Dix was the pen-name of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer (1870–1951) whose advice column in innumerable newspapers was one of the wonders of the age and was carried on after her death by competent ghosts (not hers). If the U.S.A. had had any gumption it would have elected this moderate, decent, common-sensical lady as its President, and spared modern history many a convulsion.

  26 Marchbanks’ adventures with the medical profession were many and often disquieting. It was this same doctor (a man of unimpeachable personal and professional character) who once said to him, while conducting a rectal examination, “Have you ever given any thought to joining the Masons, Mr. Marchbanks?” Marchbanks knew, of course, that modern fraternal orders—Masons, Oddfellows, Moose, Bison etc.—all trace their antecedents back to the mystery religions of Ancient Greece, but he had not supposed the Greek influence went quite so far as this collocation of question-and-action suggested.




  One of those fine bright days upon which communion with Nature is all but obligatory, so I obediently made my way into the country and tried it. But fine as the phrase “communion with Nature” sounds, it is anything but easy in practice. Observed that the pussywillows were well advanced, but what of it? I never cared much for pussywillows. The roads were muddy, and the air smelled pleasantly of spring, except when I passed a swamp, where it smelled powerfully of drains. Investigated an old churchyard and read some old tombstones, and admired the carving on them, which was really very skilful, though not particularly tasteful. Nature seemed to have no special message for me, so I went home and resumed the combat with my furnace, which is trying to roast me alive.