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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

Robertson Davies

  I am told that the strawberry crop this year will be a failure. I cannot remember a year in which this rumour has not been circulated. Probably it is like the rumours which fly about during the early part of December that Santa Claus has committed suicide…. However, I bought a few sour, green, imported berries, and ate them, just to make sure that I experienced some approximation of that most delicious of all flavours this year.


  To a movie tonight. It was a farce, and as often happens in farce, the actors thought that everything they said was much funnier if they shouted it at the top of their voices. The ladies also wore those peculiar lace negligees which are never seen anywhere but on actresses in farces. Women wear all sorts of garments when they want to be comfortable—magnificently cut housecoats, kimonos, flannel dressing gowns, and even old bathrobes which their husbands have discarded as unfit for further service—but they never wear those tight-fitting things with lace skirts split up the front, for the good reason that it is impossible to sit down in one, much less perform any of the feats appropriate to negligée.


  Listened to a broadcast of Shakespeare’s Richard III this afternoon, done by the Old Vic Theatre Company, which is in New York at present. Decided that Shakespeare would never be able to get a job writing scripts for the C.B.C because he insists on dealing with controversial topics, and uses language which would bring a flood of complaining letters from the Holy Name Society of St. Jean de Crabtree Mills (P. Q.) and the Ladies’ Art, Culture, Poker-Work and China-Painting Club of Pelvis (Sask.)…. Enjoyed the broadcast greatly, though I wondered why all the ghosts in the Dream Scene sounded as though they were speaking to Richard over the long-distance telephone. But that is the only way in which radio can suggest the supernatural, I suppose.


  Was roused this morning by a loud cawing, and looked out of my window to see a large crow sitting on a branch with its mouth full of bread, making daybreak hideous with its cries. This recalled to me Aesop’s fable about the crow which was flattered into singing by a fox, and dropped its piece of cheese as a result. It was obvious that this crow could sing and hold on to a huge piece of food at the same time. So much for that old scoundrel Aesop, whom I have long suspected of being better as a puritan moralist than as an accurate observer of nature. Read Aesop’s Fables in the light of everyday adult experience, and what do we find? We find that the man who gives up the substance for the shadow is often richly rewarded, and admired by posterity for his vision. We find that the dog in the manger can always get a well-paid job as a union leader, and the more difficult he is to appease, the greater is his success. We find that the lion who assists a mouse usually has to listen to a lot of saucy talk from the mouse about Imperialism. It is my belief that Aesop was a simpleton who took good care never to look about him, for fear of finding that the world did not agree with his theories.

  • FRIDAY •

  I see by the papers that Scotland (or, more accurately, the Scottish Nationalist Party) is going to submit a brief to the United Nations on the unjust oppression of Scotland by England. Personally, I don’t think that England would ever give up Scotland without establishing a state of Pakistan for the protection of the Irishmen and Welshmen who contribute so much to the cultural and intellectual life in Glasgow, and the Englishmen and Jews who have won for the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh the reputation for brilliance which they now enjoy. My own ancestors descended upon England from Scotland a century or more ago, pausing at the border only long enough to change their name from Marjoribanks to its present form. I don’t imagine that their descendants would want to be herded back to the bleak hillsides from which they escaped after the Great Capercailzie Famine of 1745. Nowadays you won’t find a Marchbanks in Scotland even during the grouse season; most of us just do our grousing wherever we happen to be. “A tussock wowsie’s nae doitit,” as Robbie Burns said, putting the whole thing in a nutshell.15


  While I was cutting grass and weeding this afternoon I was greatly troubled by mosquitoes, flies and other nuisances, and in this way my attention was drawn toward the benevolent insects—bees, grasshoppers and the like. I recall reading in a book about insects that they evolve their own economic laws, and abide by them. Thus ants go in for full employment, while bees consider it worth while to support a monarchy and an aristocracy; grasshoppers are definite laissez-faire liberals, and dung-beetles are bourgeois capitalists. But what about accidents, I pondered? Ants are socialists, possessing a complete, nasty, compact little socialist state of their own; but what happens to their economic laws when I run my lawn-mower over their anthill? They didn’t foresee that. And the bees get an unexpected handout from me when I put out honey boxes for them to clean; that boosts their economy unfairly. I am convinced that no insect sees me, except the mosquito, and yet in my garden I play Providence to the insect world without giving the matter a moment’s thought. I am the Unknown Factor, the Parcae in the lives of thousands of creatures with whom I am not even on nodding terms. A sweetly solemn thought.


