The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• TUESDAY •
Seriously disappointed in my kitten Tiger today. During the evening a mouse climbed up through a cold-air grating near my chair and surveyed the room with satisfaction. Aha, I thought, and fetched Tiger, who was sleeping elsewhere. I put her down by the grating, but she immediately climbed up on a sofa and went back to sleep. The mouse appeared again, but I made such a noise waking Tiger up that I frightened it away. But Tiger was now disposed to play, so I exercised her with her personal punch-bag for twenty minutes or so. Then the mouse came back. Anticipating a splendid display of jungle ferocity and agility I pointed it out to Tiger, who sat down and looked at it philosophically. Sensing the situation the mouse began to make free of the room and ran about happily, while Tiger watched, and I tore out my hair in double-handfuls. At last, however, this unnatural cat decided to chase the mouse, and bumped her nose on a door just as the mouse dashed under it…. I wonder if Tiger’s glands work properly?
• WEDNESDAY •
Was talking today with a man who collects antiques, and he showed me some of his treasures. Among them was a beer mug made of pottery which had a life-like pottery frog attached to the bottom of it. The purpose of this pretty thing was to scare the liver and lights out of the drinker as he finished his pint. I think poorly of this sort of humour, smacking as it does of itching-powder, fake bedbugs, rude noisemakers, dribble glasses, and the detestable like. The frog-mug was reputed to be about 150 years old, and I was surprised to find that such a comparatively mild joke was appreciated in the eighteenth century. My delving in history had led me to believe that no joke was admired in those days which did not result at least in a broken leg or the loss of an eye. Merely making a man’s stomach heave with a fake frog must have seemed very poor sport to our rude forefathers, and was probably left to the ladies.
• THURSDAY •
To another political rally tonight; my thirst for politics is not to be slaked by mere epicene listening to the radio. And speaking of radio, the radio boys nearly broke up this rally by tapping the microphones, pulling wires, climbing over the speakers, and hooting into the amplifiers during the first twenty minutes of its progress. This made clear to me what I have long suspected, which is that the average radio man doesn’t know what makes radio work, and when it won’t work he is the embarrassed victim of his own gadget—Man at the mercy of the Machine. While all this was going on, some poor fellow was trying to make a speech, but nobody paid any attention to him; they were hoping one of the radio boys would be electrocuted before their very eyes, and expire in agony with forked lightning coming out of his boot-heels. But the Leader arrived in the nick of time, and the radio decided to settle down and enjoy the fun.12 … The Leader performed the amazing feat of speaking for seventy-five minutes without once taking a drink from the two glasses and the full jug on the table before him; I have seen lesser men consume a hogshead of water in the course of a fifteen minute speech. But a real statesman has something of the endurance of a camel; he fills up with raspberry vinegar in the morning, and speaks all day without further need for refreshment.
• FRIDAY •
Read a criticism of Canadians which says that we are great brooders, and attributes this in part to the fact that our winter lasts for seven months. This is nonsense; our winter lasts for nine months, in a lucky year. Of course, we let our fires out, and peck at the frosty ground in our gardens, and huddle into any patch of white, watery sunshine which breaks through the clouds during April and May, but we pay for our haste in colds and lumbago. In June, July and August, Canadians may do without a fire, but September and May are not to be trusted. Is it any wonder then that we brood? Is it surprising that our incidence of insanity is so great that it is a shame and a scandal to our country? I am just an ordinary brooder myself; I make no claim to being a Big League brooder; but I brood about my furnace several hours each day, even when it is out for the brief summer season. And I do well to brood, let me tell you!
