The papers of samuel mar.., p.25
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       The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, p.25

           Robertson Davies


  THE ENTERTAINMENT tycoons don’t seem able to let musicians alone. I see that there is now a musical show in New York purporting to reveal “the romance of Tschaikovsky,” though it has long been an open secret that Tschaikovsky had a neurotic dislike of women, and that much of the tragedy of his life arose from this cause. A new movie is based on the love of Robert Schumann for Clara Wieck, attributing his greatness as a composer to this inspiration. Bunk! Pure bunk! And yet I suppose it flatters a section of the public to think that the biological urges which they share with the great somehow reduce the great to their level. The points of resemblance between great people and paltry people are infinitely more numerous than the points of difference: they all eat, sleep, fall in love, catch cold, and use handkerchiefs. It is good business to pretend that no real difference exists, and Hollywood has long known how to exploit it…. But I am powerfully reminded of Théophile Gautier’s division of men into two groups, The Flamboyant and The Drab; my sympathies and loyalties are always with The Flamboyant, of whom Churchill is one, though his followers are mostly Drabs. But this is very much the age of the Drab—the apotheosis of The Squirt. The Squirts and Drabs are not worth much singly, but when they organize into gangs and parties they can impose Drabbery and Squirtdom on quite a large part of mankind.


  PSYCHOLOGISTS, I read, now maintain that human fat is a sign of misery, and that fat people are immature, frustrated and anxious for protection. I have known this for years. Indeed I am known to the medical profession as the first man to identify Tragic Flab, a lardlike substance which is secreted under the skins of unhappy people, and which may be observed as a characteristic of many great figures in literature. Was not Hamlet described by his mother as “fat and scant of breath”? I have long maintained that Charles Laughton is the ideal Hamlet. I have also suggested that Romeo and Juliet should both be shown getting fatter and fatter as the play grows more and more tragic, until they are barely able to shift their carcasses about the stage in the final act. King Lear, too, should obviously be an immensely fat old man, weighed down with Tragic Flab. I wish psychologists would stop coming out with my old notions as if they were new discoveries.


  I LUNCHED EARLIER today with several men, one of whom was of generous proportions; a former athlete, the passing of years had softened his contours, while adding to his physical magnificence. I watched him with an eagle eye, and he ate consideringly, without haste or greed; calorie for calorie, he probably ate a little less than the others. Yet they tormented him unmercifully all through the meal about his weight, and about his entirely imaginary voracity. Gaunt, lank men who stoked themselves like furnaces paused only in their intensive fuelling to gird at him for his bulk. This is one of the great injustices of the world. A big man is always accused of gluttony, whereas a wizened or osseous man can eat like a refugee at every meal, and no one ever notices his greed. I have seen runts who never weighed more than ninety-six pounds when soaking wet outeat 200 pounders, and poke fun at the fat man even as they licked their plates and sucked the starch out of their napkins. No wonder fat men are philosophers; they are forced to it.


  THIS IS THE TIME of year when newspaper offices are embarrassed by gifts of deformed turnips, arthritic beets, spastic pumpkins and glandular potatoes. Whenever a farmer digs up something which should at once be returned to the merciful and all-covering earth, he rushes with it to his local paper, requesting that his shameful trophy be displayed in the window. I know what he wants; he wants people to laugh at that poor afflicted vegetable. Now it is several centuries since deformed people were regarded as objects of mirth. Even deformed animals are not the big attraction at the country fairs that they once were. Surely it is time that our pity was extended to include the Mongoloid, the moronic and the cretinous specimens of the root world? Has the Royal Society of Vegetarians and Nut Fooders nothing to say against this cruel practice?