  • SUNDAY •

  Put out my hanging baskets yesterday, and woke this morning to find that the temperature had dropped to 42 degrees. Just the sort of shabby trick that our Canadian summers are always playing. I well recall going for a picnic on the 24th of May in 1932, and returning home because it suddenly began to snow! It is this uncertainty of the weather which makes Canadians the morose, haunted, apprehensive people they are.

  • MONDAY •

  A magnificent day, and I passed a considerable part of it wishing I did not have to work. The more complex our civilization becomes, the less fun there is in it and the more work there is to do. The ultimate in civilizations is that of the ants, who work ceaselessly, and have no fun at all. And what do they get out of it? Well—did you ever look at an ant’s face under a microscope? It looks exactly like a composite photograph of Henry Ford16 and John L. Lewis,17 with just a suggestion of the characteristic frozen mug of the Nazi High Command…. To the movies tonight and saw a very dull film which tried to make out that missionaries have a lot of fun. Well—did you ever look at a missionary’s face under a microscope? That is the result of trying to persuade the heathen that it is wrong to get stinko on the fermented juice of the banyan, without using profanity, police or physical violence. The fact that many missionaries are married also makes it hard to interest the heathen in the Christian institution of monogamy, which they confuse with monotony.


  Upon the advice of my physician (a distinguished man who has a perfect understanding of my case) I take a little rest each day after lunch. But recently my repose has been shattered by a bird which imitates the sound of a telephone-bell perfectly. I compose myself for slumber, than br-r-r-ring goes this accursed bird, and up I jump and rush indoors to the phone, to find that there is nothing stirring at the other end of the wire. Naturalists deny the existence of any such bird, but it lives in a maple tree just by my verandah, and I have seen it; it is about the size of a jay, and has a black and green plumage. If I can catch it there will be telephone-bird pie on the menu at Château Marchbanks.


  A very hot day, and owing to some lack of caution I had committed myself a week ago to do some heavy gardening today—to clean out a wilderness, in fact. The wilderness was a mosquito headquarters, and they were holding an œcumenical conference, which I broke up with a great display of personal bravery. There were times however when I debated whether it would not be easier to lie down and die on the spot than to go on with the job. I was forcibly reminded of a poem which I read years ago in Second or Third Book about a negro slave who collapsed in the field with his sickle in his hand, and died while thinking of his days of glory in Africa, where “the lordly Niger flowed”;18 he was too far gone to feel the heat of the sun, or the cruel overseer’s whip, or the indignity of his present
position. That was just the way I felt. “Better death than work!” I cried, throwing myself into the jaws of my lawnmower, but it spat me out contemptuously. It is too dull to cut grass, let alone serve as an instrument of suicide.


  Was chatting today with a man who has just had a baby; that is to say, his wife actually had the baby, but as any one knows who has experienced it, the work of the superintendent in such processes is often as exhausting as that of the mother. He was weak and run down, and subject to dizzy spells, as the people who have just had babies always are in the advertisements, so I urged him to get himself a good nerve tonic, and did what I could to revive him with strawberries…. As men will, when they get together, we discussed the curious fact that, whenever it becomes known that you are going to have a baby, everybody hastens to tell you their favourite Horrible Tale about the Baby With Two Heads, or the Baby that Vanished, or the Baby that Got Mixed Up In The Hospital, and never knew whether it was a boy or a girl. Everybody likes to scare the wits out of an expectant father. I am going to write a book some day, called Radiant Fatherhood, which will make the whole thing seem beautiful and natural, and an experience to be cherished for a lifetime (which is, indeed, as long as one can cherish anything).

