Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 22

Robertson Davies


  The last day of the year, and I passed part of the evening in melancholy reflection upon the waste of time which has always been my greatest sin. If only I could drive myself to do physical jerks for an hour a day, read improving books for an hour a day, practise on the piano for an hour a day, philosophize and ponder on life for an hour a day, eat less, drink less, sleep less, work harder, eat wholemeal bread, drink eight gallons of water a day, stop smoking, and overcome my ribald disdain for nice simple people who, whatever their shortcomings, Mean Well—if only I could do all these things, what a wonderful fellow I should be! Roused myself at last to make a final entry in this diary, which I leave with something of the feeling experienced by Gibbon when he completed the Decline and Fall…. To the reader who has read thus far, Adieu.

  1 The great terror of the furnace-owner at the time of which Marchbanks writes was Coal Gas, which spread through houses and killed many Canadians every year. It resembled the ordinary gas of indigestion and was caused by the same thing—faulty combustion. Working on this principle Marchbanks sought to alleviate the distress of his furnace by flinging a dozen or so packages of Cow Brand Baking Soda into his furnace whenever it was indisposed. With a wet towel tied over his mouth and nose, and the bicarbonate offering in a basket on his arm, he would creep toward the Monster, cringing beneath its outstretched pipes, murmuring “There, there!” and “Wazzums a poor bloated baby, then?” There was no sign that the furnace responded—not by so much as a belch.

  2 All governments, everywhere, insist that they do not tax books, but in Canada there is always a mysterious spread between the price clearly printed on a British or American book and what Canadians have to pay. Booksellers, queried about this, look furtive and murmur about demurrage, high cost of transport, shrinkage in the crate and other mysteries. It costs more to be well-read in Canada than anywhere else in the world.

  3 Yes, flying in the face of the best Academic Opinion, Marchbanks insisted that Tom Moore (1759–1852) was as fine a poet as many before whose shrines the Academic Community grovels. Moore had the ear of a musician, and of a lyricist, and the large, flat, hairy ears of Wordsworth and Coleridge may have been the ears of poets, but so far as true lyricism went, they were fashioned of tin.

  4 This was, of course, written B.C. (Before Computers) when employees of banks were expected to have some knowledge of the cruder forms of arithmetic. Nowadays it is all done by computer, when the computer is in good health, but these fragile creatures suffer at least once a day from Intestinal Stasis, or Plugged Gut, and then all the bank employees rush about like Chicken Licken, crying “The Computer is Down!” and the economy comes to a complete stop.

  5 Marchbanks, great, generous soul that he is, has none of the qualities of the exact scholar. De Quincey was not “coked”; his indulgence was in laudanum, a tincture of opium, which is taken from a spoon (or in advanced cases by the tumblerful) and in De Quincey’s day could be bought at any chemist’s, quite cheaply, as it was the common remedy for toothache. It was for this reason that De Quincey’s famous autobiography is called Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) and even the book has been known to induce slumber.

  6 This was written in the days when Toronto’s airport was simply a rough field with a farmhouse on it; now it is a large affair, and many huge hotels have appeared on its perimeter. It is in these that business meetings and fraternal love-feasts now take place, for in the U.S. Toronto enjoys the reputation of a “safe” city, with a low rate of crime. The conventioneers scamper (often underground) from airport to hotel, and meet over the weekend, never setting foot outside, where The Baddies may lurk. Irrational dread is the scourge of our time.

  7 O tempora, o mores, as Cicero exclaimed, meaning My God, what prices! It is such revelations as this that make Marchbanks’ Diary a treasure to the student of history. At the time of writing a repairman’s house-call runs at about $32.50 even before he discovers that he has not brought the right tools, and in our Fallen World, the only direction is up, so low are we.

  8 The city was Ottawa, and the lady told Marchbanks another detail of life in the Maternity Ward which he suppressed from motives of delicacy. At specified hours of the day the Head Nurse (described as a butch, or sergeant-major type) appeared in the door and screamed B*R*E*A*S*T*S at the top of her lungs, and the imprisoned mothers obediently bared Nature’s Fonts for the ravening infants, who were rolled in on a metal trolley, mad for nurture.

  9 Marchbanks once called my attention to the longevity and excellent health enjoyed by priests of the sacramental churches—Roman Catholic and Anglican—which he attributed to the great amount of bobbing up and down, kneeling and bowing involved in their ritual tasks. The clergy of the Reformed sects, on the contrary, age earlier, owing to their professional uprightness which may lead—especially in Presbyterians—to stiffness of neck.

  10 Readers who think that Marchbanks should write “Scots” are referred to the discussion of this vexed question in the Oxford English Dictionary. For literary use, he has preferred the form employed by Burns and Walter Scott.

  11 Marchbanks was keenly interested in the souls of his acquaintances, and it was his custom to establish their size on the principle applied to shoes. The soul of the average man or woman, he said, was between a five and a seven, with the usual allowance for narrow or wide fittings. A philosopher might run to a nine soul, and a saint to a broad eleven. When I questioned him about his own soul, he admitted bashfully to a ten. Later the same evening he revised his estimate, saying that a ten pinched a little, and it would be better to call it an eleven.

