The papers of samuel mar.., p.30
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, p.30Robertson Davies
• OUT OF THE MOUTHS … •
A LITTLE GIRL OFFERED to read to me out of a book of Bible stories this afternoon, and announced the title of the one she had chosen as “Ruth, the Frightful Daughter-in-Law”; I was somewhat drowsy, and this sounded so normal—so in accord with everyday experience—that it did not occur to me until she was well launched on the tale of Ruth and Naomi that she had misread the word “faithful.”
• OF MELANCHOLY REFLECTIONS •
A GROUP OF professional floor waxers invaded The Towers today. They brought with them a great deal of equipment including several large wheels which appeared to be covered with the skins of whole cows. Their first move was to pile all the furniture in every room in a heap in the middle of it, and I was saddened to see how quickly the old home could be made to look like a junk shop. If I were to choke on a crumb, or collapse while shovelling snow, or be struck by a falling icicle, or fall backward down the cellar stairs while struggling upward with an armful of wood, or perish through any of the hazards of daily life, it would only be a matter of a few days before the auctioneers would invade the scene of my sloughed-off existence, and pile up my furniture in exactly this way; and when people came to the sale they would despise my furniture, and conclude that I was a sordid fellow, who had lived shabbily. These reflections depressed me so much that I itched all afternoon to get the waxers out of the house, so that I could set it right, and reassure myself.
• PERSONAL AND REMINISCENT •
A DISTANT RELATIVE of mine sent me a genealogy of part of my family today. I passed the evening reckoning the ages at which my ancestors died; save for a few who pegged out miserably in infancy the average age is eighty-seven years and a few months. Now this seems to me to be thoroughly praiseworthy. These primeval Marchbanks without the aid of vitamins, central heat, balanced diets, or any medical care save bleeding, purging and mustard plasters, managed to survive to an average age of eighty-seven, and usually died by falling off roofs, being gored by bulls, or otherwise violently. They ate till they were full, drank till they were drunk, hated fresh air, and thought tomatoes were poisonous, yet they lived valiantly, God rest them.
• OF TAILORS AND THEIR MYSTERY •
AS IT MUST to all men, the realization came to me today that I must order a new suit. I am sorry for men whose work demands that they present an appearance of neatness and prosperity; I rejoice that I belong to a traditionally frowsy trade. But even the vilest rags must be refreshed from time to time, and I went to the tailor’s with a heavy heart. Soon I was fingering little squares of cloth and trying to imagine what they would look like if swollen into suits and hung upon my frame; this is the sort of job at which my imagination boggles, and when my imagination is boggling, my mouth drops open, my tongue lolls out foolishly, and a film creeps over my eyeballs. “This is a nice thing,” I say, trying to curry favour with the tailor, “but I think I like this even better”—as I pick up my own pocket handkerchief or perhaps a penwiper from the desk. At last the tailor puts me out of my agony, and measuring begins. Here I exhibit devilish cunning, sucking myself in where I am too big, and blowing myself out where I am deficient, in a Protean manner, so that the record gives a completely false impression of my figure. “You sit a good deal at your work, Mr. Marchbanks?” says the tailor. “When I’m not lying down,” I reply. “We’ll allow a little extra for that,” says he, and makes marks on his chart which he will not allow me to see. In time I escape into the street, shaking like a leaf.
• OF ANIMAL DEFENDANTS •
I SEE IN THE PAPER that a dog has been destroyed because it knocked down and frightened an old woman. In the Middle Ages such a dog might have received a full-dress trial; animals were often tried for serious offences. The court records before the Reformation are full of cases in which a dog was tried for preventing someone from going to church, or for biting somebody important, or for barking during a political speech. The animal was provided with a defence lawyer, and if he lost his case his client was likely to be hanged, or even tortured. Many a young barrister in those days got his start defending animals, and a court would as soon subpoena a herd of sheep or a couple of oxen as anybody else. This was because animals were thought to be easy hideouts for evil spirits—an opinion which I think modern jurisprudence has abandoned without sufficient thought.
• OF GUEST-ROOM BEDS •
I WAS TALKING to a lady before dinner who was shaken by an experience she had had with a bed in her guestroom. One night recently her spouse was sick of a salt rheum, and in order to escape infection and the sound of his coughs and moans she betook herself to the guest chamber, and tried to sleep upon one of the beds which her guests had been using for years. But to her horror the bed was too short, and too narrow, and was inclined to buck and throw the sleeper, so that she landed on the floor twice in the night. She was up at dawn, writing letters of apology to all her guests, and as soon as the shops opened she rushed forth to buy a new bed. Personally I think that everybody should sleep in their guest-bed once a year, to test it, and I am seriously thinking of giving the wretched palliasse at Marchbanks Towers a try-out one of these nights. Perhaps that bagginess of eye which I have observed in my guests at breakfast is in some way related to its deficiencies. Perhaps I should shove more hay into the tick.
