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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 28

Robertson Davies


  A MAN WHOM I had never seen before turned up in my office today and seated himself in the uncomfortable chair which I keep for guests with the air of one who bears a great message. Indeed, he wore the dedicated look which I have learned to associate with magazine salesmen and agents for worthless encyclopaedias. “Mr. Marchbanks,” said he, “I saw by a recent article of yours that you have been absent from your work, undergoing treatment for an illness; you assured your readers that you were not taking the Gold Cure, but that may have been an attempt to pull the bull over their eyes. Now, Mr. Marchbanks, I represent an organization of which you have doubtless heard—the Nameless Drunks, we call ourselves—and if we can help you, we certainly will. You too can overcome your habit, Marchbanks! You too may become a Nameless Drunk if you so choose!” I allowed him to talk for an hour or so, during which time he imparted to me the secret sign of the Nameless Drunks: you raise an imaginary glass, but instead of putting it to your lips, you pretend to pour it into your eye; you then make motions as though shaking a drink out of your right ear. By means of this simple, hardly observable sign, Nameless Drunks can recognize each other anywhere.


  THIS IS THE SEASON of flowers, and everybody I meet is either boasting about his garden, or groaning because it has not come up to his expectations. I can be philosophical about flowers, and I conduct my own garden on strict philosophic principles; if flowers grow, I am pleased but if they do not grow I will not permit my life to be darkened by their absence. I do not blind myself, as many gardeners do, to the fact that flower gardens are cultivated principally for the pleasure of bees. A bee gets more fun out of a single iris than a human being can get out of a vast herbaceous border. The bee drags its feet in the flower, rolls in it, takes a bath in it, swigs the nectar out of it, and revels in the sound of its own voice while doing so, just as we sing in our resonant bathrooms. Sometimes as many as three or four bees enjoy mixed bathing in the heart of a rose, and The Dear knows what goes on in there when they are all plastered with nectar, and think that they are out of sight. Flowers are just bagnios for bees, and while I take a broad view of these things, I feel no impulsion to wear myself out providing for insects who would not do a thing for me if they could possibly help it.


  I SEE THAT QUEBEC is getting worked up over two-piece bathing suits again, and an ardent do-gooder has declared that they threaten all that is best in French Canadian life. I remember that after the First World War it was rolled stockings which were nibbling at the foundations of the universe. What fascinated me at the time was that the evil power lay in the female patella itself, and not in any beauty which it might exhibit. Men’s knees were not harmful, and Scotchmen were, as always, encouraged to show off their gnarled joints. But any female knee, however like a cabbage or the skull of a goat it might be in appearance, was charged with vice, and the male who beheld it was in danger of being turned to stone, as if he had beheld the face of the Gorgon. Since those days knees have become an old song—indeed a weariness of the flesh—and it is that comparatively undistinguished portion of the female anatomy comprising the lower ribs and the diaphragm which is now the focus of holy horror. If women showed their navels with texts from the Song of Solomon tattooed around them, I might see some sense in all this fuss, but they don’t, and I don’t.


  LOOKING THROUGH a catalogue of rare books last evening, I found one written in 1806 by a William Turnbull called Manual Containing General Rules & Instructions to Those of Both Sexes Who Are Afflicted With Ruptures and Prolapsus Ani. This work was published under the auspices of The Society for The Relief of The Ruptured Poor, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time (the Rev. Dr. Charles Manners-Sutton) was honorary patron. I yearned for this fascinating volume, but I am much too poor to buy all the books I want. But a flame of curiosity devours me; does this benevolent body still exist, and does the present Archbishop still visit among the poor, his little basket of trusses upon his arm?


  SOME WORK THAT I was doing kept me in a room today which adjoined one in which a service club was meeting. I was thus made privy to their mysteries, and very odd they were, too. For instance, one member was congratulated on a wedding anniversary, and immediately afterward they all sang The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used To Be, which I thought was somewhat pointed, under the circumstances. Perhaps nothing was intended except a general reflection upon the flight of time, however. I also suffered the puzzlement which always comes upon a man who is alone in a room when God Save The King is being sung next door: should I stand up and feel foolish, or sit down and feel unpatriotic?4 The same problem arises when I hear somebody praying on the radio: should I stop flogging my dog, or forging cheques, or whatever I am about, or should I pretend not to notice?


  THE DAY OF THE ornamental clock seems to be done. This morning I poked about in an antique shop and saw two: the first had a large brass woman on it, holding a harp with four uncommonly thick strings; the other had a man in the dress of the early 19th century sitting on its top, holding a pen in one hand and a scroll in the other, and surrounded by globes, papers and mathematical instruments. I cannot guess who he was; some great figure in the horological world, no doubt. Such clocks are rarities now. Even marble clocks with brass lions’ heads poking out of the ends of them are rarely seen. Modern interest centres upon watches, and watches which tell time, date, year, phase of moon, and forecast the weather are not uncommon. But I like strange clocks, and particularly those which have moving figures on them. Most of these are of ancient workmanship, but I think the idea might well be brought up to date. A clock upon which, every hour, a figure identifiable as a taxpayer was pursued by a figure with a pitchfork and a sheaf of Income Tax forms would command a good price at Marchbanks Towers.


