The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• SUNDAY •
Passed a large part of the day eating grapes. There are people who say that our Canadian blue grapes are harsh and prick the mouth with tiny barbs. To me, they seem matchless in flavour and colour, and I consume them by the basket, picking, chomping and spitting in a golden autumnal dream…. Once, years ago, I watched a chimpanzee in the London Zoo; the Latin name over his cage was Simia Satyrus, and truly he seemed like some bawdy, happy old satyr from the Golden Age when the world was young, and Rights, and Duties, and Social Problems were still maggots in the womb of time. He lay on his back with his arms folded under his head, and bit great mouthfuls of grapes from a bunch which he held in his toes. Every now and then he looked out at me, spat seeds, and shook with silent laughter, as though to say, “If you had any sense, old boy, you’d join me; this is the life.” I have often regretted that I did not accept his invitation. A nice private cage and plenty of grapes—what more can life offer?
• MONDAY •
I see an advertisement in the papers for “Pre-Arranged Funerals.” If you want to, you can arrange your own funeral, and pay for it before you die. This scheme combines forethought with a special form of insurance, and I think I shall make arrangements for my own funeral this afternoon. Death has no terrors for me, but sometimes I break out in a cold sweat when I think what a preacher might say about me when I was no longer able to contradict him and check his facts. I shall write my own funeral oration, and I shall also decide what music shall lull my mourners. If strains of Maunder or Stainer were played at my defunctive orgies I should certainly rise from the dead and strangle those responsible…. If I can raise the money to cover expenses I think I shall arrange to have a sin-eater at my funeral, in the manner of my Celtic ancestors, and also a feast for the mourners, with cold meats, Stilton cheese, fruitcake, and plenty of sherry and port. I feel that nothing would make up for my absence so well as a sufficient quantity of good dry sherry.12
• TUESDAY •
I see that an English film studio is going to make a film of the life of Karl Marx. Now how will they do that, I wonder? The real life of Marx would not do for the movies: he was an incorrigible borrower, an indifferent father and lived his whole life in the extreme of bourgeois dullness. What is there here to engage the talents of a handsome star, or even Paul Muni, whose special line is playing great men? … But I suppose it will emerge that Karl’s father was a miner, greatly oppressed, and that Karl’s mother is the hired help in the mine-owner’s palatial residence, and the mine-owner’s son lusts after Karl’s sister and wants to put her in a Boudoir, instead of qualifying as a teacher and organizing the sweated teachers. In the culminating scene Karl will lead The Workers to burn down the mine-owner’s mansion, as Bernard Shaw (played by Shirley Temple) stands on one side, urging caution, but wittily. In the last sequence Karl, now entirely overgrown with whiskers, will be seen in the British Museum, writing Das Kapital. The whole thing will be in Technicolor, inclining toward the redder shades of the spectrum. Oh, and at some point Karl must express fawning admiration for George Washington, or the film will never export.
• WEDNESDAY •
A lecturer on health was somewhat embarrassed recently when a member of his audience rose and said: “What will become of the health of Canada with the coming generation of mothers drinking and smoking as they do?” Dipping into my immense knowledge of social history, I cannot recall any generation of mothers which has not had its own deleterious indulgences. The mothers of yester-year did not smoke and drink rye, but they consumed dangerous quantities of strong tea, and sought oblivion by imbibing freely of Peruna, a nerve tonic which contained about as much alcohol as a bottle of imported Scotch. And their mothers smoked clay pipes and drank the liquor from the bottoms of silos, just to keep off germs. In spite of these things, they lived to ripe ages, and were often very merry and entertaining old parties. We can overdo the health business. Remember the old song—“A little of what you fancy does you good.” A very sound philosophy, clearly expressed.