  THIS IS ST. ANDREW’S DAY, and although I do not belong to the Scottish Branch of the family (it spells its name Marjoribanks, which is wasteful, and therefore unScotch) I can never let the day pass unnoticed. My uncle Hamish Marjoribanks was an implacable Jacobite to his dying day, and at breakfast on St. Andrew’s Day he would throw great gobs of porridge at the chromo of Queen Victoria which hung on his dining-room wall, crying “There’s for ye, Hanover!” in a fierce voice. His wife, who was somewhat more reconciled to Culloden and the Act of Union, would spend the rest of the day swabbing the Royal Likeness with a dampened cloth. Uncle Hamish demanded a grand dinner at night, and when the capercailzie was brought in and carried round the table, he would insist that we all jump up on the seats of our chairs, put one foot on the table, and drink a largish glass of neat whisky, crying something which sounded like “Slachan!” at one another; then we all threw our glasses into the fireplace. After dinner Uncle Hamish would tell us how, if everyone had his rights, some obscure Bavarian prince would be King of England and he (Uncle Hamish) would undoubtedly be a powerful figure at Court. It was all very exhausting, and cost a fortune in glass.


  THE GENTLEMAN across the table was very much interested in my assertion before dinner that I hoped to spend the Christmas Season in a Trappist monastery in Quebec and asked me when I was going there. The fact is, I am not going at all. The Trappists won’t have me. I spent a Christmas with them a few years ago and made a rather painful mistake. As everyone knows, Trappists live under a vow of silence, which I do not. I tried to keep as quiet as I could, and on Christmas Eve I consoled myself in my room in the guest-house with a bottle of rum. At midnight there was a tap on my door and the guest-master, Brother Eustachian, and his assistant, Brother Fallopian, stood outside; they showed me a typewritten notice which said “All guests are invited to join the brothers in the Oratory.” I assumed (excusably, I still think) that an Oratory would be a place where one could talk, and when we got there I opened a discussion on the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and passed out a few pamphlets. In the ensuing hullabaloo, I only escaped with my life. When I wrote for a room this year, I got an immediate reply saying that they were completely booked up. After all, I was only trying to brighten their lives, and when I recited my limerick about the young maid of Madras, I was certain that some of them laughed—faint laughter like the unwrapping of tissue paper.


  FROM TIME TO TIME I am bothered by the thought that I ought to take some exercise. Usually I am successful in fighting down this ugly notion, but sometimes I toy with the idea of getting one of those machines which exercise a man against his will by rolling, hauling, squeezing and folding him. What I really want is a series of searching exercises which can be done while sitting in a chair. Years ago I read that caged lions and tigers keep themselves fit by stretching and for a while I used to stretch whenever I had a spare minute, straining my halliards and squirming my binnacle to the accompaniment of alarming cracks, creaks, and pops. But it is awfully easy to stop stretching. I think I shall re-examine this theory, and perhaps evolve Marchbanks Torso Tensions for the Sedentary. Advertisements will appear of me wrapped around my office chair, with the message: “Puny? Flabby? Torpid? In Thirty Days You can be like this Masked Marvel! No Costly Equipment! No Time Required! No Effort! Tear the Seat Off your Chair and send with Five Hundred Dollars for Trial Booklet! Be Muscular the Marchbanks Way!”


  I PERCEIVE THAT your city has no municipal arrangement for clearing the streets. As a result, when I went out for a walk this afternoon, I experienced a wide variety of footing. Before the houses of young and vigorous men, full of Civic Spirit and holiday food, the walk was clear to the cement; where less hearty citizens had their abode, there was a track about as wide as a snow shovel, and l
umpy; the walks of the aged, the arthritic and the hung-over were pitiful muddles, with snow everywhere; in front of vacant lots it was necessary to break a track. Some citizens were shovelling as I passed. It is a pitiful sight, in a city renowned for learning, to see a graduate of the class of ’07 with a prolapsed abdomen and eyes dimmed by much study trying to do a job which could be done much better by a horse or even, in these mad, rushing days, by a bulldozer.


  I WENT TO THE Eastern Ontario Drama Festival last week, a function which, being of a cultural nature, was conducted with appropriate sedateness, as though a body were lying in the next room. Except for a few people of uncommon distinction, the gentlemen present forbore to dress; in histories of fashion, this will be known as The Century of The Sack Suit; I myself wore a dainty elephant-grey number, and a white shirt which I borrowed from my Uncle Fortunatus….

