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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 34

Robertson Davies


  NOT ENOUGH attention is paid to the negative side of fashion. Great effort is exerted to make people look smart, but somebody should face the fact that a lot of people will never be smart, and that they should be given some assistance in maintaining their fascinating dowdiness. Lists of the favourite colours of the dowdy ought to be published in Vogue: Fever Pink, Outcast Brown, Bile Yellow, Lustkiller Red, Linty Black, Housedust Grey, Skim Milk White, Pondweed Green—these colours are the favourites of thousands, and they ought to be identified and kept handy on the shelves of drygoods merchants. Some assistance should be given too to men who wear those ties that look as though they had been made out of a worn piece of carpeting; as such things are never seen in shops it must be that their wives make them; it would be a boon if some haberdashery were to take over this useful and profitable work. Shops now attract a certain trade by advertising that “Smart people shop here”: think of the untapped source of trade which would be set flowing by an ad which declared that “Within these walls the invincibly dowdy will find everything they need”! … Oh, I assure you, madam, I think your gown most becoming. What made you think otherwise? … I have observed that women have no knack for impersonal speculation.


  AS MY ALARM CLOCK beat feverishly with its tiny fist upon its bell this morning, I stretched slothfully beneath the covers and mused on the flight of time. The people of the Balkans, I read somewhere yesterday, live to great ages. Their average life expectancy is eighty-seven. Some doctors think that this is because they eat a mysterious goo called Yoghurt, which resembles sour milk, and is said to keep senility at bay. I do not believe a word of it. My own theory is that the Balkans live to great ages because they never trouble to keep their tempers, because they never take baths, and because they never repress a nasty remark when they think of one. Our civilization is one which demands an unconscionable amount of holding-in; in the Balkans you never hold in anything. Holding-in creates horrid poisons which wear us out before our time. There are more deaths caused by ingrowing, suppurating self-control than the medical profession wots of.


  I SEE BY A Toronto paper that “a pretty co-ed” has distinguished herself by eating a grasshopper. The thirst for beauty in Toronto press circles is astonishing. They will describe anyone who gets into jail, or lost, or murdered, or who eats something inedible, as “pretty.” What they will say when a really pretty girl gets into the news, I cannot imagine. Their standards are so low that even I—! But I can imagine the report: “Lovely Samuel Marchbanks, glamorous Eastern Ontario redhead, appeared in court today charged with kicking the stuffing our of a dog which he alleged had been rummaging in his garbage can. Testimony was given by Dr. Flop, well-known psychiatrist, that the winsome defendant had developed an idea that he was persecuted by dogs owing to the fact that he really was persecuted by dogs.” I am forced to conclude that Toronto reporters think any female who is not a certified gorilla is a beauty, or that Toronto news photographers are bunglers.


  OUR QUAINT NEIGHBOURS, the Americans, have concluded the local baseball tournament which they boastfully call the World’s Series. What would happen, I wonder, if some Norwegian or Siamese baseball team were to insist upon entering this cosy little contest, and beat them? They would drown the stage with tears, and split the general ear with horrid speech. I have always thought that the international nature of cricket served as a useful check on English pride. Just when the Motherland was beginning to think well of herself a pack of gangling Australians or Dutch-speaking South Africans would land on her shores, and knock the spots off the Old Girl at her national game. The Americans are very careful that nothing of the sort should happen to them…. I read today that the man who invented the curve pitch had died. I am sceptical about the curve pitch, and I should like to have a scientific showdown on the matter. Once when I was a boy a friend showed me a metal cup which he concealed in his hand, and which he had bought on the understanding that it would enable him to pitch a curve. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn.