• THURSDAY •
To the movies tonight to see a highly coloured piece about some people called Frédéric Chopin and George Sand, though any resemblance between them and the historical characters so named was coincidental, and had been avoided pretty carefully. The voluptuous Lady Korda played George Sand, and when she appeared in masculine dress she looked far more like the historical Chopin than the young bruiser who had been given that part. The historical George Sand was so lacking in attraction of the physical kind that Alfred de Musset once described her as a cow, quite dispassionately…. The film had been constructed along the approved lines of Hollywood history: Chopin was insulted and oppressed by the rich (whereas in actual fact he was fawned upon by the nobility and gentry almost from birth); he was a revolutionary, and a great whooper-up for the Common Man (though in fact he never met any common men except occasional piano movers and preferred the company of the most brilliant group of his time); he let George Sand bamboozle him (though in fact they nagged each other tirelessly, and he could not stand the racket made by her swarm of children); he dearly loved his native Poland (though he was actually half-French and took care never to go near Poland once he got away from it). A strange film, brightly coloured, sweet and gassy, like a fruit salad.
• FRIDAY •
I am getting a cold. At present it is in what we medical men call “the period of incubation.” This means that there is nothing specifically wrong with me, but I am conscious of uneasiness in my throat, and my head feels as though somebody had pumped soda water (with pinpoint carbonation, of course) into my brains, causing them to go bubble-bubble-bubble in a ticklish way every now and again. My ears, too, have not their accustomed sharpness, and everybody who talks to me seems to have a mouthful of mashed potatoes…. To me the annoying thing about the cold germ is that it has such a poor sense of timing; when I am in perfect health, but would welcome a chance to stay in bed for two or three days, I could not catch a cold if I slept in a freezing locker; but when I am too busy to fuss over trifles I catch colds with the greatest ease, and have to go on working in spite of them. I know that physicians advise against this, but I have yet to see a physician take a few days in bed because of a cold. They generally keep going as long as they can be carried from patient to patient.13
• SATURDAY •
In the night my cold passed from the stage of incubation to the stage of exasperation, and I woke up with weeping eyes, a streaming nose, no sense of taste, and very little sense of hearing. Went to work, kicking dogs, swearing at children, and pushing old women under buses. There is a misanthrope in every man, and the cold germ usually brings him well to the fore…. In the afternoon visited some people, all of whom had colds, and we passed an agreeable hour or so exchanging symptoms…. Later at an informal birthday party, and had a slice of cake with real icing on it, a rarity in these times. I haven’t any sympathy with people who do not celebrate their birthdays; I like to see the utmost done in the way of cakes, gifts, and jollifications. To a philosopher the passing of another year is not a melancholy incident; he may be a year older, but if he is worth his salt he is also a year wiser.
• SUNDAY •
Took some photographs today, as I was lucky enough to get a reel of film yesterday. Amateur photography bears the same relation to the real thing that amateur theatricals bear to the productions of London or Broadway. When I take a photograph I usually manage to get at least one object into the picture which taste and delicacy would exclude from it; if I take a baby there is certain to be a puddle under it; if I take a dewy damsel in a winsome pose, she is sure to have a bottle of hair restorer or eradicator protruding from her pocket; let me train my camera upon a fragrant old lady in her lavender gown, and an ill-timed eructation will cause her to come out on the film looking like a bar-fly; nobody ever seems to be properly tucked in, buttoned up, or combed and washed when I take them. There are people who believe that Nature always provides a reverse, or o
pposite, of everything she creates. I am obviously the opposite of Yousuf Karsh; if I had photographed Churchill it would certainly have been just after a bottle had broken in his pocket.
• MONDAY •
A letter today from a gentleman who is in hospital with a broken leg; he has been reading some of my reviews and wants to know if I have many readers of his own age (twenty-eight). I don’t know, to be truthful, though I understand that I am widely read in Old Folks Homes, orphanages, asylums for alcoholics, and Refuges for Gentlewomen in Reduced Circumstances; in poor-houses, too, I am a general favourite. This is because I am always compassionate toward the weak and lowly, and scornful toward the rich, the book-learned and the privileged. Years ago, when I was a mere lad, I discovered that the way to win the hearts of the lowly was to tell them that they were the salt of the earth; this is a lie, but they loved it.