  I HAD SOME photographs taken today, an experience which always leaves me limp, with my ego quivering and bounding like an uncoiled spring. “Take a natural, easy pose,” says the photographer, and when I do so he winces and says, “Oh, no, not all slumped, like the leavings of a torso-murder.” So then I strike a pose which seems to me to suggest dignity and vast stores of reserve power, and the photographer laughs merrily and says that I’m not to make faces. The fact of the matter is that I cannot be at ease when a man is pointing a machine at me, and jumping and ducking about the room, pulling curtains, flashing lights and looking at my face as though it was something on a butcher’s bargain counter. “I am trying for a characteristic likeness,” says he. But that is just what I do not want. I want a picture which looks the way I should like to be, not the way I am. I can face facts in the mirror whenever I choose. I do not see why I should pay good money to have my nose rubbed in the bitter realities. “You don’t mean to say you want to be flattered?” he asks, and as I nod my head wildly he clicks the shutter. In the picture I shall probably appear to have a broken neck, like the body just before the police cut it down.


  I WAS TALKING TO a young person who attends the kindergarten, and she gave me some interesting details about the teaching of music, as it is done at her school. All the children must sing, and are divided by the teacher into canaries (the best singers), robins (fairly good singers), bluebirds (definitely not choral material) and pigeons (creatures who croak moodily upon one note). The young canary with whom I spoke expressed deep scorn for pigeons. It seems to me that this name has been well chosen. I once lived in a house which was very popular with pigeons, and their croaking was a great nuisance, and caused me to look up a recipe for pigeon pie. Poets have affected to find a pleasing melancholy in the note of the pigeon, but poets are notoriously heavy sleepers, and are not wakened by these pompous, detestable, strutting birds in the early hours of the morning. I never made the pigeon pie, f
or the labour of skinning and cleaning enough birds daunted me. But to this day I never see a pigeon waddling in the street, eating something disgusting, without wanting to let it have the toe of my boot. Have you ever kicked a pigeon?


  I HAD MEAT BALLS for lunch today. This is a delicacy of which I am very fond. But I insist upon the True Meat Ball—prepared in an open pan and tasting of meat—rather than the False Meat Ball—prepared in a pressure cooker and loathsomely studded with raisins. The pressure cooker is all very well in its way, but there are some dishes with which it cannot cope, and the meat ball is one of them. A meat ball made in a pressure cooker has a mild, acquiescent taste—the sort of taste which I imagine that a particularly forgiving Anglican missionary would have in the mouth of a cannibal. Your True Meat Ball is made of sterner stuff, and if he tastes of missionary at all he tastes like some stern Jesuit, who died dogmatizing.


  I TOOK AN OPPORTUNITY which presented itself today to see a film about Princess Elizabeth, which showed her from earliest babyhood to the present day. I found this impressive and moving, for I admire royalty, and am sorry for nations which have none. Scores of my obscure and unmeritable ancestors have shared with the Royal House the task of building Great Britain and its Empire and Commonwealth, though I am the first to admit that the Marchbanks tribe were more active in the South Sea Bubble, the Rebecca Riots and the War of Jenkins’ Ear than in the more spectacular events of history. There were a few bad kings, and many a dubious Marchbanks, but they all wove the tapestry of history together, and will do so, I trust, for many centuries to come.5


  I THINK SERIOUSLY of launching a crusade against the custom of removing the hat in an elevator. I wear my hat in the lobby of my hotel, and I wear it in the corridors. Nobody expects me to take it off in a streetcar or in an automobile when I ride with a woman. But as soon as a woman comes aboard an elevator all the men in it sweep off their hats as though she were the American Mother of the Year; some extremists even hold the hats over their hearts and assume that colicky look which indicates nobility of feeling in the Canadian male. The elevator operator is a woman, but nobody bothers about her. The whole thing seems to me to be false and foolish…. Frankly, I should like to see a corresponding custom decreeing that women should keep their heads covered in the presence of men, as a gesture of respect toward the Defender, Bread-Winner, Prophet, Sage, Seer and Begetter of the Race. Why should I show respect for any strange woman who flouts my manhood by running about with a bare head? A fig and a resolutely pulled-down fedora for all such hussies! … No, no, madam, it is quite unnecessary for you to cover your head with your fruitplate. Desist, I beg!


  I TOOK TO MY BED last week-end, for my bones ached and my tripes felt as though I had swallowed a porcupine. I treated this malady by drinking countless glasses of lukewarm water. I wish it were the fashion to groan when one is ill. I like groaning, and I believe it helps me to bear suffering; what is more, groaning helps to pass the time. But modern sickroom practice is all against groaning. In Victorian times it was different; everybody groaned when they were ill; it was considered the right thing to do. Their roars were an inspiration to their doctors and nurses, urging them on to greater flights of bleeding, purging, leeching and poulticing. Furthermore, groaning has curative powers. A Hindu, when he is ill, repeats the mystic syllable “Om” as loudly and as resonantly as he can until he is well; it is his belief that the resonance provides a gentle and beneficial massage for his suffering insides. And what is “Om,” I ask you, but a stylized groan? There is more to groaning than Western medical science has yet recognized.