• OF SOLEMN TIDES AND FESTIVALS •
I TRIED TO EXPLAIN the significance of Lent to some children this morning, but found it hard to make the principle of self-denial comprehensible to them. That one should refrain from doing something one wants to do as a spiritual exercise seems peculiar to a child, and as I agree with them with the heretical half of my mind, I cannot put my full weight into any theological dispute which may ensue…. I was asked what I myself was giving up for Lent. “Showy displays of personal prowess such as running upstairs, lifting heavy weights and walking great distances,” I replied, without batting an eye…. I have also been looking over the year’s Valentine displays, which are more degraded in verse, and more vilely spotted with doggies, pussies, and bunnies than usual. Modern love, as reflected in Valentines, is on a depressingly infantile level.
• OF BONHOMIE IN TRAINS •
I HAD TO MAKE a train journey yesterday. In an advertisement for a mystery story I read a testimonial from Miss Hedy Lamarr, in these strange words: “It made my blood curl.” … On the train were four happy extroverts who drank copiously from flasks, and were bosom friends in less than an hour; in ringing voices they discussed their investments, private fortunes, the Palestine situation and the difficulty of getting any wearable underpants. When any woman under seventy passed down the car they whistled after her, to show that they were full of hormones. They rushed to and from the lavatory, shouting as they went. As train lavatories have direct access to the roadbed, I hoped that they might fall through, but none of them did so.
• OF BIBLIOPHILY •
ONCE AGAIN, after a pause of many years, catalogues are beginning to reach me from sellers of old books in England. If I had any strength of character I should throw these into the garbage pail as soon as they arrive but I am a weak creature, and I always risk a peek. This is fatal, for in no time at all the concupiscence of the book-collector burns hotly within me. I send off an order, and in the course of time a new treasure is added to the cupboard at Marchbanks Towers…. Real bibliophiles do not put their books on shelves for people to look at or handle. They have no desire to show off their darlings, or to amaze people with their possessions. They keep their prized books hidden away in a secret spot to which they resort stealthily, like a Caliph visiting his harem, or a church elder sneaking into a bar. To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope-fiend with those of a miser.
• OF DAY AND NIGHT •
OUR HOST REMARKED to me before dinner that the days are already drawing out. It is true, and I disapprove of it heartily. If I had the ordering of such things, it would be dark every winter day at five o’clock and every summer day at seven. Da
• OF UNCOUTH SPEECH •
THE AUSTRALIAN LADY on my right has been telling me of her labours to rid herself of her native accent under the tuition of an elocution master. She had to say “How now, brown cow?” over and over again, as apparently this greeting is a very hard one for an Australian to utter with complete purity. This amused her greatly, for it appears that in the Antipodes the word “cow” is applied to any unfortunate person, male or female, and a set of disagreeable circumstances or a distressing personality may also be called “a fair cow.” Only in Australia, so far as I know, could a man be a black sheep and a fair cow at the same time.
• OF DAME NATURE •
I WENT TO SEE an exhibition of modern Canadian paintings this afternoon, and liked them very much. But there were a few people present who appeared to consider the pictures an insult to themselves—a kind of aesthetic hot-foot. They muttered and mumbled, but none of them seemed able to explain just what it was that bothered them. My own guess is that the pictures disturbed their ideas about nature, and made them reconsider certain notions which they have cherished, but not examined, for years. Music and pictures are able to churn the soul without using the medium of words, and as most people are quite at sea when they have to transform feelings into words they were affronted and gagged at the same time…. Most people, too, appear to think of Nature as a dear old lady with steel spectacles and a bonnet, mouthing platitudes. To have Nature presented to them as a wanton, decked in gayest colours and obviously not wearing a foundation garment, hit them smack under the Moral Sense, which is to a Canadian as its shell is to a tortoise.
• OF KINGS GREAT AND KINGS GOOD •
THE LADY ON MY LEFT was complaining to me about the foolish caricature of King Charles II which appeared in the film Forever Amber; the Merry Monarch was shown as a man surrounded by silly little dogs, to whom he cried “Come children!” from time to time…. I replied that I had been annoyed by the same thing, and also by repeated film caricatures of Henry VIII as a gross monster, gorging, swilling, burping and pinching the bottoms of court ladies. Charles and Henry were two of the ablest kings ever to occupy the British throne, and it is not wise to forget it. They would never have become Sunday School superintendents, of course, but they had many excellent, and indeed admirable qualities as statesmen. For some reason the British rulers who have been chosen by common consent for adulation are Alfred the Great (about whom we know nothing save what is told us by his personal chaplain, who was on his payroll), Charles I, who was pious, but had no tact and owes much to the fact that Van Dyck was his court painter, and Victoria, who carried goodness to a point where it became indistinguishable from self-indulgence.
