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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 26

Robertson Davies


  I CHATTED WITH that man on our hostess’ right before dinner, and he tells me that the Chinese value gallstones highly for their supposed medicinal properties, and that they will pay as high as $60 a pound for gallstones in good condition. The sale of extirpated gallstones should certainly be taken into consideration whenever it is necessary to finance the building of a new hospital.


  IT WAS HOT LAST NIGHT, and as I brewed myself a refreshing pot of tea, I reflected that without tea and alcohol the human race would probably have perished of its own filthiness centuries ago. Our modern supplies of clean drinking water are a thing of the last sixty or seventy years; before that time water was so unspeakably polluted that nobody in his right senses drank the stuff, and used it for washing only with the greatest caution.5 The nations of the East preserved themselves by drinking beverages in which antiseptic herbs had been boiled; the nations of the West drank enough alcohol in one form or another to keep themselves reasonably pure, if a little pixillated. Even today alcohol is the great sterilizer, and water is used only if it has been boiled. I pondered on mankind’s debt to booze for a while, and then pensively added a noggin of rum to my tea, just to make sure that I came to no harm.


  I ATTENDED A lecture on photography this afternoon and was bemused by the complexity of it. It seems to resemble astrology closely, and also the mysterious tables by which the date of Easter is determined. If you want to take a picture of the baby, or your aunt gardening, and if your camera is anything more complicated than a pinhole affair which you have made yourself, you must base your calculations on the Golden Number, the Julian year, sidereal time, the helix of the parallax, and whether or not the Virgin has entered the house of the Ram. It brought back the sensations which overcame me years ago when I tried to read Chaucer’s treatise on the use of the astrolabe. It gave me a new reverence for photographers, and convinced me forever that they are mightier fellows than mere painters. A painter, like Rubens or Velasquez, is just a chap with a knack; a photographer is a blood brother to the Astronomer Royal.


  I WAS READING Dorothy Dix this afternoon; she says that it is permissible for a young man to tell a girl he knows fairly well that she has pretty ankles; from this I assume that the better he knows her the higher he may praise her.


  I UNDERTOOK a long-deferred job of paper-hanging this afternoon; there is a knack to this work which I have not fully mastered. It looks simple enough; the paper-hanger slops a lot of paste on a length of paper, throws it carelessly at the wall, gives it some swipes with a brush, and after a few repetitions of this child’s play, the room is done. Unfortunately I was working on a ceiling, and no sooner had I fastened a bit of paper at one end than the other end descended with slow grace, like a ballet dancer, and stuck to my head. What I needed was a ladder on wheels, and somebody to push me rapidly back and forth, as I stroked the paper. Lacking this convenience, I got into some postures which reminded me of the famous statue of Laocoön struggling with the serpents. When the job was done, it lacked that rather characterless professional smoothness; at night the wrinkles catch the light in a manner which will undoubtedly soon be all the rage with professional decorators. “Marchbanks Log Cabin Style,” it will be known as.


  I WENT TO THE country with some children to get pussywillows the other day. They asked me how the pussywillows became woolly? I did not know, but made up some quaint lies which pleased them. Psychologists frown on such conduct, I know, but I can’t help it. Sometimes, however, I wish that my only ability did not lie in the direction of concocting untruths of one sort and another. I wish that I were a great woodcarver, or a wonderfully minute jeweller, or a bookbinder—somebody who can make something satisfying with his hands. In an earlier age I suppose I would have been a professional story-teller, sitting in the market place, spinning yarns and asking for alms—rightly despised by all the craftsmen who had tangible wares to sell…. But one must not quarrel with one’s fate, and as it has pleased Providence to make me a sort of accredited prevaricator I must be content.


  WHY IS IT that people never like pictures of themselves? Earlier today I had a chance to observe a large group who were looking at a number of pictures in which they appeared in various guises, and while they agreed that admirable likenesses of everyone else had been caught they were deeply dismayed by their own faces and forms. Do we all cherish an ideal likeness of ourselves in our bosoms? Do we, when we peep into the mirror, refuse to see the wrinkled necks, the ant-eater noses, the cauliflower ears, the wens and bubukles which are indubitably our own? Or is it that we are all so discontented that we cannot bear the hideous forms with which nature, unwise eating and tight boots have endowed us? Or are we distressed that such horrible scarecrows should house such elegant souls as we know ours to be? I cannot answer these questions. I only know that I have never seen anyone look at a picture of himself with unalloyed pleasure…. No, madam, I did not mean anything personal by my remarks about wrinkled necks…. Oh, very well! If the cap fits, wear it.