• SATURDAY •
Much mail for me today, from fellows anxious that I should vote for them on Monday; the newspapers, too, say that they do not care how I vote, so long as I vote. This constant harping on the subject reminds me that the word “vote” actually means “prayer,” and this in turn recalls the remark of a very wise man that when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers…. I am glad that we do not have automatic voting machines here, as they do in the U.S.A. Like all machines, they exist primarily to go wrong, and when the late F. D. Roosevelt cast his last vote for himself the machine stuck and he swore at it, and then had to waste much valuable time apologizing for his ribaldry to women’s lodges, preachers’ unions and similar groups…. I have been listening to the radio hysterics of all three parties for a full week, and now I feel that the fate of the nation lies in my hands.
• SUNDAY •
Admitted defeat today, and re-lit my furnace. A stickler for tradition, I let it out on the fifteenth of May, arguing that if spring had not come it could not be far away. But Nature, always ready with a nasty surprise for those who take her for granted, asserted herself and an Ice Age set in at Marchbanks Towers; nothing would dry that was wet; nothing that was dry would stay dry; outside it was cold, wet and raw; inside it was cold, wet and stuffy. There was nothing else for it; I went downstairs and faced the Monster. As I shoved kindling into his maw it seemed to me that he leered…. The life of Man is a struggle with Nature and a struggle with the Machine; when Nature and the Machine link forces against him, Man hasn’t a chance.
• MONDAY AND ELECTION DAY •
An election today, and everyone I met had a slightly woozy look, as though he had been sniffing ether on the sly. The streets were filled with cars, lugging voters to the polls; sometimes I wonder if that haulage business really pays; what guarantee does the free passenger give that he will vote for the man who provides him with a car? A really astute politician would send cars to pick up his known opponents, and would then carry them off, twenty-five miles or so into the country, and jettison them. Few of them would be able to walk home before the polls closed…. After the results were announced I was interested to see the wonderful unanimity of feeling which prevailed: the winning side was disposed to be generous, and told the losers that they wished they had done better; the losers, on the contrary, assured the winners that they had foreseen what would happen, and were in no way cast down by it; the socialists, who had been telling the world that they would win, proceeded forthwith to explain that they never dreamed of winning, and expressed delight that they had received any votes at all. Every one was so anxious to show complete satisfaction and good fellowship that a stranger, dropped by parachute, would have assumed that they were all on the winning side…. The losers’ hangover will begin tomorrow, when the ether wears off.
• TUESDAY •
To a circus tonight. A circus is the only entertainment which can follow an election without appearing to be anticlimax. The analogy between a circus and an election, indeed, could hardly be more complete: the tightrope walkers, the acrobats, the contortionists, the trained seals, the mangy old lions with no teeth and the clowns! the clowns!! the clowns!!!
• WEDNESDAY •
The coming of sunshine and warm weather has aggravated a tendency which I have observed for some time; I mean the custom of girls walking about the streets hand-in-hand. If I see a young man and a girl walking hand-in-hand I regard them as a little soft, but not beyond reclaim; but when I see girls walking thus, gazing into each others’ eyes, and laughing with laughter which is like the shattering of electric light bulbs in a tin biscuit-box, I wonder what’s afoot. This afternoon I saw a girl got up like Huckleberry Finn (blue trousers rolled up, an open shirt, and a rag round her head) squiring a smaller girl in a skirt across a street, and they were so lost in Love’s Young Ersatz Dream that they were almost run over by a car…. In my experience, limited and monastic though it has been, women do not greatly like other women; they pre
fer men as conversationalists, walking partners, and hand-holders; they refer to gatherings of their own sex as “hen-parties,” and regard them as dull.13 … I have always considered hero-worship in school-boys, and heroine-worship in schoolgirls, as the most humiliating of adolescent diseases, worse even than pimples and damp hands.
• THURSDAY •
The circus flavour lasts. Everywhere I go these days I see little girls trying to make their dogs skip, little girls trying to balance themselves on rolling barrels, little boys trying to walk along fence-tops and little boys trying to evolve a “cod fight,” like clowns. The technique of the “cod fight,” is simple; while the fighters seem to be hitting each other the most resounding blows, they are slapping their free hands together at about waist level; when they do this with enormous loose gloves, the effect is superb; but when two small boys try to do it with their bare hands, they usually hurt themselves, and discover that being a clown is a somewhat more specialized profession than they thought. This is an important discovery in anyone’s life.