  • FRIDAY •

  The morning paper contains yet another repetition of the claim that the Bible is the best-selling book in the world, and that Pilgrim’s Progress comes next. I see this assertion in some form or other about once a month, but I have never seen any figures to prove it, and I suspect that it is merely something which a number of devout people would like to believe. Of course many Bibles are sold; I have seven Bibles myself, three of which I bought, and four of which I was given.19 But for Pilgrim’s Progress—does anybody ever finish it? As a child my gorge rose at the lugubriousness of Pilgrim, and I had a wicked hankering for Vanity Fair; after I grew up I tried to read it again, and failed. Bunyan was a notable stylist, but his mind was the mind of a sanctimonious tinker.


  I see that the Dominion Bureau of Agriculture is urging us to keep goats; the bureau writes about goats with tenderness and affection. Once it was my duty to look after a family of goats—a nanny, a billy and a kid—for a week during an outdoor production of As You Like It, and in that time I grew to like them, and even to trust them. They had some nasty ways, but were really much more intelligent and friendly than cows. It is a lie to say that they eat tin cans and underwear; they like glue, and esteem the label from a tin can as a great delicacy, but they do not eat the tin, and they simply turn their noses up at an old undershirt. Nor do they butt you if you treat them kindly. My only complaint was that they stank—not a dirty or unwholesome smell, but a powerful animal emanation—and after I tended the goats I had to change my clothes before I was acceptable in fastidious circles…. Goats have a lively sense of humour. They like to push and shove you to see if they can make you angry, and if you resent it, they jump up and down and laugh. But if you shove them back again, and hurl genial insults at them, they know that you are a good fellow, and accept you as a sort of honorary goat. I have had some high old times with goats.

  1 This was Memoirs of Hecate County (1946). Marchbanks succeeded in obtaining a copy from a venal bookseller and found that the book, though indecent by Ontario standards, was also dull, and it was necessary to wade through much tedious matter before one came to a spicy bit. Nevertheless he read it through, to defy the Censor, whom he later discovered was not a little man with thin lips and rimless spectacles, but a fat slob with thin lips and rimless spectacles.

  2 In the Fahrenheit scale, in which water freezes at 32 degrees and Marchbanks boils at 75 degrees. It has been abandoned in Canada in favour of the Celsius scale in which water boils at zero and Marchbanks swoons at 20—or is it 10? He has never mastered this new-fangled reckoning.

  3 This Happy Breed, a tale of humble life.

  4 James Caesar Petrillo (1892–1984) czar of the Musicians’ Union, who did so much to advance that profession by his insistence on frequent cessations of rehearsal, so that spittle might be emptied from horns, the chin-rests of violins wiped, and racy tales of marital infidelity exchanged.

  5 In Greek, “Whoo!” is o. Whether you prefer it in English or Greek is simply a matter of Whose Whoo!

  6 Although this happened after the supposed cessation of the War of 1939-45, liquor was still rationed in Canada, and hospitality was cautious. At the outbreak of war the Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King declared that Canada must “don the full armour of God” and of course this meant liquor rationing. The armour stayed on for quite a while after the fighting stopped, but the watering of the nation’s booze has persisted to this day, and something in excess of 80 per cent of the cost of a bottle of liquor, which is 75 per cent as strong as it used to be, is tax. This is why a Canadian, tasting his first Martini on a visit to New York, is often seen to gasp and clutch his throat. He is unaccustomed to the Real Thing.

  7 Marchbanks has himself been an Old Age Pensioner for many years, and a recipient of the publication Especially For Seniors (circulation 810,980) distributed free by the Government of Ontario. Lifelong journalist that he is, Marchbanks attempted to contribute to this magazine, but after the rejection of two deeply-pondered articles—Make Friends With Your Bladder, and Rocking-Chair Sex For The Over-Eighties he gave up in discouragement.