  I WATCHED A Santa Claus parade this morning, and was greatly struck by the fact that all the figures on the floats were made of plaster, and the giants and gnomes and princesses were fixed eternally in one position. The parade seemed to give great satisfaction to the children round about, but children are not searching critics and will take anything that is palmed off on them. It seems to me that in a parade which symbolizes goodwill toward men it is wrong to use plaster people instead of real people, simply because plaster people are cheaper. Also I like Santa to appear surrounded by movement, and particularly by lots of pretty girls. I mentioned all this to a man who immediately wanted to know what pretty girls had to do with Santa Claus? I decided to give him the Theological Treatment. “Sir,” said I, “female beauty is an important Minor Sacrament which cannot be received too often; I am not at all sure that neglect of it does not constitute a sin of some kind.” That fixed him…. Yes indeed, madam, I am a great admirer of female beauty, particularly when, as in your case, it is partnered by a gossamer wit.


  MY HAY FEVER is getting out of bounds. I attended a meeting last week which was up three flights of stairs and when I reached the top, I was wheezing like a cab-horse. The day before yesterday, therefore, I sought a Learned Physician, who brought out his stethoscope and listened to my chest, for so long, and with so much enjoyment, that I wondered if he had accidentally tuned in on some favourite radio program. But at last he put his instrument aside, and surveyed me through narrowed eyes. “I can’t do anything until these symptoms are disposed of,” said he; “I’ll give you an antispasmodic to quiet them.” This filled me with fear, for I am very credulous and timid where doctors are concerned. “What’s that?” I quavered. “Oh just a few grains of Dumbotal,” he said. “If you find yourself dropping off to sleep at odd times, or falling down in traffic, decrease the dose.” He is going to survey me for allergies next week. What shall I do if he discovers that I am allergic to paper, ink or any of the tools of my trade? Nothing then but the life of a hobo will remain for poor Marchbanks.

  I began my course of Dumbotal yesterday morning. The first tablet had excellent effect, and my wheezing abated. After lunch I had another tablet of Dumbotal, and during the afternoon I felt like a bloodhound. I loped when I walked, my eyelids drooped, and every now and then I tumbled down and had a nice rest; but I was breathing beautifully. At dusk another Dumbotal. I read a book for an hour and discovered that I had no idea what I had read, so I took a two-hour nap. I woke up and crawled to bed without unnecessary effort, rather like a snake. But I was sucking in the good air in mighty draughts all the time. If the price of easy breathing is semicoma, I shall pay it without a whimper.

  Thanks to Dumbotal, I breathe freely once again, and I spent quite a lot of this afternoon sitting in the open air, thinking how good it smelled. A human being is an extraordinarily delicate creature, capable of tremendous physical and mental feats; but push his bodily temperature up a few points, or tinker with his blood pressure, or shoot a few bubbles into his bloodstream, or drop a little camphor into his eye, or reduce his breathing capacity slightly, and he is miserable. He can bear the martyr’s fire or the torturer’s rack with fortitude, but a comparatively trivial inconvenience floors him…. Next week several professional sooth-sayers are going to find out what gives me hay fever; I anticipate their investigations with no special delight.


  I INVENTED THE Marchbanks Dental Wurlitzer today. It is a set of dentures in which each tooth has been hollowed out and fitted with a miniature organ pipe. It has been my observation that most false teeth whistle, but mournfully and unmusically. The Dental Wurlitzer will ensure that if the teeth whistle at all they will whistle in a pleasing and tunef
ul manner. Clever wearers will learn to play tunes upon their dentures, thus giving amusement to their grandchildren, and perhaps acquiring a talent which will make them favourites in fashionable drawing rooms. My invention should add something new to choral singing, as well. At present choir singers who have grown elderly, and whose whistling is thought offensive, are asked to resign, or to devote themselves to arranging the chairs in the concert hall. But a small body of elderly singers (say five in a choir of thirty) equipped with my Dental Wurlitzer would be able to provide a rich supplementary tone to the whole, and would be especially effective in the rendering of bird-calls, echo effects and the distant carolling of angelic choirs.


