The Papers of Samuel MarchbanksRobertson Davies
• SUNDAY •
To the zoo this afternoon, just to see how the animals liked the cold weather. The bear looked restless and banged his cage resoundingly from time to time; the raccoon and the skunk had retired for the winter; the foxes looked as though the cement floor gave them cold feet. But the ducks were very hearty, and nipped at the toes of my boots in a spirited manner; a duck nipping at one’s boot is a good joke, but a duck nipping at one’s nether regions when one is in a bathing suit is something entirely different. The pheasants were moulting—a process which is chronic with them, though the Ringneck Cock was in his finest plumage and a glorious sight. Two owls had been added to the collection, and were resenting it; I know of no animal which has a capacity for dignified outrage equal to that of an owl.
• MONDAY •
A correspondence school has written to me, inviting me to take a course in writing; this is a type of criticism which I resent. “You do not have to be a genius to become a successful writer,” they say, in what is meant to be a reassuring manner. Then they go on to urge me to look in my own neighbourhood for subjects. “Dig below the surface of your home town,” they say; frankly I am afraid that this method would not win me “a big income and interesting friends,” as they promise, but merely a pack of lawsuits…. People who have taken the course write eagerly, “Last week I hit The Country Gentleman; this week I hit Mademoiselle; next week I hope to hit the American Mother!” Frankly I don’t think this course would suit me; I don’t want to hit any of those people, though I might toss a pie at the American Mother, just for fun…. But I like the promise the people make that they will teach me how to create tense moments, and how to play on the heart-strings; I have never been any good at either of those things. And I particularly like their offer to teach me how to be funny; any school which can make a man funny by correspondence must possess a secret which has been hidden from the rest of mankind for some thousands of generations. It would be nice to be unfailingly, perpetually, remorselessly funny, day in and day out, year in and year out until somebody murdered you, now wouldn’t it?
• TUESDAY •
Walked home this evening in the dusk, and passed a surprising number of couples of High School age conversing in low, tense voices as they leaned over bicycles or huddled under trees. Poets insist that Spring is the time of mating, but personal observation convinces me that the austere, bright nights of late Autumn are equally favourable to romance. The interesting thing about these lovers’ conversations are the pauses. The lad asks some question which (to my ears, at least) has no amorous significance, and the girl then casts down her eyes, fingers her Latin Grammar in an agitated manner, and after a breathless interval (during which I try to keep on walking without getting out of earshot) replies, “Oh, I guess so,” or “Oh, I’d just as lief,” causing her swain to breathe hard and gulp…. Why doesn’t he throw himself on the ground, saying, “You are my Soul, my Better Self, be mine or I stab myself with this pair of protractors”; then she could reply, “Nay, press me not, I am Another’s.” In that way they could really have some romantic fun and store up things to tell their grandchildren. No style, no breadth, that’s the trouble with the modern High School set.
• WEDNESDAY •
An unseasonable warm spell forces me to reverse my tactics with my furnace; instead of begging the thing to give me a little heat, I am now imploring it to relax its efforts. Perverse as always, it huffs and puffs and frizzles me with its breath.
• THURSDAY •
Was talking to a woman who has just had a baby, and who passed her period of recovery in a public ward in a Great Canadian City. There were nine other women in the room with her, and she said that they talked all the time—mostly about names for babies and the peculiar behaviour of their husbands. When these husbands came visiting one piece of dialogue was invariable:
HUSBAND: “Do you want anything to read?”
WIFE: (patting her bedside table) “No, no; I have MY BOOK.”
