The papers of samuel mar.., p.24
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       The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, p.24

           Robertson Davies


  SOMEBODY WAS hounding me to talk to a women’s club this afternoon. “Don’t prepare anything; just tell them a few jokes,” he said. Anybody who has tried to tell jokes to a horde of women, all wearing their best hats and expecting a cup of club tea, knows how stupid such advice is. “I can’t,” I replied: “my doctor says I’m dying by inches.” … This is literally true. I die at the rate of about an inch a year, and the process began about a year ago. As there are only about seventy-two inches of me longitudinally and even fewer latitudinally it will be seen that I haven’t long to last, and I must save myself as much as I can.


  I PICKED UP a magazine this afternoon—one of those glossy eager magazines which give their impressionable readers the exciting illusion that they are really thinking—and read an article which said that it costs a family with an income of $5,000 a year the sum of $12,750 to raise a child to the age of eighteen. This seems an inflated price for most of the adults I know, many of whom would be extravagantly capitalized at $50. Still, it is a lamentable truth that a fathead or a mischiefmaker eats just as much, wears out as many clothes, and takes just as much room in a bus or a train as a Socrates or a Leonardo da Vinci.7


  THE SCHOOLS reopened today and troops of children in unwontedly clean clothes rushed past my gate, all agog to resume their studies. I met one little girl who was crying because she had a cold and could not begin her kindergarten class for a few days. I eavesdropped as some of the groups rushed by, and found that they were assessing the relative crabbiness of their teachers. What has come over the children of today, I wonder? In my childhood nobody liked school, and with excellent reason. What makes the modern school so attractive? Does the Minister of Education cause a powerful love philtre to be put in the drinking fountains? Stranger things have happened.


  AS THE WEATHER grows warmer I see more and more men going without hats. For my part, I do not feel comfortable without a hat on, and much as I detest the felt chamberpots which are sold nowadays as suitable gentleman’s headgear, I always wear one. The people for whom I really feel sorry are the bald men who go without hats in the hope that the sun will bring out a few spears of human hair on their naked noggins; it is my belief that the sun is an enemy of hair, and that if you have a tendency to be bald, the sun will encourage it. Consider this matter scientifically. Scotchmen have hairy knees, for although they wear no kneeclouts their climate is cold, damp and sunless. But African savages do not have hairy knees, because they get too much sun on their knees for the hair to flourish. If bald men really want hair, they should wear hats filled with damp and slimy moss; this would cause hair to grow as a form of protection.


  I TOOK A LADY’S ARM as she was stepping off a curb this afternoon, and she snatched it from me with a great show of offence. But I was raised in the Old School, and I automatically grab at any woman who is changing her level, to prevent her from tumbling down or wrenching her ankle. I cannot rid myself of a traditional belief that women are delicate creatures, though reason and observation assure me that most of them are as tough as old boots.

  1 Pernickety readers may complain that earlier Marchbanks referred to his bank account. When I used to point this out to him he would wrap his overcoat about him in the manner of a toga, and declare (quoting Walt Whitman):

  Do I contradict myself?

  Very well then I contradict myself.

  (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

  2 Readers will immediately divine that this was written before the advent of the credit card. After this invention grasped commerce in its clutch, Marchbanks found that unless he had one he was without Fiscal Credibility; if he had no debts he did not exist. Modern man is a debtor, or he is nothing, and money becomes more and more illusory. Marchbanks’ ancestors dealt in gold; he finds it hard to accept plastic (nastily printed in tasteless typography) as a substitute.

  3 Totally false: Marchbanks did fly on several occasions until he was barred from the airways by all companies. He was rude to air hostesses, for he had been led by advertisements to believe that they were winners of beauty and talent contests, luscious morsels of dewy femininity. But what was mistaken far insolence was simply pity. When he beheld the workworn, middle-aged slaves who toiled up and down the plane on aching feet—literally walking from Toronto to London—he was so moved that on one occasion he burst into song:

  Och, I love the dear silver

  That twines in her hair,

  And the brow that’s all furrowed

  And wrinkled with care:

  I love the dear fingers

  So toil-worn for me—

  Oh, God bless you, Air Hostess

  On B.O.A.C.!