  On the Friday I went to see a group of accomplished Ottawa amateurs play Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which, as everybody knows, is about a man who has two wives—one alive and one a ghost—and enchants the audience with a spectacle of bigamy agreeably spiced with adultery. The final fit of the Festival was on Saturday night, and as some of the plays failed to grip my attention, I permitted myself to reflect on a few matters such as: (a) why amateurs in society plays never black the soles of their boots, which professionals are always careful to do; (b) why amateurs whose voices and deportment suggest a barn-raising at Pumpkin Centre choose to do plays about hoity-toity English people; (c) why plays about farm life (including the works of S. Marchbanks) invariably include a character who is crazy, or religious, or both. Perhaps the solution lies in a play by S. Marchbanks about the bon ton of Toronto or Ottawa—a play abounding in references to such hallmarks of high-toned society as butter knives, finger bowls, adultery and flush toilets.


  THIS HAS BEEN a great day for me! This morning the judges from the Horticultural Society arrived at the Towers, and made a tour of the grounds, murmuring with admiration. I was pleased by their approbation, but judge of my excitement when my name appeared in the Prize List. Let me show you my citations:

  FINEST SHOW OF MIXED WEEDS (for garden tended solely by the owner): First Prize—S. Marchbanks.

  FINEST SINGLE WEED IN NATIVE STATE: A magnificent Amaranthus retroflexus (Common Pigweed)—property of S. Marchbanks.

  LARGEST FOLIAGE ON ANY WEED: A stupendous Rumex obtusifolius (Burdock)—reared with great care by S. Marchbanks.

  FINEST RARE OR SPECIMEN WEED: Cicuta Maculata (Cowbane)—cherished under glass by S. Marchbanks.

  At last I have found a branch of gardening in which I excel! From now on my course is clear, and the Marchbanks Weed Sanctuary begins tonight.

  • OF RADIO •

  I BOUGHT A NEW RADIO licence2 today, although I don’t suppose I use my radio more than twenty times a year, having full use of my vision, and being able to read advertisements for coffee, stomach medicine, and soap in the newspapers at my leisure. I grudged the $2.50, and I hope that the C.B.C. will not regard it as my personal endorsement of their artistic policy. Then I went to see a radio broadcast put on the air, and yearned mightily to get my hands on a Hammond organ which was being played. It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to lie at full length on the pedalboard of an organ, with the power full on, just to see what kind of apocalyptic roar the thing would emit.


  I LISTENED TO THE news on the radio last night—a thing I rarely do, as it is my experience that good news always seems better the following morning, whereas bad news at night disturbs my sleep. The news consisted of a list of people who died during the day in a variety of distressing circumstances. Such harping on death annoys and depresses me. What we want is a newscaster with second sight (they could probably import one from the Highlands of Scotland) who would give the names of children who had been born each day who would, in twenty-five or thirty years, be either great leaders and benefactors of mankind, or notable scoundrels. What we want is not news of who has left the earth, but something resembling the passenger list of an ocean liner, telling us who is joining the human race and what we may expect of them. There is no news about a death; one of the few certain things in life is that we shall all die. But if the radio could, now and again, announce the birth of a philosopher, or a great artist, or a nasty little baby who will grow up to be a Hitler, I would pay for my yearly licence in a somewhat more sprightly manner.


  I WATCHED A MAN giving his trotting-horse a workout this afternoon. It was a noble animal with a great deal of what appeared to be adhesive tape on its legs, and when it moved it had the high-stepping, galvanized action of an usher at a society wedding. I was particularly entranced by the way it rolled its eyes. It has been my observation that the spirit of a man or an animal may be judged from this characteristic alone; a wildly rolling eye is invariably the accompaniment of a proud and daring spirit. Most of us, of course, have eyes like green grapes that have been partly squashed, floating in pools of mutton gravy, and we are incapable of moving them to right or left…. When the horse trotted its trainer allowed one of his feet to dangle nonchalantly from the side of the sulky; somehow this mannerism seemed to embody the whole devil-may-care attitude of the trotting fraternity. I watched until I was chilled, and then trotted home, trying to roll my eyes.