  12 During recent years the increasing venerability of Marchbanks’ appearance leads various Noel Cowards of the Bourgeois World to hail him with “Hey, are you Sanny Claws?” To this he is apt to make tart rejoinders, such as “No, I am his older brother, Sharp Claws. Are you Simple Simon?”—or Mother Goose, according to the sex of the witling addressed. Or also, “No I am the musical member of the family, Sonata Claus”—which astonishes the unsophisticated.

  13 Marchbanks did not know at this time that Wenceslas (1361–1419) was never a King, but a Bohemian Duke.

  14 George Brock Chisholm, M.D., (1896–1971) was Deputy Minister of National Health from 1942 to 1946, and it was during this period that he raised a ruckus by declaring that belief in Santa Claus was harmful to the mental health of children, as it led to the discovery that their parents were liars. This was silly, because all children and all parents know that children and parents who are not liars will not last a week in the hurly-burly of domestic life. Dr. Chisholm was no Jungian, or he would have known that Santa Claus is an archetypal figure, albeit a degraded one, and you cannot kill him with an axe. But as very few Canadians are Jungians either, this questioning of the existence of Santa Claus almost cost him his position with the Canadian Government.

  15 Two notable illusionists during Marchbanks’ formative years. Dante, a genial Dane whose real name was Harry August Jansen (1883–1955) was a splendid conjuror, but perhaps his most popular trick was to take several feet of fine white cord, snip it into short lengths with scissors, and then—while the audience waited for it to be miraculously re-united—to throw it away murmuring “Pooh, what do I care for some scraps of old rope!” … Harry Blackstone (Henri Bouton, 1885-1965) of Canadian descent, was brilliant with cards and coins. He travelled with two handsome Afghan dogs, and not less than a dozen beautiful girls, but the dogs never appeared in his show. Dogs have no turn for magic, and won’t keep quiet when concealed in somebody’s sleeve. Girls, on the contrary …

  16 One of these games of which Marchbanks was very fond was called Russian Sledge. The company was bidden to imagine that it was in a sledge, racing in the darkness over the steppes of Russia. Who should be thrown to the pursuing pack of wolves? One by one the players made their choices and gave their reasons, and one by one the victims dropped out of the game. As the party was reduced to three or four, matters became tense. What
Marchbanks liked was to observe the decisions of married couples under this particular form of stress.

  17 Pernickety readers may point out that earlier in this Diary—on Twelfth Night, to be exact—Marchbanks also made a beast of himself with mince pies in honouring this fine old custom. But if the good man chooses to lay down his digestion on the altar of tradition twice in a year, who is so mean-spirited as to find fault? Faultfinders—that’s who. Narrow-gutted, thin-blooded, naysaying faultfinders, with whom Marchbanks will admit no kinship.


  Table Talk




  edited, and with Notes by



  IT IS A FREQUENT complaint of the sort of person with whom complaint is an ingrained habit that the art of conversation is dead. I do not believe this. I think that conversation is in a reasonably flourishing state and I assert furthermore that when I have the right company I am not a bad hand at it myself. I find that company most often seated around a dinner table. Encouraged, therefore, by the kindly reception which has been given to my Diary, which I published two years ago, I offer to the public these odds and ends from my Table Talk.

  In the hope that such an arrangement may call up the atmosphere of the dinner table, I have set out my paragraphs (for a good talker should speak in paragraphs and not in disjointed utterance) under headings which trace the course of a good dinner. I do not mean a great dinner, for such things are almost impossible in private houses in our day; I mean a simple seven course dinner, consisting of a Soup (I like a choice of thick or clear), a Fish (I am very partial to lobster for this course), an Entrée (where the cook shows her utmost skill with a soufflé or some other complex and ingenious dish), a Remove (which is the proper name for a really good joint of meat or possibly a fine fowl if the meal is a simple one), a Sweet (and if anyone is thinking of asking me to dinner I may say that I am always well content with a Sherry Trifle), a Savoury (but no unnatural unions of prunes and bacon, if you please) and a simple Dessert of fruits, nuts and bonbons. In the matter of wines I do not insist, as some greedy diners do, on an array of fine vintages: a little Sherry, an honest Claret, a sound, wholesome Burgundy (or Vin de Champagne if you simply must) and a glass or two of Port, or better still, Madeira, to top off, will suffice me. If the Hostess insists, a Salad may be interpolated between the Entrée and the Remove, but I have provided no conversation for it; one does not talk while eating Salad; one crunches.

  It should be understood by the reader that all the conversation recorded here was addressed to ladies, for at a well-regulated dinner the sexes are so disposed that every gentleman has a lady on his right and left. There are dreadful gatherings—dinner-parties I will not call them—where people are invited to sit higgledy-piggledy; at such affairs the hostess, with a vague wave of the hand, may even go so far as to say “Sit ye doon.” This is base indeed and I never dine at such houses twice. I am, whatever my detractors say, a gallant man, and very fond of the fair sex and indeed even of the plain sex. So as you read, you must imagine me talking to right and left, to female hearers whose attention may be enthusiastic, or possibly lukewarm if the lady is anxious to snatch the talk to herself. But it is the mark of the Superior Woman that she plays fair in conversation and is able to disagree with her dinner partner without starting a hooley.