  I INVENTED A new musical instrument today, by one of those happy accidents so often recorded in the lives of great men. I sat down to play my piano, which gave out a loud, wiry whine whenever I touched B natural in the middle octave. Raised the lid and investigated and found that some careless child had left a glass alley on the strings. In fishing the alley out I dropped it on the strings again, and it produced a succession of delicate, tinkling arpeggii, very pleasing to the ear. I repeated this a few times, and then got some more alleys and tried chucking them into the piano in handfuls; this was wonderful. Then I played a little piece on the keyboard, and threw alleys into the works at a musically appropriate moment. Superb! I shall patent this device of mine and market it as “Marchbanks’ Fairy Harp.” The soap operas will all snatch at it, I expect, and the electric organ will fall into disfavour.


  I SPENT A BUSY DAY today, but got little done. This is because I am at last becoming perfect in the art of seeming busy, even when very little is going on in my head or under my hands. This is an art which every man learns, if he does not intend to work himself to death. By shifting papers about my desk, writing my initials on things, talking to my colleagues about things which they already know, fumbling in books of reference, making notes about things which are already decided, and staring out the window while tapping my teeth with a pencil, I can successfully counterfeit a man doing a heavy day’s work. Nobody who watched me would ever be able to guess what I was doing, and the secret of this is that I am not doing anything, or creating anything, and my brain is having a nice rest. I am, in short, an executive.


  I PASSED A CAR which had a crude sign on the back reading “Just Married and Away to the West to Build a Nest.” The car was going east. I gaped at the occupants, a young couple who looked very serious, not to say worried. But as it can never be said that Marchbanks failed to encourage the noble institution of marriage, I waved at them, and shook hands with myself like a Chinaman or a boxing champion, and leered and wagged my head in what I believed to be a benevolent manner. They caught sight of me, and their jaws dropped, and they hastily looked away. It is very difficult to be a ray of sunshine in this self-conscious world.


  MY DENTIST told me last week that modern man eats too much soft food, which weakens his bite and loosens his teeth. But this afternoon I bit my tongue with such vigour that I nearly bit it off. I do not understand how anyone could possibly have a stronger or more destructive bite than I have. Probably I am the only writer and critic in Canada o
f whom it can truthfully be said that his bite is worse than his bark.


  THE LADY ON my right passed the afternoon at the hairdresser’s. Such women are full of information, for they read old copies of digests and news magazines under the drier. She told me that a psychologist says that it is wrong to repress anger, as anger creates adrenalin and if this nasty stuff is not used up it poisons its owner, giving him indigestion, communism, rabies or ulcers. Anger, this fellow says, should be rationalized by violent physical action. It seems to me that the trouble with this idea is that the kind of violent physical action which follows anger is awfully hard to explain. If a man disagrees with me, and I become angry and pop him on the button and then say, “Nothing personal, you understand; I’m just rationalizing my anger and working off my excess adrenalin,” he will probably secrete a lot of adrenalin himself and pop me back again. Then I shall fill up with adrenalin for a second time, and be compelled to re-pop him, and when the cops arrive it will look just like a low brawl, and not like a high-class adrenalin-rationalizing party. I wish psychologists wouldn’t fill women up with such stuff; I am slopping over with adrenalin all the time and it doesn’t seem to hurt me—very much.


  I WENT FOR A WALK this afternoon and pondered about democracy. Good as it is, no one can pretend that we have carried it out to its logical conclusion. The equality of man and man is now pretty well established, but what is being done to spread democracy among animals? Is the junk-wagon horse treated as the equal of the race-horse? Does the thoroughbred Boxer receive the same treatment as the mongrel? There is not even equality of opportunity within such fairly homogeneous groups as dogs and horses, much less among all beasts. Is a duck ever given a chance to run in the Grand National? And yet who is to say that a duck, given the proper education, and the right food and housing, might not some day win that famous race? And this question of equality among animals brings up the greater question: what is Man that he should consider himself the Lord of Creation? Will we not realize that all life is sacred and all animals—man included—equals (or “on all fours” if you prefer the expression)? There will be no real equality until our Parliament is filled with fowls, rodents, and horned cattle, as well as men. Then we will have earned the right to talk about Democracy.


  I HAD A WRANGLE today with a man who said that there was no such thing as grammar, and that “the living speech” was good speech. He talked about “Everyman’s grammar”—meaning anything anybody cares to say—as the only guide to usage. Humph! I wouldn’t particularly like to trust myself to Everyman’s medicine, or Everyman’s ideas about the law. Why should I accept Everyman’s grammar?


  YESTERDAY I SAW a play done in French by an excellent group of actors from Quebec. When this happens a synopsis of the play is printed for dullards like me, but these synopses are of very little assistance, being written, I suppose, by a Frenchman whose knowledge of English is about on a par with my knowledge of French. They generally run something like this: “Alphamet, the lover of Pheenaminte, is eager to break off his intrigue with Flanelette, ward of the miser Planchette, whose earlier affair with a woman of the town, Clitore, has been discovered by the wily notary Bidet. To achieve his end he disguises himself as a country cousin, Merde, and seeks the assistance of the maid, Vespasienne, who is in reality the disguised Comtesse de Blancmange. Meanwhile the miser has altered his will, leaving everything to the poet Tisane, whose love for the beautiful Parapluie is made known to her supposed father (but in reality her ward) Derriére, bringing the whole merry business to an end with a sextuple marriage and the birth of the triplets, Un, Deux and Trois.”