… My informant was burned up with curiosity to know what these books were which were spoken of in such a portentous manner; she was able to discover that in all nine cases the “book” was a magazine of true love stories, or of confessions. This is an interesting sidelight on Canadian reading habits. Furthermore, she said that she never saw one of her nine companions open her “book” upon any occasion…. My informant read several books during her recovery, to the amazement and ill-concealed indignation of her room-mates. It was their opinion that too much reading was a sign of being stuck-up, and furthermore liable to harm the baby’s eyes—by sympathetic magic, I suppose.8
• FRIDAY •
Was in a music store, buying more gramophone records, when a man came in and asked for a ditty called Just a Rose From My Mother’s Grave. He expressed great admiration for this lugubrious piece. It led my thoughts to an even more affecting ballad, called They’re Moving Father’s Grave To Build a Sewer, which I last heard rendered with the most moving pathos and delicacy of expression by a high official of the National Film Board.
• SATURDAY •
This afternoon hove wood into my cellar and piled it; the heaving was a wild, brutal ecstasy, but the piling was a weary penance. It was necessary for me to grab up as much wood as I could hold, and scuttle under the rafters and furnace-pipes in a crouching position, rather as an ape rushes through the forest with a stolen bunch of bananas. After an hour or two of this my back began to hurt, and my philosophy took a violent turn toward pessimism. It was at this time also that my woodpile began to slip and slide, and drop on my feet. After some very delicate engineering I got it to stay in place, and decided not to tempt fate by putting any more on it, so I retired to an upstairs room and settled down with a book and a foaming glass of burdock blood-bitters…. During the night a mouse tramped rather heavily on the cellar floor, and I heard a thunderous roll as my woodpile sank into ruin.
• SUNDAY •
Woke with an aching head and a vile taste in my mouth—the consequence of piling wood yesterday; the pursuit of pleasure always leaves me in splendid condition (a fact which puzzles and irritates the Moral Element among my friends) but hard work gives me the most intolerable hangovers. Obviously Nature is evolving a new type of man, geared for a life of pleasure, and I am the first model…. But on the principle of “a hair of the dog” I went out and heaved and piled the rest of my wood, having reconstructed the woodpile which fell down yesterday. By the time I was finished, I was on the verge of physical and mental breakdown. Though thousands of people indulge themselves in it regularly, and even develop a taste for it, there is no doubt in my mind (and that of scientists whom I employ to prove it) that Work is a dangerous and destructive drug, and should be called by its right name, which is Fatigue.
• MONDAY •
Attended a concert in a collegiate auditorium tonight, and sat in the front row in order to have room for my legs; in the ordinary concert-hall seat (designed by and for dwarfs) I have to sit side-saddle, while numbness seizes first one haunch and then the other. But being in the front row I had a fine view of the empty orchestra pit, and during a rowdy rendition of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor a tiny mouse crept from under the piano in the pit and began to dance, lightly, elegantly and charmingly. When the music twiddled, the mouse twiddled; when the music bounced, the mouse bounced; there was no arabesque of sound which the mouse was not able to transmute into an arabesque of movement. When it was all over I applauded the mouse vigorously, assuming that it was a protégé of the Board of Education. I learned later, however, that the concert committee had been put out by the fact that the mouse got in, somehow, without a ticket…. Why are school mice always so fat and sleek? Is it because they have access to unlimited floor-oil?
• TUESDAY •
There is a special grubby joylessness about life these days which oppresses the spirit. As I look out of my window there is not a green leaf or a flowering plant to be seen; dust
blows everywhere; a woman passes, and pulling at her arm is a little boy dressed in a snow suit, in which he is hot and fretful; a man with a paunch stalks by, looking as though all his meals in the last fifteen years had soured his stomach; a girl goes by wearing an elaborate hairdo, a pea-jacket and a pair of short slacks, from which her dirty legs emerge; she is pigeon-toed, but she holds her head proudly; an elderly woman in an ill-chosen hat waits for a bus; she breathes through her mouth and stares at the passers-by. Is there any hope in these people? Could immortal souls inhabit such frames without showing some spark through the eyes, or in a smile? November is a month to breed pessimists.
• WEDNESDAY •
Was discussing wart-cures with a physician this evening. He says that in his experience the best one is this: rub the wart with a slice of bacon, then go outdoors on a night when the moon is full, throw the bacon over your left shoulder and then, as the bacon rots, the wart will vanish. “But what if a cat eats the bacon?” I asked; “The wart will vanish that much sooner,” said he…. Naturally this led to talk of magic, and a lady present spoke of an old woman known to her grandmother, whose custom it was (when her luck was bad) to bind her churn with willow-withes, and beat it with a stick; then whoever it was that was wishing her ill would come to the door and beg forgiveness. This was in Canada, about 1850-60. Our pioneer ancestors had a lot of simple fun that we miss.
• THURSDAY •
Life, for a man of my temperament, is an endless procession of vexing domestic problems. Shall I have my storm-windows put on, or not? At present the weather is warmer than it was most of last May, and it is only by the most rigorous repression of my furnace that I keep my house livable. But I know that Winter will come upon me like a thief in the night, blowing its raw breath through every chink, ruffling the carpets on the floors and whipping the pictures off the walls. My indecision will be the ruin of me, I know it. But oh, the heat of storm windows in warm weather! I will…. I won’t…. I will…. I WON’T. Come then, Boreas, and be damned! It is better to tarry than to burn.
• FRIDAY •
Waiting for a bus today, I listened to the conversation of two women who were waiting also; they were exchanging symptoms. Such tales of nervous breakdown, bad dreams, uncontrollable crying, pain in the legs, bladder weakness and a general debility I have never heard: although they stood side by side they shouted as though they were conversing in a hurricane; as their symptoms grew worse and worse, their voices grew louder and shriller. They talked so loudly that I had no need of my formidable powers of eavesdropping. To my unskilled eye they looked healthy, though unwholesome and glum…. Most people like to be ill, and ask nothing more than a chance to rehearse their ailments. In some dark corner of their minds (I use the word loosely) there lurks the notion that if they ever admit that they feel quite well the gods will at once punish them with some direful malady.
• SATURDAY •
Rain all day. What can a man do on a rainy day which is also his half-holiday? I am never at a loss for an answer to that question. Immediately after lunch, I went to bed, and bade farewell to the world for a few hours. The telephone rang. “It can’t be anyone of any consequence,” I thought: “every sane man is in bed this afternoon.” After a while the ringing ceased…. Later there was a knock at the door. “Nobody is up to any good this afternoon,” I said to myself; “that is doubtless someone wanting to sell me a ticket on a sanctified raffle, or a dozen repulsive Christmas cards, or a copy of the Christmas War Whoop, or a pillow stuffed with pine needles.—A pox upon them.” The knocker went away…. “If everybody spent one half-day in bed,” I reflected, “there would be no need of a United Nations Organization; world peace would come as a matter of course, the divorce rate would be cut in two, and even grim-visaged labour leaders would become creatures of light and spirit.” At this point Oblivion claimed me.
• SUNDAY •
Was looking through a book today which had a good deal to say about prayer as a mental exercise. Prayer, it said, was not a formal thing, and could be indulged in anywhere; pray on the bus, while eating your dinner, or while taking a bath, it said; it was particularly scornful of the notion that prayer should be done on the knees; much better to say one’s prayers lying in bed…. Now this may be all right as mental exercise, but it entirely neglects the function of prayer as physical exercise. Most people, if they don’t kneel to pray, never kneel at all, and kneeling is good for you. The Moslems understand the value of prayer as exercise, and several times a day they prostrate themselves with their heads toward Mecca; I once knew a Moslem who said that this kept the most sedentary of his sect in good physical trim. The Chinese, before the revolution, made a great point of the kotow, in which you kneel gracefully and touch your forehead to the ground when in the presence of your superiors, or in temples; this kept them admirably supple and healthy, and when the revolution put an end to the kotow the Chinese went straight to the bad. The present decline of Christianity may be traced to this habit of praying in bed, which is bad for the Christian liver.9
• MONDAY •
A doctor tells me that he has observed a number of cases of poultry diseases among middle-aged women in the last few weeks; apparently the women are regular attendants at Bingo games, where they absentmindedly consume large quantities of the corn which is used for counters; then they go home and drink several cups of tea, and the trouble begins. Sometimes, he says, it is simple distension of the crop, and can be cured by purchasing a set of celluloid Bingo counters, but often the disease has gone too far for anything but severe measures. He mentioned one patient of his (whom he referred to as a White Wyandotte type) whose wattles had turned greyish and whose eyes had filmed over simply from a prolonged surfeit of Bingo corn. Another woman he mentioned (a table Plymouth Rock) showed every symptom of pip, and waddled about his office uttering pitiful squawks and occasionally falling over on her side. Still another was far gone in fowl-convulsions, and he did not think she would last for the Christmas trade…. I tried to cheer him up by pointing out the sturdy character which the Scotch10 built on a diet of oats; he said that he was afraid that Bingo corn would turn Canada into a nation of sick hens.