• FRIDAY •
The humidity today was intense, and I was talking to a man who told me (not without a note of pride in his voice) that he had taken four baths since morning. It occurred to me to warn him that he would wash away all his natural oils and develop a nasty, mealy skin, but I refrained; if you warn people against too much bathing they tend to jump to the conclusion that you never bathe yourself, and begin sniffing at you unpleasantly whenever the mercury rises…. As a confirmed movie-goer, I am in a position to assure the public that the average Canadian does not bathe too much, and that his or her natural oils are in a splendid state of conservation.
• SATURDAY •
Was talking to a man today who advanced the theory that the violence of the recent election was attributable to the bad weather; wet, cold politicians, he said, were markedly more vicious than warm, sun-drenched ones. Politicians, he continued, are like grapes; when they are allowed to ripen long upon the vine, they achieve a sweet, rich flavour, and give off a delightful aroma of wisdom and urbanity; but when they get too much rain and frost they are small, sour, thick-skinned and inclined to seediness…. Parliament he said (by now intoxicated with the insidious liquor of metaphor) was a wine, composed of all these diverse political grapes, and sometimes we got fine old fruity Parliaments, full flavoured and of exquisite bouquet, and sometimes we got little, sour Parliaments, provocative of bellyache; it all depended on the grapes…. Fascinated by his eloquence, I suggested that we should throw a few newly-elected members into a vat, and trample them with our bare feet, singing merry vintage songs the while, in order to see how the new brew would turn out; O for a beaker full of the Twentieth Parliament, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene!
• SUNDAY •
Had some notion of a picnic today, but it rained. A man I know who lives in the woods tells me that the mosquitoes this year will be as big as sparrows, and may be expected to last until well into December. He bases this prediction on the way the beavers are building their dams. As everyone knows, beavers eat a lot of insects, and particularly mosquitoes (for the formic acid which the latter contain, and which assists the beaver in seeing under water) and a beaver’s burrow contains a special chamber for the storage of the insects caught during the summer season. Apparently the beavers this year are making these chambers unusually big, and from this my friend deduces that they expect a bumper crop of mosquitoes, of particularly large size…. I have always wished that I were better versed in nature lore of this kind.
• MONDAY •
To a picnic this afternoon on the shores of a lake which contained many islands; because of the soft dampness of the air and some tricks of light, the scene was strongly reminiscent of the Hebrides. Saw a garter snake, the first in a long time, and observed its beautiful squirmings and dartings from a prudent distance. I am told by my naturalist friends that these creatures are about a foot long and completely harmless, but in the matter of snakes I suffer from telescopic vision; if I stand too near a garter snake it assumes the proportions of a boa constrictor…. Fear of snakes seems unrelated to other kinds of physical courage. I have seen large, tough men jump and squeak like school-girls at the sight of a grass snake, and I have known two girls who thoroughly enjoyed a romp with any snake they met. Personally I have developed a suave but distant politeness toward reptiles of all sorts, and I prefer to see them in zoos, if at all.
• TUESDAY •
Noticed a mixed group of dogs playing today, and wondered whether they had any consciousness of breed, as we have of race; I can see no sign of it. The lordly Afghan seems willing to play tag with a terrier, and a spaniel plays with a St. Bernard without any apparent consciousness of the difference in size between them. There seems to be no Master Race, no Jewish Problem, and no Quebec and Ontario feeling among dogs…. Tonight to the movies—one of those dreary pieces about a musical genius who has fits and kills people. Why is it that genius on the screen is so frequently represented as a form of idiocy? Is it to comfort the mediocrities who have paid the price of admission to sit and think, “O how lucky we are not to be geniuses; how fortunate we are to be happily dumb and imperturbably numb!”