• TUESDAY •
In the paper I see a picture of Shirley Temple buying her trousseau. Deary me, how time flies! Surely ’twas but yesterday that this lovable mite held all the world in chubby thrall. Even the Dionne Quintuplets, five to one, could not get the better of her in the great battle of publicity. And now she is a grown woman, trying to find a few pairs of step-ins with real elastic in the top…. A Hollywood tycoon once explained to me that the whole of Shirley’s grip on the film public began and ended with the way in which she said “Oh my goodness!” This line appeared in all her films, and where the ordinary moppet would say “Oh my goodness!” with perfect, if nasal, articulation, Shirley said “Oh my gooness!” This bit of delicious juvenility reduced strong men to doting tears, and caused fond mothers to smack their children whenever the aforesaid young dared to sound the “d” in “goodness.” When Shirley said “Oh my gooness!” and flashed dimples like Neon signs, she aroused the essential jellyfish in us all; we were at her mercy, even when she sang The Good Ship Lollipop and clumped laboriously through a tap-dance. But Ichabod, Ichabod, the gooness is departed from Shirley.
• WEDNESDAY •
There are times when I wonder, calmly and dispassionately, whether life is really worth living. Every Autumn there comes a period during which it is impossible to keep warm, though the lighting of the furnace would be rash folly. I have just enough black jellybeans in my cellar to feed my Monster from October 15 until May 5. Light up now, and I shall freeze in the Spring…. I see that somebody is advertising for a “Boy’s Commode.” In my young days those things were Great Levellers, making no distinction of sex.
• THURSDAY •
These are the days when lukewarm gardeners like myself debate earnestly whether they should cut the grass just once more, or not. There is a school of thought which maintains that it is bad for a lawn to be closely cropped when the first frost comes; there is an opposing school which says that a lawn which is left shaggy in the autumn will be slow and spotty next spring…. Frankly, I have exhausted any pleasure that mowing lawns ever held for me, and I wish I could get a boy to take over the job for a reasonable price…. When I was a lad I mowed an enormous lawn every week for years on end, and was thankful for a dry crust and a glass of polluted water when the job was done. I attribute my present rocklike character to this stern early training.
• FRIDAY •
The world was scheduled to end today, but something must have gone wrong. The Rev. Charles Long of Pasadena, California, said it, and I made a note of it on my memorandum pad. Deciding that Oblivion might as well overtake me when I was busy, I went about my accustomed tasks all day, keeping an eye peeled for any untoward happenings. At about 11:35 a.m. I heard a shrill sound which I thought might be the Trump of Doom, but it proved to be a child outside in the street, who had swallowed his gum and was bewailing the loss. As night drew on I wondered if it were worth while making a fire, but again I reflected that I might as well die warm, and it was well that I did so, for the world did not end at all…. This makes the eighth prediction of general doom that I have survived without harm, and every single one has been made by the shaman, fakir or medicine man of some sect in the U.S.A. I am beginning to question the Divine Inspiration of these creatures.
• SATURDAY •
Went out this afternoon to see if there were any autumn tints yet visible, and had a very good time, sweetened by the knowledge that I should have stayed at home to do a dozen pressing household jobs…. Home, and made a fire and sat by it, eating grapes, and thinking what a fine season autumn is. Chose an apple, and was just about to bite into it when a solemn thought struck me that apples are now seventy-five cents a basket, and this in turn fathered the sober reflection that some autumns are better than others. Put the apple back in its basket, only slightly tooth-pocked…. Passed the evening looking out clothes for the Europeans, and found that I had more than I imagined, including a great many pairs of socks. Handed these over to an experienced sock-rehabilitator of my acquaintance, who made them as good as new. The thought that some Greek or Dutchman will be wearing my socks this winter gives me a new sense of the brotherhood of man.
• SUNDAY •
In bed, and feel very low; no Calvinist ever approached the Sabbath with a heavier heart or a greater contempt for the flesh than I do today. A neglected cold is wreaking its revenge upon me. I pick up a novel to beguile the leaden-footed hours: in the first chapter is an account of how a man died through neglecting a cold. Oh! … Have just devoured the bread and milk which is all of my dinner. My entrails are now a prehistoric swamp where reptiles and horned monsters romp.