• TUESDAY •
The Russians are acclaiming Robbie Burns as a genius—a sort of primeval, pre-Marx Communist. This proves only that the Russians are not reading Burns’ works complete. His dislike of aristocracy pleases them, no doubt, but his hatred of orthodoxy and bureaucracy cannot go down very well. Probably the Russian editions of his works are carefully expurgated, and such verses as The De’il’s Awa Wi’ The Exciseman are omitted. By judicious expurgation I could prepare a Shakespeare which would be an eloquent plea for Communism, and I daresay that I could prepare a cipher which would show that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Joe Stalin…. My advice to the Russians is that they should give thanks that Burns is dead, and not alive in Russia today. He would be a great bother to the commissars of literature and popular thought, before they decided to kill him.
• WEDNESDAY •
Was introduced to an elderly lady today who offered me two fingers to shake; they were cold, damp and blue, like uncooked sausages. Her conduct in this matter did not please me greatly, for I would much have preferred to have no hand at all, rather than half a hand. It was the custom in the last century to give a few fingers—three, two, or in extreme cases, one—to people whom one regarded as social inferiors, or in some way undesirable. I only know one man who still does it, and as he does it to everybody I assume that he has a high regard for himself. The story is told that the late Arthur Balfour once offered a man one finger to shake, and the man vindictively shook it to such a degree that Balfour was unable to write for a week. Moderation in the handshake is highly desirable; neither the blacksmith grip, which crushes the hand into the semblance of hamburger, nor the chilly extension of two or three fingers. I think handshaking is overdone, in any case; why do we not compliment our friends by shaking hands with ourselves, l
ike Chinamen, or boxers who have won a match?
• THURSDAY •
Was talking to a woman today who kept giving out strange squeaks and groans, as though she had mice in her corsage; I soon diagnosed her trouble; her corsets were creaking, and whenever she moved the stresses and strains of her underpinning were audible. This reminded me of one of my earliest business ventures, when I patented and attempted to sell Marchbanks’ Patent Stay Oil, a scented unguent which was rubbed well into the corsets before putting them on. There are still a few women who need my Stay Oil, and I am thinking of getting one of the big cosmetic houses to try it on the public again.
• FRIDAY •
Was talking to a young woman today who informed me that she had no soul. I think she hoped to shock me by this declaration, but it was old stuff to me. The world is full of bright young things and cynical old things who think they have no souls. They appear to regard the soul as a part of their personalities upon which the Christian Church has established squatters’ rights, and they very properly resent such intrusion. As to defining the soul, they never attempt it, though I gather that they regard it as a sort of vapour floating about the heart—not unlike gas on the stomach. For a belief in the soul, and the deity of which the soul is a reflection, they substitute belief in such chimaeras as Progress, General Education, Single Tax, cold baths, colonic irrigation, free love, women’s rights, vegetarianism, the Century of the Common Man, the infallibility of radio commentators, social security, and their laughable congeners and equivalents. As a result, their souls become anaemic and debilitated, and their faces have the unlit look of vacant houses.11