  THE ONWARD MARCH of statistical research sometimes provokes me to incredulous protest. For instance, I see in the paper today a statement attributed to a “hair stylist” (which is what hairdressers now call themselves) that “Upswept hair-dos reduce woman’s sex appeal 60 per cent.” How does he know? Frankly, I think that he is wrong. Indeed, I once knew a fellow who found upswept hair-dos so provocative that he used to roam about at parties, nibbling the napes of the necks of any women whose hair was so arranged. It was the little curly wisps at the bottom of the hair-do, he explained, which drove him to this: they reminded him of hearts of celery. Sometimes the women were flattered; sometimes they screamed; sometimes their escorts offered to punch him on the nose. I gave up his acquaintance, considering his conduct embarrassingly eccentric, yet I suppose he did no more than yield to an impulse which afflicts all men at some time or other, but which they shove down into the reeking cesspit of the Unconscious.


  FOR MANY YEARS I have used a cigarette holder to keep the smoke out of my eyes as I work. Last week I bought a new one, for which I have already conceived a hearty dislike. I have a supply of little bombs, filled with crystals which look like chips from a moth-ball factory, and I am expected to put a little bomb in the gizzard of the holder every now and then, and to remove it when it becomes discoloured and obviously drenched with poisons, tars and harsh irritants. But I find that two cigarettes are quite enough to turn one of these pretty, white little bombs into a stinking obscenity, and if I carry the holder, containing one of them, in my waistcoat pocket people whisper behind their hands and leave cakes of brick-coloured soap about the place in an obvious manner, wounding my self-esteem and causing me to lose face. I cannot possibly afford to change the little bombs every time I smoke a cigarette, nor do I want to become an object of loathing. And, being of a frugal disposition, I do not want to throw my new holder into the garbage, or give it to a tramp. Other people do not get into these embarrassing difficulties. Why am I thus cursed?3


  I WAS TOLD TODAY by a friend that some of my more respectable acquaintances are deeply offended by the frequent references to privies and allied subjects which crop up in my conversation. There is an explanation for my grossness, madam, which I shall impart to you: when but an infant I was kidnapped by pirates and for the first twenty-one years of my life I shared their criminal pursuit, albeit unwillingly. During this time the vilest and most degraded circumstances of life—r
apine, barratry, drunkenness, privies and cannibalism—were all that I knew; no childish innocence relieved the blackness of my character and no good woman’s tears wore a channel through which delicacy of feeling might have penetrated my flinty bosom. But upon my twenty-first birthday I made my escape, and sought shelter in the hut of a snowy-haired old journalist who treated me with the first kindness that I had ever known, and instructed me in the rudiments of his lowly but necessary trade. In the employment of a journalist I have remained ever since, eking out a meagre but honest living and trying to forget those early horrors. But now and then, when swept along on the high tide of prose, some telltale evidence of my pirate days creeps into what I am saying, and the hateful word “privy” bursts upon the air. Now that you know my dreadful secret, can you find it in your heart to censure me?4


  MONTHS AGO I wrote to a class of school children in the U.S.A. on a subject in which they, and I, were interested. Today I received thirty-seven letters in return. One boy tells me that his appreciation of my letter is “greatly high”; another tells me that he was “greatly joyed” to hear from me, and wishes that we could meet because “to have a friend and not to see him is very uneasy”; a little girl ends her letter charmingly thus: “There are many other things I would like to say, but you know how it is in School”; my favourite, however, is the little girl who says: “I have often pictured a writer with a serious mind and a boredom for children.” Several of them asked me for photographs of myself, which I shall not send, for fear of destroying the notion they have of me as a benevolent old gentleman who has no boredom for children…. The success of this venture leads me to wonder whether I do not get on better with children by letter than face to face? In a letter I am able to express all the easy-going affability which I feel when I am alone in a room; I find it hard to do this when I am in a room with thirty-seven children. Perhaps I shall go down in history as a Great Lover of Children By Correspondence.