  I SEE A LETTER to the press complaining that Toronto is terribly abused, and that the jokes about Toronto are the fosterlings of cankered minds. Personally I always think of Toronto as a big fat rich girl who has lots of money, but no idea of how to make herself attractive. She has not learned to drink like a lady, and she has not learned to laugh easily; when she does laugh, she shows the roof of her mouth; she is dowdy and mistakes dowdiness for a guarantee of virtue. She is neither a jolly country girl with hay in her hair, like so many other Ontario cities, nor is she a delicious wanton, like Montreal; she is irritatingly conscious of her own worthiness…. Toronto ought to read the advertisements which explain why girls are unpopular and get themselves whispered about. Maybe she needs more bulk in her diet.6


  I HAD A LETTER this morning from some association which is agitating for the repeal of the Sales Tax which is, its pamphlet assures me, “a straight violation of the laws of God.” This is fascinating. Not long ago one of the larger Canadian churches notified me of its intention to “prepare a statement of God’s Will concerning marriage.” How lucky we are to live in a country where God’s Will and His Laws are so thoroughly understood, and so zealously publicized!


  I WAS LOOKING through a pile of books this afternoon, which I had not read since I was a boy. To my astonishment I found that I remembered the stories in some detail. But in those days my mind was young and impressionable, and had not been subjected to the horrible wear and tear of book reviewing; nowadays my poor brain is a sort of incinerator, which seizes upon huge amounts of literary garbage, quickly reduces it to ashes, and spits them out, retaining only a disgusting slime upon its walls…. As I leafed over the pages of these boys’ books, I was delighted by the unambiguous style in which they were written, and particularly the way in which the characters were named. When in a boy’s story, you find a character called “Sir Judas Snake” you can be pretty sure that he is up to no good, and will probably get seriously in the way of the hero, who is quite likely to be called “Justyn Bloodygood” or “Samkin Steelheart.” Indeed, it is amazing how closely these villains resemble one another; they are all fancy dressers, they are all thin, they all talk in a nastily grammatical manner, and they are all cowards at heart. My life has not brought me into close association with many important criminals, but I have known a few very unpleasant types who were fat, sloppy, illiterate and braver than the average Good Citizen. But then, art is always superior to truth.


  THE PAPERS tell me that Queen Mary will be eighty next Monday. There is an interesting link between myself and the Queen Mother which I do not think Her Majesty would see any reason to suppress, and of which I am very proud. In the days when I earned my living in the disreputable but amusing profession of an actor I once played the role of Snout the Tinker in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic in London; Her Majesty brought her granddaughters to a matinee, and in one of the intervals summoned the stars of the play (I was not one of them) to her box. “You know, I once played in The Dream when I was a girl,” she said; “I played Snout.” When this news was told to me, I immediately prepared myself for a summons to the Royal Box, being sure that the Queen would wish to discuss the fine points of the role with me; after all it is not every day that a couple of veteran Snouts get together. But, alas, the summons never came. An oversight, no doubt, or some jealousy of me in Court circles.7


  I WENT TO A CIRCUS last night and the first thing on the program was a girl who exhibited some trained goats. My mind immediately flew to Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, in which the heroine, Esmeralda, had a trained goat which could spell out the name of her lover, Phoebus de Chateaupers, which is no small feat, when you think about it. There are plenty of stenographers who couldn’t do as well. But the circus goats were not nearly so accomplished, and the act retired in disgrace after the star goat fell off a bar on which it was walking, and almost hanged itself in its halter…. There are people who object strongly to performances given by animals. Indeed, I believe that there is an org
anization called The Jack London Society, the members of which are pledged to rise and leave any place in which a performing animal appears—even if it be only on a movie screen. I think that is carrying humanitarianism to extremes. When I see a dog like Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin in the films, I realize that it is the pampered darling of the studio, and has more money in the bank than I have, and probably rides to its job in a Dusenberg with special body work.


  THE KING HAS MADE Laurence Olivier a knight “in spite of the fact,” says one paper, “that Mr. Olivier was divorced in 1939.” I wonder if this is the first time that a divorced actor has been given such an honour? Usually theatrical knighthoods are distributed for good conduct more than for ability, and I have even heard wicked actors refer to such a knighthood, sneeringly, as The Order of Chastity. The first actor to be knighted was Henry Irving, about whom Queen Victoria had never heard anything bad, and who had in the highest degree the Victorian ability to look noble and spotless; his runner-up in the contest for the title of Most Respectable-Looking Victorian was, of course, Mr. Gladstone, and it is a well-known fact that the heads of the Landseer lions in Trafalgar Square are a composite portrait of Gladstone and Irving.8