  As if this were not enough, he applied a quotation from Anthony and Cleopatra—

  “… thou didst drink the stale of horses

  and the gilded puddle which beasts

  would cough at …”

  to his complimentary quarter bottle of white wine, offered with his rubber chicken, in a manner that was taken as injurious. If he does not fly, he has no one to blame but himself.

  4 Marchbanks had been diagnosed, by several physicians of unimpeachable veracity, as having Something Very Dreadful, yet he outlived whatever it was, and even the horrors of the Atomic Frier. His doctors regard him now as a nasty, contradicting fellow, who doesn’t know enough to let a good diagnosis alone. His lifelong disease, in the opinion of his present Editor, is Inveterate Hyperbole, for which there is no cure.

  5 The picture of Mrs. Secord referred to is no longer familiar, having been replaced on the famous chocolate box by a portrait of her in her girlhood, from the brush of the Canadian painter and fantasist, Mr. Clair Stewart. The earlier picture, from a daguerreotype, showed her in a bombazine gown and a starched widow’s cap, and it appeared to have been taken after some serious personal bereavement. Mr. Stewart’s portrait, which he declares appeared to him in a vision, shows her as looking as though a maple-cream soft centre would not melt in her rosebud mouth.

  6 Persons seeking to enter the profession of journalism are usually sodden with romantic notions about it, and particularly about the big rewards it brings. Marchbanks’ Journalistic Training Course was simple: “(a) Read all of the Bible, or at least three-quarters of it, because it is a classical education, a history, and a compendium of ancient wisdom; (b) read the Book of Common Prayer, as a lesson in style, and also of good manners toward your superiors (a grave lack among journalists as a class); (c) read the Complete Works of Shakespeare, for knowledge of human nature and vocabulary; (d) read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe until you have mastered his ability to make dubious, and even imaginary things seem true. Do not bleat about ‘the public’s right to know’ when you really mean your own right to snoop. But snoop, all the same, and keep your trap shut about your sources or they will turn on you and destroy you.”

  7 As the average income of a Canadian—not, of course, such favoured groups as doctors, dentists, plumbers and architects—is now about $25,000 it will be seen that the cost of the child in question has risen to $63,750. Roll on, birth control!



  I AM STAYING in a hotel and suffer the inconvenience of being asked what I want for breakfast. I am not accustomed to answering such a question. For many years my breakfast has not varied by so much as a calorie, and I consider any breakfast but my usual one a heathen abomination. In the matter of breakfast, I am an out-and-out Tory. If my day is not to fall in ruins it must be founded upon a sliced orange, a dish of porridge, one slice of toast with marmalade, and three cups of weak tea. I know men of shifting and uneasy faith who change breakfast foods as easily as they change their minds; I know women of doubtful virtue who will jump from toast to hot rolls with a light laugh and a wa
nton glance from beneath their sweeping eyelashes. I know inordinate men who eat meat and eggs for breakfast, and deliquescent women who break their fast with a rusk and a glass of lemon juice. But mine is the one, true, apostolic breakfast, ordained at Creation, and enduring till the twilight of Time.


  A KIND FRIEND has sent me a Bay of Fundy lobster for Christmas, and I decided to eat it last night, as lobsters grow impatient if kept too long. I spent quite a time trying to undo its buttons and find its zipper, for a lobster is one of Nature’s most baffling packages, though a noble sight. At last I had to call for skilled assistance. The Skilled Assistant laid the lobster bare in no time, reminding me of a jest much favoured by Gaffer Marchbanks, my great-great-grandfather: “What made the lobster blush?” “It saw the salad dressing.” This was considered delightfully salacious when Gaffer was a roystering blade, and he once had his face slapped for whispering it to a Nice Girl. The incident deepened his determination to marry a girl who was not Nice, and their descendants all suffer from a taste for ribaldry which I have never been able to root out of my heart…. You like smutty talk? My dear madam, why didn’t you say so before?