  I WAS CALLED BY THE Mayor today. “The Governor General is coming to town,” said His Worship, “and the only way we can get him up to my place is past Marchbanks Towers; what about getting some of that junk out of your front yard? If you like, I can send a gang up from the Works Department, and bill you for it.” “Have no fear,” I replied; “Marchbanks is no man to affront His Majesty’s representative, and the Towers will be a bower as you sweep by with your fine friends.” … But as I laid down the telephone I reflected that His Excellency will be honouring my street on a Garbage Day, when my neighbours and I conspire to turn the whole avenue into a replica of Hogan’s Alley, and the jolly doggies strew our kitchen rubbish in a thick carpet all over the pavement. When Catherine the Great of Russia passed through a village, false fronts, like Hollywood scenery, were put on all the huts, and sleek, well-dressed peasants stood in front of the fakes while the real owners cowered hungrily behind the dunghills. Could not something like this be done here?

  For the visit of the Governor General and his Lady I attired myself suitably in Canadian National Costume, consisting of a cowboy hat, a Red River flannel shirt, a Quebec doeskin wamus, Bay Street trousers (made of imported cloth and beautifully creased) and St. Catharines street shoes (patent leathers with buttoned cloth tops); under this I wore a hair shirt (to represent the Canadian Puritan Conscience) and a pair of underpants which have been sitting for thirty years and are due for retirement (to represent the Civil Service); in addition I wore a tartan cummerbund (to represent the Maritimes, sometimes referred to as “the soft underbelly of Canada”) and a string of ice-cubes around the brim of my hat (to represent the immense promise of our Northland). At some little distance from myself I chained a Newfoundland dog, to personify our tenth province. In this picturesque garb I stood at my gate and as the Vice-Regal party drove by on its way to refreshment with the Mayor I cheered lustily in English and French, and cheered again as the party drove back to the teetotal Meat Tea which had been prepared downtown…. The costume was quite a strain and gave me a new realization of what a difficult country Canada is to unify.

  • OF X-RAYS •

  ONCE I PUT MYSELF in the hands of the medical profession, I am a gone goose for several weeks. I endured more injections and X-rays today. My inside has always fascinated photographers, though none of them has ever shown the least enthusiasm about my outside. “Lock your hands behind your head, tie your legs in a knot, cross your eyes, touch the end of your nose with the tip of your tongue; now hold still, Mr. Marchbanks,” says the X-ray technician, and there I am, a spectacle of discomfort to the eye, but a thing of beauty to the X-ray camera. After the film is developed they all say, “That’s lovely,” though I don’t think these pictures show me at my best. I have never worn my heart on my sleeve, and I certainly have no intention of turning myself inside out, even if I do look more fascinating that way…. Yes, madam, I have a few duplicates of my X-rays, and I would be happy to inscribe one for you, if you like…. Not at all; I find your request most touching.


  THE APPLE SEASON is now at hand, and I shall partake hugely; it was not for nothing that I gained the name “Cider-Press Marchbanks” in my youth. Fondness for apples is with me partly sheer greed and partly therapeutic. I have inherited from my pioneer ancestors a belief that no real harm can befall a man who eats plenty of apples. In my grandmother’s time it was widely held that apples were good for The System, just as tomatoes were thought to be deleterious, and perhaps fatal, to The System. This System implied the whole of the bodily plumbing, wiring and ventilation. Apples “toned up” The System; tomatoes poisoned The System. It was as simple as that. I toned my system with a couple of prime McIntoshes this evening before coming here to dinner.


  I SAW A PIECE IN the paper this morning advising readers to “winterize” themselves. “We all winterize our automobiles; do the same thing for your bodily mechanism,” it said. This is not true: I don’t “winterize” my automobile; I prepare it for winter. I would scorn to use such a word as “winterize.” Nor would I dream of winterizing myself. Of course, I change my lubricant from a light lager to a thick Jamaica, but otherwise I do nothing. There was a time in my youth when I was prepared for winter by the consumption of a special thick grease, made of the bodies of decayed cod and halibut, which I ate on a biscuit three times a day. It made me reek like a trawler’s raincoat, and no germs could get near me. Sometimes I heard people whispering about it behind my back (as happens in advertisements) but most of my contemporaries stank of the same, or similar, “winterizers” and so no social ostracism resulted.


  THE POST-CHRISTMAS dullness persists. There is a curious hush in the air, which puzzles me until I realize that it is caused by the cessation of the carol-singing which, until Christmas Eve, was launched upon the ether by loudspeakers in shops, offices and municipal buildings. From time to time Scotsmen hail me, and want me to join them in celebrating the New Year which is, they explain, the great festival of their homeland. But although I appreciate their kindness, I am a Welshman by descent and in spirit, and for me Christmas is the great day, and when it is gone I cannot work up much enthusiasm for what is, after all, a purely chronological event…. I dined yesterday with some friends, who had a large bowl of holly in the middle of the table. This gives me an idea; could holly, toasted, be launched upon the world as a new breakfast food? Its effect upon the intestines might be quite miraculous. Eat Marchbanks’ Holly for breakfast: You Pick It and It Picks You!


  I BEGAN MY HALF-YEARLY seance with my dentist this afternoon, and as usual, cost him a fortune in cotton wads. It is my good fortune to have splendidly robust salivary glands, and at the mere sight of a dentist my mouth waters as though he were a steak or Hedy Lamarr. Before he can begin his work he has to make a kind of Holland of my mouth, draining elaborately and erecting dikes of cotton wads to stem the sea which threatens to engulf him. He must then work quickly before my levels rise to the point where all his work is washed away, his tools rusted beyond reclaim, and his arms drenched to the elbow. Most of my dentists have been very nice about this peculiarity of mine. They understand that I do not do it to vex them, but because I cannot help it. Nevertheless, there are times when I can see a shadow crossing the dentist’s face and I know that he is wishing—without malice—that I would drown in my own spit. Little does he know how near, sometimes, his wish is to being granted.


  THERE WAS A great deal of sense in the medieval custom of fasting before a feast. Today I ate lightly and drank a lot of water, in order to give my insides every possible advantage, in the approaching conflict with turkey, plum pudding, mince pies, hard and hot sauces, chocolates, nuts, candied fruits, cheeses, lemon custards, butter tarts and similar seasonable indigestibles. Nobody expects a boxer to do a day’s sewer-digging before an important match; why expect our gizzards to meet such an onslaught in a condition of fatigue? I just put this question to the lady on my right who said, “La, Mr. Marchbanks, you are always considering your stomach.” “Madam,” I rejoined, “that is true, and I expect my stomach to return the compliment.”

  I WENT TO THE movies last night. The newsreel contained some pictures of a female weight-lifter, a girl who tossed 250-pound barbells around with great ease. For some reason I found the sight of her depressing; I cannot decide why this was so. Obviously it is a good thing for a girl to be strong, but it is not becoming for her to look strong. The Ideal Woman, I suppose, would have the deliciously languishing, aristocratic appearance of a du Maurier beauty, and the physical constitution of Mammy Yokum. She would then be able to do a full day’s work at home or in the office, dance until midnight, and refuse or accept proposals of marriage (and whatnot) until 3 a.m. every night in the year. But she would never permit her muscles to show; really beautiful women should look as though their skins were stuffed with nice firm blancmange.


  THIS AFTERNOON I listened to an act or so of the most laughable of all operas, Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. A great deal has been written about the power of music to ennoble words; I think it is high time something was said about the undoubted power of music to render fine words trivial…. Then I went out to struggle with the week’s accumulation of snow. In no time at all three children appeared to help me, and as fast as I threw snow aside they tumbled it back into the path. There are men who endure this sort of thing philosophically, but I am not one of them; I made a short but passionate appeal to my helpers to go elsewhere and help my worst enemies, and they went. Then I settled down to the back-breaking job of heaving snow which had achieved the texture and weight of plaster. My spectacles fogged, my hat fell off at every fifth heave, and my overcoat twisted around until I seemed to be wearing it back to front. But by dint of Herculean effort, Job-like patience, and Franciscan spiritual abasement I shifted enough of the nasty stuff to make it possible to get from my house to the street, and at every heave of the shovel my heart yearned for flower-crowned Spring.