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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 33

Robertson Davies

  THE MARCHBANKS SCOLD’S BRIDLE FOR THE MOST TACTLESS REMARK: Awarded to a lady from the West who approached the only Canadian playwright to have a long play in the Festival immediately after its performance with the query: “Well, and when are you going to write a novel?”


  A FRIEND PLAYED ME a gramophone record of a song called “Little Sir William” yesterday, which is about a small boy who was murdered by his school-teacher. When his mother calls piteously for him outside the school he replies:

  How can I pity your weep, Mother

  And I so sore in pain?

  For the little pen-knife

  It sticks in my heart

  And the school-wife hath me slain.

  This song is obviously a relic of the good old days when teachers were not forbidden to inflict corporal punishment on troublesome pupils. If we had the school-wife’s side of the story we should no doubt find that little Sir William had been throwing spit-balls, or pinning signs saying “kick me” on the seat of the school-wife’s gown. Many a teacher has fingered her knife reflectively under such circumstances.


  THE CROSSROADS at which I live has recently treated itself to a few score parking meters; the hitching post having gone out of fashion, the parking post has become the mode, and rude fellows have been referring to them as pay-toilets for dogs. A more seemly attitude was shown today by two Wolf Cubs whom I observed from my window. “Let me show you how these things work,” said one of the lads, pulling a cent from his pocket and putting it in the slot of a meter. When the indicator swung into view his small friend was suitably impressed. Now, I should be interested to know the legal position of that boy, who had bought twelve minutes worth of parking time, but who had no car. Would he be within his rights if he stretched himself prone beside his meter, and took a twelve minute nap? And if so, would it be legally possible for me to unfold a deckchair by one of these gadgets, buy an hour’s time, and sun myself in the street, in the Mexican fashion? What would happen to a man who parked his trailer by one of the things, and kept his rent paid by stuffing the meter with money? There are some pretty problems of jurisprudence inherent in this question of parking meters.

  • OF DANTE •

  A NEW TRANSLATION of Dante’s Divine Comedy came to hand today, and I took a quick look at it before putting it on the review shelf. Reading Dante is a valuable corrective to too much reading of American political philosophy, for Dante had no use for the Common Man, although he was one of the great democrats of the ages. People who had done nothing in life were of no interest to him, and he states plainly that such people are of no interest to either God or the Devil, and are condemned to spend eternity in a nasty, cold place (like the recent Spring) outside the gates of Hell…. What fun, what deep, marrow-warming satisfaction Dante must have had in the composition of this mighty poem! Putting all his enemies (including the reigning Pope, Boniface VIII) into Hell, and attributing various unsuitable and undignified sins to them, doling out praise and blame, and vicariously spitting in the eye of anyone who disagreed with him! Nowadays of course the law of libel (that cloak of scoundrels and ruffians) would restrain his hand.


  A CHILD ASKED me today to explain a picture it had found in a magazine, which showed some mailed warriors walking toward a castle carrying branches of trees in front of them. It was an advertisement for Scotch whisky, and the picture was Malcolm’s forces advancing upon Macbeth’s castle—Birnam Wood moving toward Dunsinane, in fact. I explained this to the child, and gave a rough and expurgated version of the Shakespeare play, in which I happened to mention that the Witches had told Macbeth that this very thing was likely to happen. “If a witch had told me that, I’d have cut down the forest right away,” said the child. I agreed that this would have been a wise precaution, but that if Macbeth had done so there would have been no tragedy, and the whole course of Scots history would have been altered. She looked up at me searchingly and said: “That’s silly.” Sometimes I think that the reins of government should be put in the hands of children. They have remarkably direct minds, and when a witch tells them something, they pay attention.


  I SAW IN A PAPER today that Hollywood is going to make a film based on Byron’s poem The Corsair. My guess is that the movie boys will take their cue from the lines:

  His heart was form’d for softness—warped to wrong;

  Betray’d too early and beguiled too long;

  and will turn the whole thing into an exposure of juvenile delinquency, altering those lively scenes in the Pasha’s harem to a sequence in which some rough boys with pea-shooters have fun in the ladies’ section of a Turkish bath…. It is a matter of surprise to me that Hollywood has not yet attempted a film on the life of Byron. True, the facts are too lurid for the censors, but the moviemakers could always use one of their tried-and-true stories about poet meets girl, poet loses girl, poet gets girl. The truly Byronic conclusion—i.e., poet, having got girl, kicks her into the street—would not suit Hollywood’s customers.


  I READ IN THE fashion news that the Handkerchief Skirt is coming back; this garment, fashionable in the twenties, is short and hangs in rags, as though the wearer had been fighting a particularly sharp-nailed wolf. I hope that this is not true, and that the Handkerchief Skirt will remain in Oblivion, where it belongs. I do not like short skirts; I like long skirts which swish and whirl. A short, tight skirt on a girl is ugly enough, but on an older woman to whom life and her metabolism have been unkind it is a cruel joke. Some men whose notion of Fashion is to bring women as near to utter nakedness as possible like short skirts because they reveal a lot of leg; but to my mind a really graceful woman is shown to greatest advantage in a skirt which compliments the poetry of her walk, instead of revealing the muscular action of her gluteus maximus. And though I yield to no man in my admiration of the female leg, I do not want to see all the legs in the world: there are thousands which I am ready to take for granted as useful, sturdy servants. Let us be spared Nature’s rougher handiwork.


  I WENT TO THE movies last night and on the newsreel saw the Hon. George Drew9 welcoming some immigrants. I started a clap for him, in which only one other person joined. I do this whenever I see a politician on the screen, to test his popularity; I am President, Statistician and only field-worker of an organization called the Marchbanks Poll of Worthless Public Opinion. If I raise a big clap for a politician I know at once that (a) it is payday, and the audience is in a generous mood; (b) the audience consists chiefly of married couples, who are not holding hands. If the response is small I know (a) that the hands of most people in the audience are otherwise engaged; (b) that the audience does not expect the feature picture to be any good and only came to the movies to get away from home; (c) that the audience consists chiefly of people who have never heard of George Drew and think the figure on the screen is Eva Peron, or the Pope, or some other distant dignitary. I am compiling a large volume of my findings, and will shortly sell it to industrialists who will be impressed by the price and the word “Poll” in the title.


  A HEALTH NUT assailed me today. “Are you getting plenty of water?” said he. “You know, surely, that you are about 70 per cent water?” “You astonish me,” said I, determined not to encourage him. “Your brain alone is 79 per cent water,” he continued, “and 90 per cent of your blood is water. Obviously you must take care to get lots of water.” “If you didn’t get enough water, is there any chance that you would dry up?” I asked, but he was too full of facts to be affected by sarcasm. “Really you are just a big lump of carbon, with a few salts and minerals thrown in,” he continued. “I could buy all your ingredients in a drug store for about sixty cents, and get enough free water out of a tap to mix them up.” “Vain man,”
I cried, “in the hereafter we shall see what I am—a dollar’s worth of slops and condiments, or one of the Sons of the Morning. Go, pinhead, lock yourself in a room, and stay there until some inkling of the greatness of the human spirit dawns upon you, then see if you can buy THAT in a drug store.” He fled, hustling his sixty cents’ worth of chemicals and his water down the street at about fifteen m.p.h.


  I SAW A MOVIE of Oscar Wilde’s play An Ideal Husband last week, and enjoyed it greatly. The movie reviewers had assured me that the piece was slow and dull, but I did not find it so. The plot and the dialogue were artificial, of course, but so are the plot and dialogue of all other movies; more artificiality on the Wilde level would improve the movies immensely. I have never understood why people object to artificiality; almost everything that has raised man above the beasts is artificial in some respect. I am an exceedingly artificial creature myself; my teeth are preserved artificially, and I have artificial aids for my eyes; I wear artificial coverings of cloth and leather upon my body; I eat no food which has not been artificially treated. And, unlike a great many of my hypocritical fellow creatures, I like frankly artificial entertainment.

  Last night I went to a private showing of a Russian film, Ivan the Terrible, which was one of the best films I have ever seen. True, I have never looked up the nostrils of so many Russians before, and I hope that it will be some time before I do so again, but it was a film after my own heart—full of poisoned wine, spies peeping around pillars, and people wearing trains approximately twenty feet long. This was artificiality on a grand scale. Ivan in the film bore no resemblance to the Ivan of history, who was as mimsy as a borogrove and spent his time alternately in doing unpleasant things and repenting, but it was a fine bit of propaganda and not more distorted than the films we see about Lincoln and George Washington…. I was much impressed by the scene in which Ivan was cured of a severe illness by having a prayer book placed over his face. I shall try this on myself when next my ulcers go back on me.


  I PREPARED MY Income Tax form today, and reflected that it costs me just about as much to be a Canadian as it would to be an Englishman, and twice as much as it would cost me to be an American. This is a time of year when I think sourly of Government expenditures. I reckon that my Income Tax pays the salary of one minor official, such as the censor of books. What does this minor official do for me that I should support him? Can I march into a government office, seek him out, and say, “You’re my man. I pay you. What are you doing, and are you making a decent job of it?” No, I cannot. Frankly I think it would be a good idea if every taxpayer were told what government stooge he maintained. Small taxpayers would then feel that they owned an eighth of a charwoman; modest taxpayers like myself would own petty officials; wealthy men, who pay a lot of taxes, would be allotted ten or twenty clerks, or a brace of deputy ministers. With this knowledge we could go to Ottawa from time to time and chivvy and nag our hirelings. Such a scheme would give a taxpayer some pride in his taxpaying and would greatly increase bureaucratic efficiency.


  I ATTENDED A BANQUET last night at which an appropriate quantity of wine was consumed. But there were a number of people present who were plainly devotees of hard spirits, for they drank little or no wine, leaving it in their glasses. Now when the affair was over I noticed one of the cleaners collecting these remains in a large jug. Sherry, claret, and port were poured without discrimination into the mixture, which had the murky, threatening colour of cough medicine. What did he intend to do with it? I am convinced that later, in some secret bower of his own—some sequestered broom closet or coenobitical lumber room—he drank the contents of that jug in which the conviviality of sherry, the sturdy manliness of claret and the episcopal blessing of port mingled in vinous kaleidoscope. I hope he had a good time, but I would not have his head on my shoulders this morning for a mine of gold.


  I WAS READING Ben Jonson’s play The Poetaster this afternoon, and found this passage:

  OVID: Troth, if I live, I will new dress the law

  In sprightly Poesy’s habiliments.

  TIBULLUS: The Hell thou wilt!

  What, turn law into verse?

  I had not thought that this special use of “the hell you will” was so old, for The Poetaster was written in 1601.


  I SHOVELLED A LOT of snow today, and rather enjoyed it, though I had had enough at least half an hour before the job was finished. But a friend of mine who sets up as a great authority on health tells me that snow shovelling is wonderful for sedentary workers, because it makes them use their Big Hinge. Apparently “Big Hinge” is what health maniacs call the waist, because it bends. If you use your Big Hinge a lot it squeezes your tripes, causes your juices to squish and slither about inside you, wrings out your liver and spleen, and puts accordion pleats in your vermiform appendix; it scrapes your epigastrium on your backbone and increases the traffic on your alimentary canal. No doubt this is all very fine, but I find that any prolonged use of my Big Hinge makes me extremely hungry, and by the time I have satisfied my hunger I have short-circuited all my inner workings, and my Big Hinge is incapable of moving more than a degree or two in any direction. My juices are solidified, my liver and spleen are like rocks; my appendix is throbbing like a Congo drum and my alimentary canal is closed to navigation. You can’t win in the fight for health.

  1 Though in large international centres of population it had long been an open secret that the human male had some form of sexual expression, the publication of Kinsey’s study in 1953 put the matter on a scientific basis, and doubters were forced to accept the brutal fact.

  2 Milton Cross (1897-1975) was famous as the commentator on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. The rich fruitiness of his voice struck awe into the breasts of the uncultivated, and his pronunciation of Italian words was Ultra-Italianate. His swooping, lyrical style of utterance was in itself an adaptation of the German Singspiel, but juicier.

  3 Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952), British politician and one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer, was even more famous as exemplifying the cast of countenance known as Reformer’s Face, compared with which the mugs of the most determined Puritan divines seemed as jolly as Santa Claus.

  4 Gout is far from extinct and has had a remarkable upsurge in recent years. It affects men only, but the Women’s Lib forces are agitating to have it made available to their sex. It is notorious that gout affects only men of superior intellect, and Marchbanks is humiliated that he has no faintest twinge of it, and feels at a disadvantage among his many gouty friends. It is a vulgar error to suppose that it is a consequence of high living; it is a deposition of sodium ureate and even the humblest and most poorly fed, such as university professors, may have it if they are sufficiently bright in the head.

  5 White, who edited the Emporia Gazette from 1895, was recognized in journalistic circles as a fearless innovator. His most fearless innovation was his custom of writing his own editorials, instead of pinching them from other papers and then publishing them without attribution or else with “We agree with the Bingville Bugle which says …” tacked on top. This innovation was long in reaching Canada and there are still remote areas where it has not penetrated.

  6 It may be asked why the sale of loge tickets was not governed by the number of loges available, but such a question reveals a pitiable naiveté. The proprietors of cinemas are rarely persons of iron principle.

  7 Because it arouses an insatiable lust for tobacco among the deer, who slink up to the hunters, imploring a cigarette or two with their great, beautiful eyes, thus spoiling the sport, which consists of killing them treacherously, when they haven’t got their horns crossed.

  8 The Dominion Drama Festival was a highly praiseworthy association of amateur theatrical companies that met every yea
r for regional and Dominion-wide contests, which were judged and criticized by adjudicators brought in from Great Britain and the U.S.A. Its avowed desire was to render itself superfluous by bringing about a professional theatre in Canada and in this philanthropic aim it was wholly successful. Let us remember it, therefore, with gratitude. And let us remember also the spirit of pow-wow, palaver and corroboree which marked its meetings and made them immensely pleasurable.

  9 George Drew (1894-1973) was a Canadian statesman of considerable celebrity in his time, who might have been Prime Minister if he had not tactlessly referred to our French-descended brethren in Quebec as “a conquered race.” This, of course, was unforgivable, just like suggesting that the English won the Battle of Waterloo. That was, long before our Bill of Rights, which guarantees that no minority, under any circumstances, can be wrong.



  I WAS INVITED to a private showing of a sex education film this morning, along with prominent members of the clergy, judiciary, police chiefery and fire departmentery. This is because I am a Great Moral Force in my community. My sex education is now complete, and I have given my word of honour that, whatever temptations life throws in my way, I shall never have an illegitimate baby. I was fascinated by a distinction which the film insisted upon between “sentimental love” and “sensual love.” The former is what nice people feel, and the latter is what low scoundrels feel. But my dictionary says that the word “sensual” means “connected with the gratification of the senses,” and it has been my observation that when a young man monopolizes a girl’s time without making at least a half-hearted attempt to gratify a few of her senses (her passion for nut-fudge sundaes with chocolate and marshmallow sauce, for instance) she soon passes him up for a more adventurous fellow. The plain fact is that however hard a young man may try to live up to his Scout Oath, and to keep his love on a purely sentimental plane, girls don’t encourage him to do so. And just as well, too. There is a point beyond which purity should not be allowed to go.