The papers of samuel mar.., p.37
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       The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, p.37

           Robertson Davies


  I HAD AN OPPORTUNITY to examine a rather fine stamp collection today. As a usual thing stamps leave me cold; I regard them simply as dirty bits of paper which foreigners have licked. But I had to admit as I turned the pages, that some of the stamps were pretty; the pre-revolutionary Russian ones, for instance, had great charm and the Japanese stamps were delicately beautiful. The possessor of the collection assured me that it was a great aid in learning history and geography, which is probably true, but the kind of history which can be learned from stamps is of no particular interest to me, and I have no desire to learn any geography under any circumstances. The fact that I am never sure where any place is gives a special charm to my consideration of the daily news and if I shattered my ignorance another of my retreats from reality would have been ruined. I think that all this dabbling in geography is rather bad-mannered and nosy, like peeping through people’s windows.


  THE LAST OF THE opera broadcasts was on the air this afternoon, so I settled down in my armchair with a bag of peppermints to enjoy it. But luck was not with me; things kept cropping up which had to be done, and people kept calling me to the phone who wanted taxis and other things which I couldn’t give them, and altogether the union of Mozart and Marchbanks was incomplete and unsatisfactory. By the time the broadcast was over I had a headache and a peppermint hangover. Nevertheless, opera broadcasts exercise a powerful fascination over me, and every winter I try to hear as many as I can. There is a childlike, unsophisticated quality about opera which commands respect in this wicked world. All that hooting and hollering because somebody has pinched somebody else’s girl, or killed the wrong man, or sold his soul to the devil! These are commonplaces in daily life (particularly the latter) and it is astonishing to hear them treated with so much noisy consideration.


  I MADE A TRAIN journey yesterday. As always I was impressed by the amount of rude staring that goes on when a train is standing in a station. The stay-at-homes on the platform gawp rustically at the people in the cars, while the urbane and world-weary travellers stare back, down their noses. As in an aquarium, it is impossible to say who is staring and who is being stared at…. When the train reached my stop I wrestled my own suitcases to the door, for the porter thought I was going to Toronto, and had fallen asleep. Yet, I gave this neglectful blackamoor a quarter—an act of sheer cowardice; I should have stared into his chocolate eyes like a lion-tamer, and kept my money. But in such matters I am contemptibly lacking in resolution. My face is perpetually ground by those who are, in a purely technical sense, the poor. I shall welcome the Revolution, after which I shall not be expected to tip anybody.


  A LITTLE GIRL was telling me about a dream that she had last night: “A witch was chasing me, and she had germs all over her fingers,” the child said. This is a good example of the way in which superstition keeps abreast of science, instead of being displaced by it, as foolish people believe. In my childhood I sometimes dreamed that witches were chasing me to tear out my liver and lights, or to bake me in a pie, but never to infect me with germs. The next generation, I suppose, will dream that witches are after them to make them radioactive. The fashion in scientific horrors may change, but the witches will go on, and on, chasing generations of horror-stricken children down the shadowy labyrinths of sleep.


  I SAW A CHILD whizz across the road on her tricycle today, directly in front of a car; when she grows up she will be the kind of woman who darts across the streets against the red light, holding back traffic by sheer power of the human eye. In India it is regarded as a good idea to dart in front of an oncoming car, for the car is sure to kill the evil spirits who are pursuing you, and all the rest of your life you will have good luck. There are a lot of Canadians who seem to be trying to get the best of their evil spirits by this dubious method. Of course, if you are a little out in your calculations, and the car reduces you to a large splash of tomato sauce, your evil spirits may be said to have won the final trick.


  I SAW A LARGE shell in a friend’s house the other day, and for old times’ sake I held it up to my ear and heard the familiar roaring which is supposed to be the sound of the sea. When I was a child I listened to this sea-noise eagerly, and believed in it. But now I am of a less easily satisfied disposition; the Scientific Spirit has got hold of me and it gives me little peace. If I hold an empty beer bottle up to my ear I hear a noise, too; am I to believe that is the sound of a brewery? And when I hold an old marmalade jar to my ear, must I believe that the suspiration which I hear is the whisper of the zephyrs through orange-groves? No. As a modern poet has put it:

  The noise

  Which is so easy to explain to girls and boys,

  Serves only to insult

  The keener intelligence of the adult.


  I HAVE A PARTICULAR affection for the city of Toronto; the mere contemplation of its moral sublimity puts me in good humour for days at a time. The latest outbreak of virtue in the Queen City takes the form of a declaration on the part of one of the city controllers that the Public Libraries of Toronto have been circulating dirty books, including The Decameron. At first I was a good deal startled by the thought that a Toronto alderman had been reading The Decameron; I had not imagined that they read anything more taxing than the portions of the Reader’s Digest which are printed in large type. But I now discover that the alderman had not read the book; he had simply been told by somebody else that it was not a proper book for anyone to read…. The first indecent book I ever read was Quo Vadis, which I got out of a Sunday School library; I found the descriptions of Roman highlife deeply stirring. Later I became very partial to The Song of Songs (which is Solomon’s) which was sold to me by an agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society in a plain wrapper.

  • OF DOGS •

  A BEAUTIFUL NEW dogproof garbage box was installed on the back stoop at Marchbanks Towers today. For several years all the jolly doggies of the neighbourhood have looked upon my back stoop as a rendezvous where they can drop in for a snack, a chat, a fight or to enquire after some bitch of easy virtue with whom they can pitch a bit of woo; dogs create their own form of bebop, and discuss big deals involving dozens of bones on my back porch, and I make no secret of the fact that I am sick of it. Therefore I have caused to be constructed a large and durable chest, heavily ribbed and studded with brass screws, in which I shall keep my garbage pails in future, and the dogs can find some new Kasbah in which to carry on their raffish social life…. For a time I used to lie in wait in my kitchen until the dogs gathered for the evening, and then (choosing my time very precisely) I would rush out among them, striking to right and left with a broom, and uttering loud and terrifying cries, like a Japanese warrior going into battle. Then I would pick up the garbage and go inside, congratulating myself on a good job well done. But I found that the dogs looked upon me merely as the floorshow, or comedy act, of their evening’s entertainment…. Well, they’ll laugh on the other side of their muzzles when they see my new box.


  ALL YESTERDAY’S papers informed me that this would be International Shut-Ins Day, and when I awoke I found that rain was descending in large greasy blobs about the size of marbles. This meant that I was a shut-in myself until this evening, for though I enjoy a walk in the rain a recent misadventure with my umbrella put such an amusement out of the question. Personally I do not greatly mind being a shut-in. I have often longed to have my sphere of activity sharply limited. Whenever I see an advertisement telling me that it is now possible for me to get to Britain in eight hours, or that the wonders of South America are within my easy reach, I recoil; when a speaker begins his remarks by saying that the world is shrinking, I shrink too. I shall end my days, beyond a doubt, as a
happily cantankerous old shut-in, reading, eating and sleeping in one small room, with doors and windows sealed, and a hole in the ceiling for the entry and removal of necessities. At last my corpse will be dragged up through the hole, and only my memories will be left.


  IT LOOKED LIKE rain this afternoon, and I gave it every chance to do so. But nothing happened, so I girded up my loins and cut my grass, after which the heavens opened and the rains fell. The malignancy of Nature in these matters is past belief. If I am not to enjoy the beauty of my lawn when I have cut it, why should I bother with it? I often think that I should abandon the futile struggle and allow Nature to reclaim the pleasure grounds of Marchbanks Towers. Let the velvet lawns grow rank; let briars and thistles choke the Lovers’ Walk; let scum accumulate on the lily pond; let the grape arbour and the Temple of Diana fall into ruin. Let the place assume the aspect of Tobacco Road, and I shall sit happily on the decaying verandah, spitting tobacco juice at the passers-by.


  THERE SEEM to be a good many advertisements for Irish goods about these days, and most of them give the impression that everything in Ireland is made by peculiar fellows in bobtailed coats, who wear bog beards and smoke clay pipes. If memory serves me aright the word “shantycraft” was used in one such billboard that I saw. It is a lucky thing that my great-uncle Brian Boru Marchbanks never lived to see those things. He was a proud man, and any suggestion that Irishmen kept pigs under their beds or habitually went about with holes in the seats of their pants (for the airiness of it) used to put him into a state of passionate resentment. It was his opinion that Irishmen were just the same as other people, and frequently in the street he would call loudly upon anyone who was with him to point out just one respect—only one—in which he could be singled out from the crowd as an Irishman. Often his protestations of ordinariness would draw quite a crowd, which he would offer to fight, man by man, until he was dragged away by his wellwishers.


  THE LADY on my right has just asked me if I remember the novels of Sir Hall Caine.5 I replied that with Hall Caine, as with Sir Walter Scott, I had never been able to read one of his books through. All of Caine’s characters lived in an atmosphere of agony and molasses, which was intolerable to my ribald mind. The lady then confessed to me that she, too, had no admiration for Caine, but thought that I might recall in which of his novels it was that the heroine dried her baby’s diapers by wrapping them around her own body, next to the skin. I could not recall the source of this astounding instance of mother love but said that any heroine of Hall Caine’s was quite welcome to get rheumatism, so far as I am concerned. It was a little surprising, however, to hear that Caine ever acknowledged the existence of anything so closely related to the baser functions as a diaper…. You’ve never heard of Hall Caine! Sancta simplicitas!


  THE LADY ON MY left tells me that she wants a job in my Institute for the Re-Gruntlement of Disgruntled Persons. As qualifications she tells me that she is a bad cook and a terrible dancer; the latter circumstance she attributes to a Methodist upbringing, which still causes her to drag one leg. She says that she gets devilish ideas easily, and advances some very original notions for treating disgruntled persons with Epsom Salts. She seems to be the ideal appointee for the post of Matron. I have already put the Business Management of the institution into the hands of a man who was unfrocked by the Income Tax division of the Department of National Revenue for extortion above and beyond the call of duty.6


  I CHATTED THIS evening to a man who is in the calendar business and who tells me that one mighty industry recently distributed several hundreds of thousands of calendars in which April was credited with thirty-one days. This is probably the result of a secret coup by the calendar reformers. I do not personally favour calendar reform as I am a friend to inconvenience and inconsistency, believing that the illogicality of our present calendar serves as a useful reminder of the capriciousness of fate and the mutability of all things. The calendar reformers just want to be cosy. A pox on cosiness!


  I BECAME INVOLVED in an argument about modern painting, a subject upon which I am spectacularly ill-informed; however, many of my friends can become heated, and even violent on the subject and I enjoy their wrangles. In a modest way, I am an artist myself, and I have some sympathy with the Abstractionists, although I have gone beyond them in my own approach to art. I am a Lumpist. Two or three decades ago it was quite fashionable to be a Cubist, and to draw everything in cubes; then there was a revolt by the Vorticists who drew everything in whirls; we now have the Abstractionists who paint everything in a very abstracted manner. But my own small works (done on my telephone pad) are composed of carefully shaded, strangely shaped lumps, with traces of Cubism, Vorticism and Abstraction in them for those who possess the seeing eye. As a Lumpist, I stand alone.


  I RECEIVED AN undergraduate magazine this morning, containing the kind of poetry which boys and girls write between eighteen and twenty-one, full of words like “harlot,” “stench,” “whore” and the like. The young have a passion for strong meaty words, and like to write disillusioned verses with jagged edges about the deceit and bitterness of life. I idly turned my hand to versifying, and produced this nice bit of undergraduate poetry, which I offer free to any university magazine:



  Take it away!

  Life—the thirty-cent breakfast

  Offered to vomiting Man

  In this vast Hangover—

  The World.

  Onward I reel

  Till Fate—the old whore—

  Loose or costive

  Drops me in the latrine of Oblivion—


  I have not lost the youthful, zestful university touch with a bit of verse.


  ON MY WAY HERE tonight I found that an icy crust had formed on all the snow, about an eighth of an inch in thickness, and as I trod it broke into large flat chunks, like dinner plates. I smashed a few of these, experimentally, and found it an admirable release from tension. I began to pretend that the chunks of ice were valuable pieces of china, and this was even more fun. “Here goes a Spode dinner plate!” I cried, and smashed it to smithereens. Then—“Bang goes a half dozen Crown Derby demitasses!”—and bang they went. Next—“Here’s for those ruddy soup cups I’ve always hated!”—and an armful of them dispersed into atoms. It was glorious. I was a bull in a china shop—an embittered, vindictive bull, revenging itself for a thousand annoyances and injuries. I suppose that, by the time I had finished, I had destroyed about an acre of ice or $50,000 worth of china, and I felt fine. If people had more cheap releases of this kind, there would be fewer deaths from heart failure.


  THE PAPERS TELL me that an admirer of Deanna Durbin’s7 has paid $60 for a lock of Beethoven’s hair to give her, to be added to her collection of musical relics. I hope he sniffed it before paying. It is well-known that Beethoven, who was a nasty man in many ways and possessed of a thoroughly Germanic sense of humour, was pestered all his life by women who wanted his hair, and on more than one occasion he cut a swatch off a goat and sent it to a fan, who presumably wore it in a locket, or sewed it into her corsets next to her heart. I doubt if the smell of goat would wear off, even after 150 years.


  I TRAVELLED BY train yesterday, and observed a remarkable change in my character, which would undoubtedly be of the deepest interest to psychologists, if I chose to make it public. There was a queue for the dining car, and as I stood in the narrow corridor, beside the axe, hammer, saw and crowbar which railways display in a little glass showcase (doubtless for sale to tourists) I imagined, and mentally ate, several meals, won
dering meanwhile how the gluttons in the diner could take so long. It was sheer malignance, I decided. But when at last I was shown to a table I forgot all this, chose my meal with a gourmet’s care, and then ate it as much like a gourmet as its decidedly poor quality permitted, forgetting all about the needy wretches in the corridor. But when I passed them on my way out their fiery and indignant eyes burned through my waistcoat, giving me heartburn.

  1 Published in 1883 and popular at least until the twenties of this century. The Bad Boy spent his time in such merry tricks as putting ants in his Pa’s liver-pad, getting him falsely arrested for murder, and in other ways making the old man’s life a burden. It was written, of course, in the days before it became the fashion to believe that boys had souls, and write books about them like The Catcher in the Rye.

  2 The reader will by this time have observed that Marchbanks suffers ill-health, even if it is no more than the hypochondria characteristic of so many literary men. One of his worst trials in his visits to the medical profession was the Basal Metabolism Test, which was required of him often. It involved arriving at the physician’s office without breakfast, and lying on a cold table while a rubber bag was strapped over his mouth and nose; the bag was never cleansed, and God knows who had puffed and blown into it; breathing in and out while it was in place was like giving the Kiss of Life to somebody on Skid Row. Under such circumstances Marchbanks was unable to obey the doctor’s command to breathe quietly and easily, and in consequence the record of his Basal Metabolism is a medical marvel of inaccuracy.

  3 Donald Wolfit (1902-68) was an actor of extraordinary courage and determination, uninhibited by self-doubt, who in his professional life presented a large number of the plays of Shakespeare, and some of Ibsen, acting with intelligence and clarity of focus. Without any advantages of person, and with a somewhat harsh voice, he was at his best in the roles of tragic heroes, but had no turn for scenes of tenderness. Marchbanks saw him often, and thought him best in the title role in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, the brilliance, ferocity and abrasiveness of the character being perfectly suited to Wolfit’s gifts. He was also greatly admired in the larger-than-life role of the protagonist in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. In the age of Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson, Wolfit exemplified the earlier tradition of the great roaring actors.