  I RECEIVED a pamphlet this morning urging me to get to work on my lawn. “One can hardly do lawn work too early; grass seed loves cool weather, and so does the grass itself,” I read. Looking out of the window I saw at least two feet of snow on the ground, and more was falling; even if grass seed does love cool weather, I am not going to dig through all that snow to oblige it. Nor am I going to make my sweet pea trench this week, as the pamphlet advises; I have planted sweet peas for three successive years, and I have not had a single bloom yet; therefore I cannot see that it makes much difference when I dig my trench; September would be early enough. Sam Sours Soil and Marchbanks Mars Mould. Just as women are forbidden to enter Italian vineyards for fear of blighting them, all sensible people keep me out of their gardens, and frankly, I am happy to admire them from the non-working side of the fence.


  A CHILD WHO received a plastic version of a tin whistle appealed to me today for a lesson in how to play it. This was a sop to my vanity which I could not resist, for I fancy myself as a performer on all tootling instruments. But when I took the thing to demonstrate, it slobbered half a pint of spittle on my waistcoat, and depressed me deeply. This is the trouble with all blown instruments; they drool. Brass instruments have special valves to collect this deposit, and one of the less pleasing sights in an orchestra is the frantic shakings of the trumpeters as they void their ptyalism upon the floor, and at almost any Wagner opera the conductor enters and leaves the orchestra pit in his rubbers. Nor is it nice to take over a wind instrument which someone else has been playing—particularly when one’s pupil has been hitting the humbugs hard all afternoon.


  I WENT TO the movies last night and saw, among other things, a film about soil erosion called The Rape of the Earth. The word “rape” was so irresistibly humorous to two girls and their escorts in my neighbourhood that I thought they would burst; their sniggers were like the squirtings of a hose when it is first turned on. Some people are affected by some words as slot machines are affected by coins; feed in your word, and the result is invariable. Feed “Communist” into an old gent with a quarter of a million dollars, and out comes a huffy lecture; feed “Booze” into a prohibitionist, and out will come highly imaginative statistics about accidents and insanity; feed “Rape” into girls and boys and you get this bromo-seltzer fizzing.


  A LITTLE GIRL asked me to read her a piece about clouds this evening, and I did so, although experience has taught me that reading things to children always ends up in an uncomfortable quiz, with me in the role of Marchbanks the Moron. Sure enough, she asked me where all the vapour comes from which forms the clouds. I took a leap into the dark and said that it was caused by the warm earth meeting cold air. Was the air wet, then, she asked. Yes, I said firmly. Then why weren’t our clothes wet? They are wet, said I, feeling like a man stepping off a cliff. If the air is wet why don’t we drown? Because our lungs are made to stand it. Like fish? Yes, like fish. Are people a kind offish? Yes…. It just shows where a little child can lead you…. And yet it would be worse to say “I don’t know.” Children never forgive their elders for their ignorance. It is obviously a grown-up’s business to know.


  CHILDREN ARE the most confirmed Tories I have ever met. Today I heard a group of them boasting among themselves about how high they could count; such improbable figures as drillions and squillions were being lightly bandied about by the bragging tots. I remember that when I was in kindergarten the same sort of blowing to the teacher used to go on morning after morning. I never joined in it, for although I am almost illiterate mathematically, I grasped very early in life that anyone who can count to ten can count upward indefinitely if he is fool enough to do so. But apparently the kindergarten set of today are threshing the same old straw. Tories, that’s what children are, perpetuating the same old nonsense from generation to generation.


  I WAS AT A PARTY last night at which the refreshments consisted solely of cheese, biscuits and beer. This seems to me to be an admirable lesson in simplicity, and the party was a great success. Not, mind you, that I dislike elaborate parties; let the footmen cluster around me with the quail on toast, the caviar and the anchovies; let sherry trifle be heaped upon crêpes suzette and liqueur cherries swim in the zabaglione. I can take parties as elaborate as they come. But many times my heart has bled for the hostess who has slaved for hours to produce four kinds of sandwiches and two kinds of cake, and who is so exhausted by her labours that she casts a gloom over her own party. Far, far better to offer something simple and good, in a spirit of revelry, than to toil to produce pretentious mediocrity. It is the spirit that makes a party, and not dainty sandwiches, cut in the form of hearts and tasting like spades.


  I CAME ACROSS a chart in Life magazine yesterday which was designed to help me decide whether I am a Highbrow, a Lowbrow, an Upper Middlebrow or a Lower Middlebrow. After some pondering I think I must be a Concertina Brow, for I like such Lowbrow things as beer and parlour sculpture, and I also like such apparently Highbrow things as red wine, art, ballet and pre-Bach music. But then I am a great fellow for the theatre, which is rated as only Upper Middlebrow. I even like front-yard sculpture, which is supposed to be Lower Middlebrow, though I also admire the fat naked female statues of Maillol, which are Upper Middlebrow. In short, my brow heaves up and down alarmingly, like a concertina, and I have a few tastes which do not fit into any of these categories, like my affection for corduroy trousers, and my fondness for bananas dipped in hot coffee. I am inclined to think that it must be very dull to have one’s brow stuck at a particular point; I am glad my brow is able to expand and contract.

  • OF BIRDS •

  I MET AN ornithologist just before dinner and as the conversation lagged, I sought to beguile him by talking about his hobby. Dale Carnegie says that you should always talk to people about what interests them, whether it interests you or not, so I began thus: “I saw a funny-looking bird this morning; a blackish bird, or maybe it was a dirty brown; what would you say it was?” He pricked up his ears. “Had it a yellow spot about half a centimetre in diameter under each wing?” he asked. “I am not accustomed to peeping into the armpits of birds,” I replied, haughtily, “but it had two feet, instead of the usual four, if that gives you a clue.” “What size did you say?” he continued. “Roughly the size of a two-year-old child’s shoe,” I said after some thought, “but rather a different shape; it was shaped like an ocarina, or a sweet potato.” “Was its mate nearby?” he persisted. “I couldn’t say,” I parried, “but it was on the lawn of a church, and I do
n’t suppose it would go there with anybody else’s mate, do you?” “I think you must have seen a squirrel,” said he, in what I think was meant to be a satirical tone. And yet I am always nice to ornithologists when they talk about my subjects.


  OUR HOST asked me before dinner if I play bridge. No, I don’t. An ancestor of mine was once a fair euchre player, but the talent for cards died out of the family when he passed. In my youth, when I still thought that by Herculean efforts I might turn myself into a social success, I tried to read a book about bridge, but it was worse than geometry. For the same reason I tried to learn to dance, and although I enjoyed it I found that I got on better without a partner than with one, and this was considered eccentric in the circle in which I moved.1 Still pursuing the fleeting goal of popularity, I attempted to become a raconteur, and memorized several funny stories and a number of witty rejoinders which I dragged painfully into any conversation in which I was engaged; this device failed me, also. It was quite a long time before I realized that I lacked the qualities which make a man the darling of a large and brilliant circle of friends, and resigned myself to being an outcast and a curmudgeon. Nowadays when I am asked to a party I sit in a corner and snarl at anyone who comes near me. This is called Being a Character, and although it is not very much fun for anyone, it is the best I can manage.


  AMAN BEWAILED the increase of divorce today until I could bear it no longer. “My dear creature,” I cried, “you attack this problem from the wrong end. It is not the frequency of divorce which makes the times wicked; it is the wickedness of the times which increases divorce. We live in an age when man is expected to waste and wear out as much as he can. Do we not call the ordinary citizen a ‘consumer’? He buys ‘lifetime’ fabrics and soon wears them out. He buys a ‘lifetime’ pen and a ‘lifetime’ watch and in ten years he wants new ones. His books are not lifetime friends; they are the enthusiasm of a month. He is sneered at if he drives a perfectly good car which is ten years old. Is it any wonder, then, that he exhausts one ‘lifetime’ marriage and seeks another? Mind your economics, and your morals will take care of themselves.” This bit of Marxian sophistry shocked him, and he fled…. No, madam, our hostess did not tell me that you were a divorcée. Tell me, are you a discard, or a discardee?