The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• SUNDAY •
To a christening this afternoon, a ceremony in which I always take a large measure of innocent delight. At best it is a race between the parson and the infant, both gathering steam and momentum as the moment of immersion approaches; if the parson is still audible above the outraged screams of the child after this point, I award the victor’s palm to him. The shrieking of the child, of course, is merely the Old Adam protesting against an invasion of his property…. I understand that in most churches a first-aid box is kept in the vestry for the use of parsons who have suffered damage during a christening; I have seen men of God horribly clawed by infants who possessed extraordinary resistance to Grace…. Sometimes I have doubted the efficacy of the baptismal rite; so many children seem to be in full possession of the Old Adam, or, more accurately, the Old Nick is in full possession of them.
• MONDAY •
To the bank this afternoon, and was once again amazed by the nonchalance with which the young women behind the bars treat my balance. To me it is a matter of the most profound significance; to them it is a mere sum in addition and subtraction.4 Without being in the least aware of it, they can drive their cruel pens deep into my heart. That is, they are not aware of it unless I sink upon the floor with a despairing cry and attempt to disembowel myself with my pen-knife; then they call the assistant manager to throw me out. Banks hate suicides on the premises—looks bad.
• TUESDAY •
To the movies tonight to see a piece written by Sir Arthur Pinero and produced with complete and humiliating failure on the stage in 1922, and now served up by Hollywood as something new and dainty. Its theme (which is the old and laughably untrue one that Love Conquers All) might have been handled acceptably by Barrie, but Pinero, who had all the delicate appreciation of human nature that one expects in police court lawyers and auctioneers, made a mess of it, and Hollywood has piled its own mess on top of the original. A pilot who has been injured and disfigured in the war marries a girl of remarkable ugliness, and in the throes of the Tender Passion they are transformed, and seem beautiful to one another; but they do not seem beautiful to anyone else, and this is supposed to be tragic, though it appears entirely normal and explicable to me.
• WEDNESDAY •
Saw some posters today, adjuring hunters to make sure that their cigarette stubs were doused before they threw them away; the solemn assurance was given that one carelessly thrown match might start a forest fire. I wish that the government officials who dream up these posters would come and light my furnace for me some time with one of their carelessly thrown matches, or a cigarette stub. Tonight I laboured fifty minutes cleaning out my furnace (which had passed quietly away at 8:30 a.m.) and putting paper and kindling in its maw, preparatory to re-lighting; then I put a few carefully lighted matches inside and awaited results. There were none. Remembering the posters, I threw a lighted match carelessly into the firedoor; it went out at once. Next I tried a cigarette stub; it went out too. So at last I made a torch of twisted paper, and that worked. I can only conclude that it is easier to start a forest fire than it is to light my furnace.
• THURSDAY •
Suffered an acute attack of the humdudgeon today; the symptoms of this illness are a sense of failure, self-contempt and mental fatigue; there is no cure for it; application to the bottle merely brings on a crying-jag; a walk in the park suggests ideas of suicide; while the fit lasts all seems dross; sufferers from the humdudgeon should be left alone, though if they can be persuaded to lie down, with a pillow under the knees, it helps…. It was during a fit of the humdudgeon, on a Sunday afternoon in London, that De Quincey made his first experiment at opium-eating, to allay the pains of toothache. He never completely abandoned the habit, and lived to the ripe old age of seventy-five, coked5 to the gills a lot of the time.
• FRIDAY •
Everything is relative, I suppose, but I wish that the law, or a Chamber of Commerce, or somebody, would define the word “lifetime” as it is used by merchants. Fourteen months ago I bought a suit which was made of a cloth which I was assured would not—could not—wear out; the tailor jabbed pencils through it to show me how tough the fabric was. I have given it good care, and the sleeves and the cuffs are undeniably worn through; the lifetime fabric is just wartime shoddy. A few years ago I was sold a Harris tweed suit, which I was assured would last my lifetime; I wore both elbows through in just over three years. And I have never had a pen with a lifetime guarantee which lasted five years. Yet the days of our years are three-score years and ten.