  I HAD TO MAKE a speech today, and was not in the mood for it. In consequence I lay in the bathtub and invented Marchbanks’ Rhetorical Robot, a type of recording machine for the use of public speakers. You prepare your speech, and record it when you feel at your best. You then go to the meeting, and when the time for your address comes you turn on the Robot, which delivers the speech for you, while you loll at ease, picking your teeth, laughing uproariously at your own jokes, and leading the applause.

  1 As was so often the case, Marchbanks was ahead of his time. Nobody nowadays dances with a partner. Simply to step onto the floor and face a woman who is pretending to be spastic, while oneself feigning an epileptic fit, is enough for social success.

  2 Radio licences were abolished in the Dominion Budget of 1953. Marchbanks, the Slave of Duty, always paid his, but many citizens took delight in cheating their country in this respect.

  3 Here Marchbanks reveals himself without much shame, as a Smoker. Whether he would dare to do so if he were writing today is very much in question. But he has always insisted that every human creature has a right to one reprehensible habit, so as to avoid total perfection, and therefore social ostracism. What do the people do now who used to smoke? The mind recoils from speculation on the subject.

  4 This was written at a time when the understanding of the seamy side of life was much more restricted in Canada than it is now. But Delicacy is by no means dead. Even at the time of writing, Mrs. Margaret Laurence, a Canadian novelist of unimpeachable reputation, is under fire from the Forces of Refinement because she refuses to subscribe to the doctrine that babies are found in cabbage patches. Acceptance of the full gamut of human experience, from high to low, is greatly feared by a substantial number of Canadians.

  5 Clean drinking water, indeed! Marchbanks must swallow those words—but not the water—now, when everybody except elected officials well knows that the filth of our water supplies is a greater threat to mankind than atomic fission.



  I HEARD SOMEBODY use the expression “gracious living” today. Until now I have only seen it in print. It is a phrase I dislike. To my mind it suggests a horrible daintiness—salads made of cream cheese and pineapple, doilies scattered over everything and plaster book-ends supporting five books bound in imitation suede. People who go in for “gracious living” call beer “ale,” when it isn’t ale because they think “ale” sounds more refined than “beer”; they are the people who never want more food—they always “wish” it. “Do you wish further prunes?” they say, looking as though no one who was not a gormandizer could possibly want anything more to eat. “How warm I’ve grown,” they say, when they are drenched in sweat. They never go to bed—they “retire.” They spend their whole lives trying to be like characters in The Ladies’ Home Journal. In my opinion, anyone who finds the expression “gracious living” creeping into his mind, is in mortal danger of becoming a pantywaist or a stuffed shirt. Good manners, decent hospitality and comfort are the reality; “gracious living” is a shoddy, sugar-coated substitute.


  I SEE THAT Princess Elizabeth and Barbara Ann Scott1 have both been included among the “Six Most Wholesome Women of the Year” by the Women’s Research Guild of New York. A dubious compliment, if ever I heard one. In my callow youth, I was badly scratched several times before I learned that if there is one thing no girl wants to be called, it is wholesome. This word suggests that a girl eats a lot of turnips, laughs too loudly at clean jokes, wears too much underclothing of the wrong kind, and has not heard about depilatories. Wholesome is what one calls girls whom one cannot call beautiful, or witty, or charming without hurrying straight to the bathroom to wash one’s mouth out with brown soap. Even a girl who takes a lot of outdoor exercise, like Miss Scott, need not be wholesome because of it: even a princess, with the eyes of the world upon her, can avoid the curse of wholesomeness. What girl would be a slice of bread, when she can be a piece of cake? I think that both these maligned young women are thoroughly unwholesome, so there!


I SAW a baker wearing a pair of plastic pants over his ordinary trousers, and pondered idly on the purpose of this strange garment. A baby-sitter might advantageously wear plastic pants; I have known babies who themselves wore plastic pants; but why does a baker need plastic pants? Some modern mystery, beyond my comprehension, no doubt, for I am a poor creature, bound by chains of habit. The first butcher I saw as a child had a wooden leg, and to this day I have an unreasonable feeling that butchers with two genuine legs are impostors. Such is the strength of an early impression on a mind ill-suited to the giddy changes of modern life.


  I READ WITH INTEREST that agents of the R.C.M.P. have been searching the offices of a Canadian magazine in search of a manuscript. “They searched the safe,” says one report, “but found nothing in it except a stock of stationery.” This shocks me. The R.C.M.P. must really be very badly trained, or they would know that nobody keeps anything valuable in a safe any more, nor has anyone done so since 1910. The vault, or safe of most business offices contains all or some of the following: