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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 31

Robertson Davies


  I WAS TALKING this evening to an nineteenth-century Liberal who accused me of being an eighteenth-century Tory. This was because I had been holding forth at some length about the conspiracy against the home life of our nation on the part of the medical profession and the nurses. There was a day when a man took pride in the fact that he was born in the house in which he lived, and looked forward with confidence to dying in the same house, and perhaps even in the same bed. This gave a richness of association to a dwelling which has entirely been destroyed by modern medical usage. Babies are now born in hospitals, and there is a powerful and subtle move on foot to persuade everybody to die in hospitals. My desire is to die in my own bed, leaning back on a heap of pillows, wearing a becoming dressing-gown and a skullcap, blessing those of whom I approve, gently rebuking my enemies, giving legacies to faithful servants, and passing out clean handkerchiefs to the weepers; I should also like a small choir to do some really fine unaccompanied singing within earshot. But will I be able to stage such a production in a hospital? Never! I’ll be lucky if the nurse answers the bell in time to jot down my last words.


  I READ IN A magazine this morning that gout is just as prevalent today as it was in the eighteenth century, although some doctors do not recognize it when they see it, believing the disease to be extinct.4 It seems to me that several other diseases are in the same ambiguous position. For instance, in The Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton makes frequent reference to a disease he calls “crudity,” the symptoms of which were distress in the stomach, wind, and a sensation of having swallowed hot pennies. Lots of people that I know have these symptoms; if they are poor they consume patent medicines; if they are rich they permit surgeons to do fancy whittling and knot-tying in their entrails. They give the ailment many names, but it is just plain crudity, and I should think that doctors would recognize it. A sure sign of crudity, says Burton, is what he calls “hard, sour and sharp belching.” Everybody knows how common this is; at service club luncheons you can hardly hear the speaker because of it. I have even heard it mentioned on the radio. Crudity numbers its victims by the millions, yet doctors refuse to acknowledge its existence.


  I SEE BY THE PAPERS that the champion milch cow of Great Britain drinks twelve quarts of stout a day, and is habitually soused. Also there is a cat in California which never drinks anything but Scotch, is seventeen years old and has produced 111 kittens. These are fascinating bits of information, but I fear that brooding on them will only lead to the formation of socially unacceptable theories concerning Motherhood.


  EVERY DAY I SEE a dog which lies in wait for passing cars, and rushes at them, snarling. It is my theory that this dog is a reincarnation of a traffic cop. The belief of Pythagoras that the souls of men may return to earth in the bodies of animals, and vice versa, seems to me to be no more unreasonable than a lot of things we are expected to believe nowadays, and there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to support it.


  YES, I THINK the heat wave reached a new level this week. I do not greatly mind the heat; I simply drink water by the pailful, and go about my business. But some of my friends are in a sad state. This leads me to wonder whether the use of the fan by men might not be revived in Canada. Men carried fans in the eighteenth century; Orientals carry fans to this day. Of course the modern craze for utility would make it impossible to revive the fan as a thing of beauty, but a fan which was also a notebook, or which had actuarial tables printed on it, or which bore a large advertisement of one’s own business would surely be permissible. Golfers could keep their scores on special fans, and preachers would write their sermons on them.


  I SEE THAT THE U.S.A. is going to issue a stamp with the head of William Allen White of Emporia on it.5 I think that Canada is wise never to have created a stamp with the head of an editor on it; editors at best are disagreeable fellows, professional contradicters and sassers back. An editor of any degree of experience becomes incapable of complete agreement with anyone, and he reads the dictionary so much that he always knows more nasty names for any particular offence than the man who has committed it. Whatever an editor may be in his private life, he is professionally ferocious, and he can turn on his tap of belligerence at a moment’s notice. There was a time when the horsewhipping of editors was a common sport, and shooting their hats off in the street was regarded as mere pleasantry. Now the law forbids both these manly pastimes…. But glorifying an editor by putting him on a stamp is as inexplicable to other nations as is our Canadian custom of worshipping the beaver, that other unattractive, gnawing, surly mammal. To be obliged to lick even the back of an editor’s picture would be intolerable to a free man, though, an instant later, he could punch the picture in the face with his thumb.


  THIS IS SUMMER, unmistakably. One can always tell when one sees schoolteachers hanging about the streets idly, looking like cannibals during a shortage of missionaries. Of course, schoolteachers are not idle all summer long; no, no. Very soon the well-paid ones will be travelling, the poorly-paid ones will be sweating in summer jobs, and great numbers of others will be in summer schools, stoking themselves with knowledge which they will disgorge next autumn. Here and there a few mad eccentrics will be found reading and thinking, having somewhere received the impression that this indulgence is somehow connected with their work. But for a few days at the end of every school year teachers of whatever degree may be seen roaming the streets, slightly dazed and a trifle irresponsible, like the slaves immediately after Lincoln signed the decree of emancipation…. You are a school teacher? Then what are you doing in that attractive gown, you little skeezix!


  I ATTENDED A PLAY which I myself had written and at the end of Act One two women hurried past me, making for the door. “I don’t care what happens, those pickles have got to be done tonight,” said the larger and more determined one. It is incidents such as this that keep authors from getting swelled heads. And indeed at this time of year pickles are the prime concern of every really womanly woman. The subtle alchemy which transmutes a mess of tomatoes and celery (which looks like something the police have swept up after a disastrous bus collision) into chili sauce cannot be understood by men; nor can the coarse male hand compound mustard pickles which do not scorch the epigastrium of the eater, and give him a breath like the monsoon of the spicy East. There are indisputably some jobs which women do better than men, and making pickles is one of them. Women cannot make wine—Sir James Fraser tells why in The Golden Bough—but they are priestesses of the pungent mystery of the pickle, and the 25th of September is their Picklemas.


  OF LATE I HAVE been much in the company of some professional Canadian actors, who were engaged in the production of a play. Most Canadians still think of actors as gay, carefree souls and not quite respectable by our grisly national standard. (In Canada anyone is respectable who does no obvious harm to his fellow man, and who takes care to be very solemn, and disapproving toward those who are not solemn.) But my experience of Canadian actors is that they are intense and earnest folk who work very hard and spend the time when they should be asleep chewing the rag about a national theatre for Canada. For this reason I think that it is wrong to call pieces which are written for the theatre in Canada “plays,” for that word suggests lightness, fantasy and ease of accomplishment. Canada will only respect her theatre when plays are called “works.” Canada has a high regard for anything that involves toil. Therefore I think that in future I shall describe all my plays as “works,” and if they ever reach the apotheosis of print I shall take care to call them The Complete Works of Marchbanks. Let triflers talk of plays; Canada wants to be given the works…. Yes, madam, I entirely agre
e: all works and too few plays makes Canada a dull nation.


  ON TWELFTH NIGHT my host offered me a drink of Drambuie; plainly marked on the bottle was a statement that this was the drink favoured above all others by Prince Charles Edward. It seems to me that this throws a light on the history of the 1745 rebellion which historians have unaccountably neglected. If Bonnie Prince Charlie was in the habit of drinking Drambuie freely he was in no state to lead armies, though it is obvious why he so grossly overestimated the size of his forces. That look of being delightfully fried which he wears in all his portraits is explained, too.


  I SAW AN AMATEUR production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street last week; the audience had come to admire the actors (who were high school boys and girls) but were much taken by the goings-on of the spaniel who played the role of Flush. Dogs and babies are impossible creatures on the stage; they have only to gurgle or scratch a flea and the careful art of the human actors is set at naught. Somebody should write a play in which a dog has to do something difficult, and meet stern criticism. In Victorian England there was a popular version of Hamlet in which the Prince was accompanied at all times by a huge dog (a Great Dane, of course); in the Play Scene it was the dog’s duty to leap at the throat of King Claudius. Often the dog-actor missed his cue, or wagged his tail at the gallery, or licked Claudius affectionately; such doghams were given short shrift by the critics of the day and many a dog-actor disgraced himself by snarling over the footlights at the critic’s row, with bared teeth. This is only just; if a dog appears on the stage, it should be expected to do something difficult, and not loll about, stealing scenes from hard-working humans.


  CONSIDERING THE AMOUNT of time and ingenuity which is devoted to making it hard for a man to get a drink in this country, I think it strange that nothing is done to keep people from digging their graves with their teeth. I have just finished two volumes of historical studies by Dr. C.H. MacLaurin, the celebrated diagnostician, in which he shows that a surprising number of the most eminent people in history have died of diseases which began in their habit of overeating. Drink is a spectacular vice, but comparatively few people have any inclination to drink to excess. But the quiet, day-to-day cramming, guzzling, stuffing, bolting and gormandizing which goes on is thoroughly alarming, when we consider its effect on the nation’s health. And everywhere we permit signs and advertising positively encouraging people to eat; little children are plied with cake and pie; the old are urged to eat “to keep their strength up” when in reality food will only sclerose their poor old arteries and blow the fuses in their shaky nervous systems. Frankly, I think that a move should be set on foot to limit the retail outlets for food, or perhaps bring it under government monopoly, making it too expensive for people to get much of it.


  BY A COMPLEX SYSTEM of my own I cushion myself against the shocks of daily life, but today I was forced to face the fact that I must have a new winter overcoat, and a few discreet enquiries made it clear to me that prices have been going up, and that clothes cost more now than they did. I grudge money spent on clothes. But from time to time it is absolutely necessary for me to replenish my wardrobe, and then there is always a disquieting struggle between my need and my ingrained penuriousness. I cannot bear to spend money on anything except pleasure, and I do not consider the buying of new clothes as a pleasure. If I could have a red overcoat with a fur collar, that might be fun, but to face the dreary choice between grey and blue again at my time of life, and to have to fork out several months’ income in payment is more than I can bear. Still, I suppose that by a painful process of screwing up my resolution, I shall come to it.


  THIS AFTERNOON I had a long conversation with a man who comes from Lincolnshire; he says that the peasants in his native shire have a pretty simile to describe a baby which has just awakened; they say it looks “like a louse peerin’ out o’ an ash heap.” It is such flights of untutored poesy as this which inspired Wordsworth.


  I WENT TO THE movies last night. I always buy a stall, or loge, as I am by nature a snobbish fellow, and also because those seats give me more room for my legs. But the people who get to the loges before me all seem to bring provisions for a week, and attach themselves to their seats with cobbler’s wax and glue, so that I usually spend the first half of any film sitting in a cheaper seat, poised to pounce if any loge-squatter should be called out by the demands of nature or the death of a near relative. Tonight I sat next to a couple of spirited girls who were not content to follow the story on the screen; they acted it, as well. When the heroine bridled, they bridled; when the hero hit the villain on the jaw, they cut the air with desperate haymakers. When there was kissing on the screen, they squeaked with their lips and wriggled in their seats. It was fascinating but unnerving, this audience participation; I was never sure that they might not involve me in the game in some embarrassing way. But at last a slide was flashed on the screen: “Whole West End of the City Wiped Out by Tornado—Hundreds Killed.” One man rose and departed reluctantly from the loges, and I vaulted into his seat, beating an old lady by a nose.6


  BEFORE DINNER I joined in a great discussion about the forthcoming rise in the price of bread, and I heard several men planning to have their wives make bread at home. I know this will not last long, for home bread-making, though not difficult, is a nuisance. Home bread is greatly superior to the purchased article, but it has to be made two or three times a week, and the average housewife would rather pay more for the customary ration of half-cooked dough than be bothered with it. Many men are speaking nostalgically of breads which their mothers used to bake—fancy confections with odd names, like Old Hoe Handle Bread, Barnyard Pandowdy, Corncob Bumblepuppy, and the like. They tell me that they always ate these luscious breads with baked beans. It is odd how all men develop the notion, as they grow older, that their mothers were wonderful cooks. I have yet to meet the man who will admit that his mother was a kitchen assassin, and nearly poisoned him. Yet there must be some bad cooks who are also mothers.


  I WENT TO CALL on some people today and stumbled into a children’s party—a type of entertainment which I usually study to avoid. No sooner was I in the door than a young woman of about six pushed an apple core into my hand, saying “Here!” in a peremptory tone. I immediately assumed the guise of Marchbanks the Child-Lover and grinned at her forgivingly; I tossed the apple behind a sofa. Not long afterward I was called upon to umpire a game of Pin the Donkey’s Tail, and barely escaped with my life, but not before a small girl showed me her doll. It was one of those dolls which can be fed water from a feeding-bottle at one end, and shortly afterwards rejects the water through a sort of brass drain in its bottom. I am not easily embarrassed, but this doll made me blush; its lack of reticence was appalling. Live babies have drenched me, and I have borne it with good humour, but this awful effigy of a baby with its hideous painted smile! … “Don’t you think your dolly would like a rest?” I asked hopefully. “NO!” said the moppet, with iron decision, and began to ply it with water again. Whatever served the office of kidneys in the doll gave a gurgle, and I hurried away. Why not a doll which burps? Babies burp, and a doll with a bellows and a squeaker in it, which could belch like a sailor or an Indian chief, would sell like hotcakes. After refreshments the party grew rough; one lad kept jumping off the top of the piano, landing in a sitting posture on the keyboard; he did this a number of times—leaving no tone unsterned, in fact. As soon as was decently possible, I left; children were beginning to go upstairs to be sick, and I was willing to leave them in abler hands.


  I WAS FACED TODAY with the necessity to decorate Marchbanks Towers against the coming Christmas, and passed
many hours perched on a shaky ladder twisting paper streamers (which immediately untwisted), getting sharp pieces of tinsel under my nails, and arranging elaborate festoons which, as soon as I looked at them from the floor, proved to be miserable in conception and lopsided in execution. I also knocked down a good deal of plaster and made dirty marks on the wallpaper. The effect, when I was finished, was that of a cheap dancehall decorated by a drunken sailor. However, I had a great artistic success with the younger members of my family, who think my efforts greatly superior to Michelangelo’s decorations of the Sistine Chapel. This disposed me to be friendly toward them, and we ate a great deal of candy, which caused them no inconvenience, but makes me feel pensive even at this moment…. No, no more chocolate mousse, thank you.


  I WAS A JUDGE at a county fair today: I was invited to give my opinion on the turnips and the cats. There were only three turnips exhibited and as all of them came from the farm of the son of the man who was my colleague in judging, we awarded him the prize with beautiful unanimity. There was only one entry in the cat show; it belonged to the other judge’s daughter, so we gave her the First, Second and Third Prizes, as well as the silver cup. I then strolled around the fair, with a large purple ribbon with “Judge” printed on it in gold adorning my bosom. It was an “Open Sesame” to all the treasures of the fair. I rode free on the merry-go-round, and the Dodge ’Em. I then judged the whole of the midway, poking the Fat Lady with a stick to see if she was genuinely fat or merely padded, patting the midgets, and accepting the gift of a cigar from the Turkey-Faced Man. Oh, it is a beautiful thing to be a Judge, to be honoured wherever one goes, to get things for nothing! If all life could be passed as a Judge at a fair, what a glad, sweet song it would be!