• OF MODERN HOUSES •
I PASSED LAST EVENING in the company of some people who have bought a lovely old house, and are having great fun fixing it up. Of course the furnace is not in very good condition and shoots most of its heat up the chimney, and none of the sashes fit, and there are cracks in the foundation, but it is a dear old place all the same. Admittedly they have to burn their own garbage in the furnace (which makes a smell) and they have to bury their tin cans privily at dead of night, and the water supply is capricious, but it has lovely high ceilings (some of which need replastering). Yet, in spite of their woes, I see what they are after. They are in rebellion against the modern vogue for houses which our ancestors would not have accepted as almshouses, and which are undoubtedly the nastiest human habitations ever to be built since man emerged from the Mud Hut Period of architecture. An old house is a nuisance, but it is obviously intended for men and women to live in. Much modern housing would be better called kennelling.
• OF A LOST ART •
A SCHOOLTEACHER confided to me today that there is nothing so useful for sticking things to a blackboard as shaving cream. It holds as well as glue, and yet it does not harden, and it imparts a delicious scent to the schoolroom, slightly ameliorating the customary effluvium of chalk, Vapex and wet sweaters. This lady told me that she used approximately a tube a term for this purpose…. What she said reminded me of my childhood, when I used to get my hair cut in the tonsorial parlour of an elderly barber called Murphy; in front of his two chairs were mirrors elegantly framed in walnut, and on these mirrors it was his custom to write improving sentiments in lather, such as “Treat Your Wife and Your Hair Right and They’ll Never Leave You” or “God’s Finest Gift—A Mother; A Man’s Best Asset—A Fine Head of Hair.” Murphy’s spelling was not always equal to the demands of his philosophy, but he wrote a flourishing hand with the lather brush, and surrounded these profound reflections with curlicues and even flowers delicately executed in lather. The art of lather work has died out, I fear.
• OF A DISCOVERY •
I BOUGHT SOME ROPE today, for the first time in my life, I think, and was amazed to find that it is sold by the pound, like cheese. Who would think of going into a shop and asking for two pounds of nice fresh rope, suitable for a suicide? Yet the request would be a perfectly sensible one. I bought twelve feet, or about an eighth of a pound, and it cost me seven cents.
• OF YOUNG FOGIES •
AN ACTOR FRIEND of mine left a copy of Variety in my office today, and as I looked through it I was amazed to find a full-page advertisement which said, “Gabriel Pascal and Bernard Shaw wish all their friends a Successful New Year.” I wonder if Mr. Shaw really paid for half of that insertion? It doesn’t seem like him to deliver good wishes in that wholesale manner…. The magazine also contained an article headed, “Is Radio Burdened with Young Fogies?” It seems to me that the probable answer is “Yes.” The whole world is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young, and everlastingly harp on the fact they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution which would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curses of the world. We have a good many young fogies in Canada—fellows who, at thirty, are well content with beaten paths and reach-me-down opinions. Their very conservatism is second-hand, and they don’t know what they are conserving.
• OF THE SIESTA •
I COMPOSED MYSELF after lunch for my noonday snooze, but was called three times on the telephone; in consequence my afternoon was ruined. It has long been my contention that the siesta is needed far more in our cold climate than in the languorous South. Southerners snooze at midday because they are lazy; Canadians should snooze at midday because they still have several hours of hard work ahead of them, including a certain amount of battling with the wintry blasts, and slipping and slithering on the ice. They need to prepare themselves for what lies ahead. But it happens far too often that when I compose myself for fifteen minutes of delicious torpor some fellow who either has high blood pressure or is in a hurry to develop it calls me. He never wants to tell me that I have inherited a fortune, or that a beautiful dark woman is anxious to make my acquaintance; he invariably wants me to do something right away, usually of a vexatious nature. By the time I have lied my way out of doing whatever it is he wants, the shy nymph Snooze has fled, and there is nothing for me to do but begin the afternoon’s toil.
• OF AN OPPORTUNITY MISSED •
I HAVE RECEIVED a great many letters relating to a radio broadcast in which I took part a fortnight ago. They all make the same complaint and if I may I will give you the substance of a representative letter, sent to me by an elder
• OF A USEFUL DOG •
I SAW A DALMATIAN dog today—one of those curious spotted animals which used to be called “blotting-paper dogs” when I was a boy. They used also to be called Coach Dogs, presumably because it was the smart thing to have one bounding along the road after one’s coach, getting even more spotted from the spatter of the wheels. But of the three names I like “blotting-paper dog” best. It suggests that a Dalmatian has literary qualities not given to other dogs—that it lends itself to use as an auxiliary penwiper, or to rolling gently on large manuscripts. The average dog is a nuisance to a writer, as it lies on his feet, snuffling, coughing and having bad dreams, while he tries to collect his thoughts. No dog has ever whispered poems into its master’s ear, as was the case with Victor Hugo’s cat, but at least the Dalmatian has tried to make itself useful in the study.
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