  8 As the year 2000 approaches, and with it the end of the Aeon of Pisces, it might be a good idea for U. N. to consider some better way of determining historical dates than by counting backwards and forwards from the Year One of the Christian Era, thus giving Time a kind of Push-Me-Pull-You air. Time ought to move forward gently, without these convulsions. But let us have no suggestions that we reckon time from the Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, noryet the Founding of Rome by Rhomboid and Rumpus (who were suckled by a werewolf); these are events too recent to fit in with the latest discoveries of archaeology, which have revealed a tooth in a cave in North Wales, belonging to a boy, presumably Welsh, which is 75,000,000 years old. Why not date from the year this boy (whose name appears to have been John Jenkin Jones) lost his tooth, and call the Age of Man the Age of Jones? Thus all dates in future would be After Jones, or A.J., as in “The Second World War was fought A.J. 74,008,061-74,008,067.”

  9 I have identified this coughdrop as a Woof-Nix, a drop of Marchbanks’ own invention, and associated with a black passage in his usually blameless career. For many years he held the position of Coughdrop Critic for The New England Journal of Medicine, and devised a ranking scheme, based on the Best Seller Lists, to show the comparative sales of the most popular coughdrops. For eighteen months without a break a drop called Woof-Nix held the proudposition of Top O’ The Drops, until a jealous rival revealed that Marchbanks was himself the inventor and manufacturer of Woof-Nix, which he made from road tar and raw turpentine, with a slight hint of garlic as a flavouring. Its nastiness had been its great merit for millions of masochistic coughers. The scandal, of course, meant that Marchbanks had to retire from the medical world. Sorry to bring this up, but truth is great, and will prevail.

  10 This was, of course, before the invention of the computerized address machine, which scorns anyone whose name contains more than twelve letters. This affair has reduced him to Samuel Marchb, who sounds like the kind of Middle European poet who gets the Nobel Prize because the Russians (probably quite rightly) can’t stand him.

  11 The Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker (1895–1979); his opponent countered by letting it be known that in his youth he had been a professional baseball player. It was not from such pits as these that Richelieu, the Younger Pitt, or even Disraeli or Gladstone, were dug. But the richer Canada grows, the more its politics lurches toward the folksy. Instances are known of M.P.s having their finger-nails artificially dirtied by the manicurist at the Chateau Laurier before meeting with deputations of their constituents.

  12 Marchbanks has lived to see radio’s successor, television, make even greater f
ritters of public occasions. When the TV people are at work the spectators are treated to the vision of the cameraman’s butt-end, thrust toward them as he trains his instrument upon his victim. When the TV people have had enough they pack up their traps noisily and leave the room, sneering at the audience, as if to say “We have grabbed the cream; lap up the skim if you will.” Marchbanks once investigated the question of the dress worn by TV crews, who greet Popes and Emperors alike in rags and tatters, unshaven and unshorn. He was unable to arrive at any reasonable explanation except that it is some strong assertion of democracy in its negative aspect.

  13 This was, of course, before the dawn of Gay Lib which Marchbanks, as a disciple of the late Dr. C. G. Jung of Zurich regards as clever old Mother Nature’s counteraction against excessive growth of population. All the fun of the fair and none of its problems—unless, of course, you count AIDS.

  14 Marchbanks, sometimes a careless scholar, is wrong; Tekahionwake was the Indian name of Emily Pauline Johnson (1862–1918) who was the daughter of G. H. M. Johnson, chief of the Six Nations Indians. A poetess from birth, Tekahionwake wrote copiously, and gave recitals, clad in Indian dress, in which she presented a fine figure. She recited on one occasion to Queen Victoria, who was much amused and gave the poetess a handsome brooch.

  15 Burns spoke, of course, in the Scottish Vernacular, which is apt to be gnomic. I asked a Scots gnome for an explanation, but all he would say was:

  A speirin’ gowk and a toom wame

  Are aye gruttin’ an’ aye the same.

  This gets us nowhere, and as I have better things to do than question gnomes I abandon the matter.

  16 Henry Ford (1863–1947) was an American automobile manufacturer, revered as the Father of the Tin Lizzie. Also famous for being able to do the dirtiest engineering repair work without getting his collar dirty, and for declaring that history is bunk. Not esteemed for his beauty.