• SATURDAY •
Long discussion this evening with a man who wants to revise our system of funerals and burial. The Vikings, he points out, lived in their ships and loved them, and when they died their bodies were laid out in their ships and sent off to sea. Ours, he points out, is an automobile civilization, and if we had any real respect for the dead, we would sit them at the wheel of the car in which they spent so much of life, and which they loved so dearly, and we would then allow the machine to dash along a special funeral speedway and eventually over a cliff. There is a poetic sweep about this notion which appeals to me strongly. For non-drivers like myself, of course, the plan might prove somewhat humiliating, but perhaps an arrangement could be made to whisk me into oblivion on castors, cunningly let into the heels of my burial boots.
• SUNDAY •
Was reading some of the letters of Edgar Allan Poe today, and they confirmed me in my belief that a man’s private correspondence should never be published. He does not write his letters with a horde of snoopy strangers in mind, and he says things which he would never say for publication. Poe was a great literary artist, and we have all the poems and stories which he wanted the public to see; why publish letters in which he makes a fool of himself, drooling weakly to his child wife, and tearfully addressing his mother-in-law as “Dearest Muddy”?
• MONDAY •
Was talking to a most unusual physician tonight—a man who scorns vitamins and laughs uproariously at talk of allergies. Medicine, he said, was an art and not a science, and could only be usefully practised after deep study of human nature and of each individual patient. This attitude, he said, was commonplace among the great physicians of the past, but was out of favour with the modern school of pill-peddlers, who like to do their diagnosis by machine as much as possible, and prefer not to see the patient if they can possibly manage with a piece of him. Too many doctors are deeply interested in disease, but don’t care much for people, he said.
• TUESDAY •
To Toronto on some business, and found it noisier and dirtier than ever. Of course, visitors see Toronto at its worst. I had to fly around the business section, meeting this one here, and phoning that one there, and my impression was all of tiresome noise, stench and rush. But native Torontonians rarely encounter this; they sit in their luxurious offices, with their feet on desks, smoking big cigars and wondering how long it will be before they can run around the corner for their hourly cup of coffee. At home their wives and children live in the pastoral surroundings of Bayview, where grass grows in the streets, in Forest Hill, where the wild matzo blooms luxuriantly all year round, or in Lawrence Park, where cows and sheep graze peacefully on the lawns. The calm, white, expressionless face of a real Torontonian is never creased with care, and his collar is never soiled with smuts from the chimneys. Those frantic, feverish, sweating wretches who run about the downtown area are all visitors from the country, rushing madly to do a week’s business in a few hours.
• WEDNESDAY •
This afternoon bent to the task of carving a pumpkin face as a Hallowe’en surprise for some children I know; this is a neglected branch of art which I have made peculiarly my own. I scorn the mediocre pumpkin face with triangular eyes and nose, and a gash of a mouth: mine has a noble nose, a mouth full of teeth, eyes which search your soul when the pumpkin is illuminated, and a leer which sums up the whole spirit of Hallowe’
en. The only proper way to illuminate a pumpkin head is with the stub of a candle; electric light is harsh and lacking in mystery.
• THURSDAY AND ALL HALLOW’S EVE •
Hallowe’en, and a fine windy night. There was a ring at my door, and when I opened it a frightful ghost, about three feet high, confronted me. “Who are you?” I demanded in a voice which trembled with fright. “I’m Charles,” whispered the spirit, and whisked my profferred orange into the folds of its ectoplasm…. Not long after the ghost of Charles had disappeared, I heard a groan, and went outside just in time to see a gang of hooligans running up the street, having ripped my gate off its hinges. I cursed them with a slow, lingering, horrible curse imparted to me by my grandmother, who was a witch. They will not feel the full effect of this curse for a week or so, but then parts of them will begin to turn black, and drop off, and they will be regarded as undesirable even in the circles of society in which they now move…. There was a good deal of writing on windows with soap, too, mostly confined to such comments as “Ha ha” and “Boo.” The world is so constituted that people who feel like writing on windows can never think of anything funny to write, while those who can think of funny things have too much brains to want to write them on windows.