  As to the use of this book, the reader may please himself, but I suggest that he may memorize pieces from it and cleverly pass them off as his own when next he dines out; in that way he will get a reputation as a talker. Those who wish to spare themselves the pains of getting passages by heart may take the book to dinner with them, and read aloud from it frankly. Those who, for one reason or another, are never asked to dine out, may create an agreeable illusion of society if they will read the book as they regale themselves with soda biscuits and weak tea, sitting at a corner of their own kitchen tables. To all, under every circumstance, I raise a glass (or, if total abstainers, a loaded fork) and cry “My dear Sir, (or Madam)—your very Good Health!”

  The Junior Deipnosophists Club


  September 1, 1949.





  The Remove






  BEFORE DINNER, I observed, everybody seemed to want to talk about the Good Old Days. I am, generally speaking, better at this than anybody else, for I am not bothered by details of chronology, and tend to regard as my own, reminiscences which have been imparted to me by the Ancients of my tribe. Thus I frequently tell people about how I taught Disraeli to play croquet, because my Great Uncle Hengist did so, and I also have a good story about how I sent Sir John A. Macdonald his first brief, though I have a hazy notion that it was my second cousin, Bloodgood Marchbanks, who did it. Thus I embody in myself the whole Marchbanks Tradition, and possess what anthropologists call Racial Memory.


  AMAN WROTE to me today who says, “Why has Samuel Marchbanks no economic problem? To me no Canadian is real unless he is engaged in a death-grapple with his bank manager.” This is easy to answer; I have no economic problem because I do not believe in economics. I am an atheist and an infidel in all matters relating to Mammon. I have never had a bank account;1 I keep all my money in a tin box under my bed, and I pay for it in cash. I am rarely tormented by the desire to own anything, and I would exchange the Towers for a tent tomorrow if tents were practical dwellings in Canada. I fight inflation by eating cheaper food, and wearing my clothes past the bounds of hygiene. I have no insurance, and have made no provision for my old age, as I am resolved to become a whining beggar outside church and beverage-room doors when I am past work. All my life I have defied economics and I shall go on doing so. What is the result? I look at the world with the clear, bright eye of a man who has a tin box, and bank managers love me and sometimes give me blotters advertising their establishments.2


  BEFORE I FELL ASLEEP last night a moth flew up my pyjama sleeve and tickled me excruciatingly. I overlaid the creature and slept on its corpse.


  ON MY WAY to the dentist this afternoon, I was pursued by an elderly bum, who kept murmuring, “Hey Perfessor, wanna speakcha minute, Perfessor.” Indigents almost always address me as Professor; I observe that men of very upright carriage are usually spoken to by beggars as “Captain,” whereas fellows whose spines are noticeably out of plumb (“Bible-backed” is the phrase in some circles) are called “Professor.” I suppose this is my fate, but I wish that once in a while a beggar would call me “Sport,” or something dashing of that kind, suggesting that he took me for a frequenter of race-courses, an habitual drinker of champagne, and altogether a knowing and dangerous character.


  I WAS IN TORONTO yesterday on business, and almost swooned at lunch when I saw a man at a table some distance away who had been killed, I thought, in the war. It was not possible to rush to him at once and say “Are you a ghost, or merely an Amazing Resemblance?” and so I was kept on pins and needles for an hour. But at last I buttonholed him, and it was indeed my friend. When I told him that I had thought him dead, mourned his loss, and filed him away in my memory, he laughed uproariously. Nothing amuses people under fifty so much as being told that you thought they were dead; after fifty the joke gradually loses its side-splitting character until, in the seventies, it is received with sour looks. Having established my friend’s corporeality we exchanged news, but I could not shake off my doubt at once, and for half an hour or so I expected him to come out with some interesting revelation about the Life Beyond.


OMING OF summer has encouraged ants to invade my house, and this morning the bathtub was full of them. I drowned the lot, more in sorrow than in anger, and as they disappeared down the plug-hole, I reflected that I had probably started a Flood legend in the ant world, which in time will be recorded in ant Scripture.


  I SAT DOWN today to rootle through a pile of mail which has accumulated during the week and which I have not opened, owing to its uninteresting appearance. I take my time about opening letters which look as though they contain unpleasant news, or information I do not want. I discovered in the heap a copy of a magazine called The Celt, published in Britain and devoted to what the publishers presume to be the interests of fanatical Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Manxmen, Cornishmen and Bretons; large chunks of it are printed in Erse, Gaelic, Welsh and Breton by fellows called Dmurphaidh and Na Dhoaileach, who used to be plain Murphy and Dooley before the Celtic bug bit them. All of these Celts seemed to be uncommonly vexed with the English, and did not hesitate to say that if the English could be got out of the way everything would be dheaochd (jake) with the world. Being possessed of a considerable degree of traditional Celtic wisdom myself, I soon committed The Celt to the flames.