• WEDNESDAY •
The recurrent Canadian Flag controversy concerns no class of society more deeply than elocutionists, as one of them was explaining to me today. For years they have made a specialty of a rousing poem by the late E. Pauline Johnson (“Tonakela”)14 called Canadian Born, every verse of which ends with some such assertion as:
But each has one credential
Which entitles him to brag
That he was born in Canada,
Beneath the British Flag!
Canadian Born is what elocutionists call, in the parlance of their trade, “a ring-tailed peeler,” containing such noble and rampageous lines as:
The Dutch may have their Holland,
The Spaniard have his Spain;
The Yankee to the south of us
Must south of us remain!
—these latter words being delivered in a loud, quarrel-picking voice. I have heard it recited often (sometimes even in Indian costume) at church socials, political picnics, Dominion Day Celebrations, and kindred uproars, and it never fails to rouse the audience to blood-thirsty fury—sometimes directed toward the foes of their country, and sometimes toward the elocutionist herself (for it is generally assumed to be a piece for a lady to speak). Tonakela has gone to the Happy Hunting Ground, and the chances that any of our icebound modern Canadian poets will write another such patriotic bobby-dazzler are slight indeed.
• THURSDAY •
Hot all day, and hot tonight—too hot to do any work, though I had plenty to do…. Thunder storm in the night, which meant that I had to rise from my bed and flit about the house, like a wraith, shutting windows and falling over things people had left on the floor.
• FRIDAY •
Since I got a cat of my own, my life has been full of cats. Visited a lady today who has two beautiful black and white cats named Inky and Pinky. I hear news occasionally of my brother Fairchild’s Persian, named Button Boots. I see cats on the streets and by the roadside, where I never saw a cat before. A few days ago, making my way toward the In and Out shop, I was almost knocked over by a black Persian, as big as a spaniel, dashing past me, pursued by a man carrying a wrapped bottle. Whether it was a jinni which had escaped from the liquor I did not have time to enquire. As for my own kitten Tiger, I am learning things from her that I never knew before. First of all, I never knew that a kitten could burp, which Tiger does with all the abandon of an old mariner. Second, I never realized that a kitten could be completely and infallibly house-trained, and suddenly forget all it had been taught, reverting to intolerable Bohemianism. Also, why does she like to hide in the piano, plucking ghostly music from the strings with her claws? Is she a sphinx, or merely a humorist of a somewhat earthy sort?
• SATURDAY •
d in my garden this afternoon, until rain drove me indoors. Fed the kitten and observed that she ate from the front of her plate toward the back, thereby keeping all her food under her chin, in case an enemy should try to snatch a morsel from her. I have noticed many human beings who eat in precisely the same way, and I deduce that it is a continuance of jungle behaviour. Next time I see a man who crouches over his plate and scoops all his food from the outside edge, I shall let out a howl like a pterodactyl, and watch him give a primordial, prehistoric jump.
• SUNDAY •
As it was a fine day I sat on my verandah and permitted passers-by to stare at me. Staring is the great Sunday-afternoon pastime. People who go walking on the seventh day seem convinced that anyone who sits on a verandah is blind, deaf and silly. They wander along the streets, gaping like egg-bound pullets, and making remarks in voices which carry perfectly for a quarter of a mile in all directions. “That house needs a good coat of paint,” says one, and another replies, “If that were my lawn, I’d rip the whole thing up and re-sod it.” “Look at those vines,” someone cries indignantly; “they just ruin the brickwork and harbour vermin.” “You’d think those people would weed their beds once in a while, wouldn’t you?” counters his companion, while I sit upright and glare like a basilisk. But no passer-by ever pays any attention to me; they think I am a cigar-store Indian, or a stuffed souvenir of a hunting trip, probably. Some day I shall shout back. “Why don’t you wipe that child’s nose?” I shall scream, or “Did you buy that hat at a fire-sale?”
• MONDAY •