• FRIDAY AND ALL HALLOWMAS •
The folk-spirit in poetry is not dead. Today I heard some children singing Sing A Song O’ Sixpence, the last verse of which runs:
The maid was in the garden
Lining out the clothes;
Along came a blackbird
And snapped off her nose.
But to this a youthful poet in the group had added a delightful sequel:
She went to the doctor
To get a wooden nose,
And when she came home,
She couldn’t blow her nose.
I hope to see this addition incorporated in the next edition of Mother Goose.
• SATURDAY •
People make their livings in the oddest ways. I heard today about a man who has become wealthy through the manufacture of “slumber slippers”—soft little slippers like ballet shoes which are placed on the feet of corpses. All God’s chillun got special shoes…. And a man in Winnipeg has become well-off through the cultivation and sale of sunflower seeds, for the chewing trade. It seems that great numbers of immigrants from Middle Europe like to chew sunflower seeds, spitting out the husks and eating the tiny, oily kernel, which tastes like a nut…. I should like to get into one of these queer trades, and make my fortune: I wonder how neon false teeth would be, so that lovers could smile at one another in the dark? Or pipe-cleaners with blunted ends, so that they could safely be used as ear-reamers? Or a pair of stays that rings a bell when the occupant has eaten enough, for fat women on diets? The possibilities are infinite.
• SUNDAY •
For years I have been known to a large circle of sports enthusiasts as the Nimrod of the Fly-Swatter; I take no interest in other blood-sports, but when it comes to swatting flies I admit few equals and no superiors. I prefer a swatter with a rubber flapper to the ordinary wire affair; the wire mashes the game, but the rubber slaps it into oblivion and leaves the carcass unmutilated, and suitable for stuffing or table use…. It is not generally realized that when a fly rises from a standing position, it jumps backward; it is necessary to allow for this jump when swatting. I have also noticed that amateurs, particularly women, swat at flies as though they were driving spikes; this causes a noticeable breeze, and the fly is warned. The way to swat a fly is this: grip the swatter firmly but not tensely, hold it six inches over the quarry, and then swat with a decisive but not vindictive motion. If the fly escapes, do not pursue it with yells and wild swipes of the swatter; wait until it lights again, and swat like a gentleman and a sportsman. With my rubber swatter, I can often stun a fly while it is in the air, but you had better not try this; only an Annie Oakley like myself has the finesse for such refinements.
• MONDAY •
Business called me to Toronto, where I found the lobby of the Royal York thronged with men in handsome blue uniforms which were richly ornamented with gold lace, gold rope and gold insignia; many of them wore impressive medals and ribbons, and I heard one of them address another as “General.” All of them carried swords, the scabbards of which appeared to be composed of gold and ivory, and one of them was accompanied by a lady of dominating appearance who wore a purple cloak of military cut, and a hat with a prodigious ostrich plume in it. I assumed that they must be foreign grandees, perhaps a government-in-exile, until I noticed that fighting men in ordinary khaki and blue did not salute them, but seemed indeed to look upon them with ill-concealed amusement; I saw one airman point them out to his dinner partner with what I can only describe as a contumelious gesture…. I made discreet enquiries, and learned that the gorgeous creatures were attending a convention of a fraternal order—the Ancient and Honourable Order of Poltergeists, I believe. There is a corroboree of some sort at the Royal York every week.6
• TUESDAY •
Every day I pass a beverage room in the course of my duties, and at least every second day an habitué of the place pursues me for a hundred yards or so, telling me in a low, compelling voice how badly he needs twenty-five cents. I have given him money several times, chiefly from a fear that he will fall dead at my feet if I refuse, but I am beginning to be indifferent to his fate. What is more, an uncharitable suspicion dawns in my mind that he uses my money to buy beer. Now if he spends all his daily income, which is my twenty-five cents, on drink, he is obviously an improvident oaf, and the despair of economists, and the next time he appears trembling and muttering at my side I shall tell him so. If he were a true Canadian he would spend five cents of my quarter on food and drink, he would save five cents, and he would pay the other fifteen for Income Tax and the Baby Bonus. That is what I have to do. Why should he live a life of pleasure, spending his whole income on drink, when I have to slave and pinch to keep him and several thousand civil servants in luxury? This is the sort of social injustice which makes communists of white-collar workers like me.