• MONDAY •
Thought a good deal about death today, and particularly about my own Last Words if I should expire of this grievous malady. The fashion for Last Words has declined during the last century. The most interesting case of Disputed Last Words that I know of concerns William Pitt, the Great Commoner; there are those who say he died exclaiming, “Oh my country! How I leave my country!” though an opposed school of historians claims that what he really said was, “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies.” … However, I was unable to concoct a satisfactory dying speech for myself; I am too ill for the strenuous intellectual labour involved. And this gives me a clue to the genesis of many famous Last Words: they are carefully composed, polished and memorized years before death, and then, when the Grim Reaper seems near, they can be spoken with full effect…. But in these degenerate days too many people die in hospitals, and as it is a well-known fact that no nurse ever lets a patient get a word in edgewise, Last Words are an impossibility.14
• TUESDAY •
Visited the doctor today at his office; he has a machine there which he wants to use on me. While waiting for him took close cognizance of the picture on his wall. Most doctors content themselves with Sir Luke Fildes’ touching masterwork The Doctor, in which a bearded physician leans over the bed of a sick child, trying to look as though he knew what ailed it…. But this picture showed a young soldier lying on a rough bed, covered with his jacket; his eyes are closed and it is plain that he has gone to that land where “nor physician troubleth nor enema grieveth,” as the Good Book says. At a table by his side sits his superior officer, his eyes moist, looking at the contents of the young man’s wallet; another officer, gazing out of the window, has succumbed to manly tears…. Of course, it may be that I interpret this picture wrongly; maybe the young fellow on the bed is drunk, and his two superior officers are crying because he hasn’t enough money on him to be worth robbing. I don’t know, and, by the time the doctor had finished with me, I didn’t care.
• WEDNESDAY •
My physician has given me a sedative, swearing by Aesculapius, Panacea and Pharmacopoeia that it will do me good. I read The Great Gatsby until the drug renders me insensible, after which I am a victim of evil dreams, in which I am continually being shot at by ill-disposed persons. I struggle to escape; I try to call for help, but I am powerless. At last I am able to arouse myself, and wonder whether the cure is not worse than the disease. The only perceptible effe
ct of the sedative on me was to parade the disjecta membra of my scrambled ego before my mind’s eye.
• THURSDAY •
Felt better today, and made a mighty effort to get out of bed; could only endure this for half an hour. Retired ungracefully, and passed the time by reading a book about famous murders. I suppose there are dozens of murders done every year which are never discovered; so far as I can judge, the types of murderers who are captured are two: (a) ignoramuses who kill in hot blood, with plenty of witnesses and a profusion of bloody axes, initialled handkerchiefs and whatnot as clues; (b) people who try to be too clever, and who invent subtle schemes of murder, and alibis for themselves. But the woman who pushes her aged husband downstairs, or the man who feeds his wife lobsters and whiskey, is rarely charged with murder, because the method is direct and simple. The best murder, of course, is achieved by driving our victim to murder himself, and this is by no means as difficult as it might seem; indeed, it was done often during the market crash of 1929, when the rain of stockbrokers jumping from upstairs windows made a walk down Bay Street quite dangerous.
• FRIDAY •
Got up this afternoon with great success, and this has altered my whole attitude toward life. No wonder invalids are crochety, crabby people. There are, in fact, two approaches to invalidism: (a) You can be a Sickbed Hitler, and insist on running everything and everybody from your Bedroom Chancellery; (b) You can be an Uncomplaining Sufferer, which means that you must tell everybody you had a bad night when you really slept like a horse, and you must do all you can to indicate that you are in continual pain, which you endure with nobility. Both these plans are great fun, but I think the Uncomplaining Sufferer has the best racket of all. He can make his relatives sacrifice to him for years, and feel cheap as they do it. If I ever become chronically ill I shall see what can be done to combine the two methods, producing a monster of valetudinarianism to be known to science as the Tyrannosaurus Marchbankensis, or Nurses’ Nightmare.