• WEDNESDAY •
When I was born good fairies clustered round my cradle, showering me with wit, beauty, grace, freedom from dandruff, natural piety and other great gifts, but the Wicked Fairy Carabosse (who had not been invited to the party) crept to my side and screamed, “Let him be cursed with Inability To Do Little Jobs Around The House,” and so it has always been. I cannot drive a nail straight, or mend an electric iron, or make a door stop sticking, or change a fuse. I do not glory in my inefficiency; I suffer under it. Whenever anything goes wrong with my household arrangements, I have to get a man in to mend it—no small task in these days—and I know that he despises me as he does the fiddling little job and takes away a dollar of my money.7 People who are good at odd jobs are blessed above common mortals; I have some trifling skill in swatting flies and shining shoes, but otherwise I am a nuisance in the house. If I were ever shipwrecked on a desert island with several thousand feet of lumber, a complete set of carpenter’s tools, and one hundred cases of assorted foods, I should die in a week of exposure and starvation.
• THURSDAY •
Attended a concert in the line of duty, and suffered agonies with my cough. There are coughers at every concert, but none like me; I am to ordinary coughers what the late Chaliapin was to a schoolgirl singing in her mother’s drawing-room; I am a vituoso cougher, and when I cough at a concert it is like the trumpets of Joshua outside the walls of Jericho. Artists have been known to stop in mid-song, and stare into the auditorium in horrified amazement; a circus man I once knew said it put him in mind of an elephant trumpeting. I cannot help it; it is my cross, and I must bear it as best I may. Hardly had the concert begun, until I felt horrid ticklings and heavings in my throat, and I knew at once that I was a goner. I hastily ate a Smith Bros, cough drop, but it was powerless against the rising fury of my cough; I held in by sheer power of will until the first song was ov
er, and then I allowed my cough to drown the generous applause. This went on until the interval, when I was able to get a drink of water. Every song, for me, was a struggle with a cough which raged to escape. I heard the artist telling the head usher to find that dog and put it out, and I trembled in fear. But later in the evening the demon within me relented, and I was able to enjoy the music, though exhausted by my struggle.
• FRIDAY •
Received a telephone call from a friend of mine, who wanted to know who invented the water-closet; he has had one in his house for years, but has only recently become curious about it. The answer is that it was first devised by the Elizabethan nobleman, Sir John Harington, who in 1596 described his invention, which he was certain would mitigate the plague, and what did the world do? It condemned him as a man whose mind dwelt on filth. Thus the very name of this great benefactor of mankind is known to about one person in 5,000,000 whereas the inventor of the zip-fastener was given an LL.D. by the University of Uppsala. What a world!
• SATURDAY •
Undertook to bathe a small child and put it to bed, in the absence of its mother; this is not a fitting pursuit for a man whose temperament is philosophical and whose habits are sedentary. Several times I underestimated the elusiveness of a small creature covered from head to foot in soapsuds, and almost fell into the tub myself. The child took this for frolicsomeness on my part, and began to throw water on me; I toyed with the idea of stripping, in order to meet this situation on fair terms, but rejected the plan as undignified. When at last I had landed my fish and begun to dry it, the unforeseen problem of ticklishness obtruded itself, and then hair-brushing created a great hullabaloo. When at last it was in bed, and had had all the drinks of water and Kleenex it demanded, I was a nervous and physical wreck.