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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 38

Robertson Davies

  4 Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the inventor of hundreds of remarkable devices, and seems to have been the Yankee Handy-Man raised to the nth power. His lifelong deafness was caused when he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railway. Running to catch a train, he was seized by the ears by a brakeman and dragged aboard, with irreparable damage to his hearing. Children and dogs should never be lifted by the ears, as U. S. President Lyndon B. Johnson once discovered, to his cost.

  5 Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) was in his heyday a best-selling author and enjoyed some reputation as a prophet and seer. He was known as the Manx Shakespeare because he had a strong affection for the Isle of Man (though born in Cheshire), wrote plays, and cultivated a resemblance to the Bard, firmly based on partial baldness. Like many writers of the highest popularity, he had little humour. When his drama The Eternal City was being rehearsed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1902, Caine wanted Tree, who played the villain, Count Bonelli, to drag the heroine, Roma, played by Constance Collier, around the stage by her hair and conclude by bashing her head on the boards. “Yes, yes,” said Tree, “but my dear Caine, I seem to remember that incident being worked into another very famous tragedy.” “Good gracious, Tree,” said Caine, “whatever play was that?” “It was,” said Tree, thinking deeply, “yes, it was called Punch and Judy.” Caine was not amused.

  6 This was, of course, written at a time when the tax-gatherers admitted that there was such a thing as Going Too Far. They have long since overcome any such inhibiting scruple.

  7 Deanna Durbin (b. 1921) was a Canadian girl singer of great charm who enjoyed ten years of success on the screen, when an increasing plumpness brought about her retirement. Would a lock of Beethoven’s hair have added anything to her gift of song? Marchbanks once bid up to $15 at an auction sale in Port Hope, for a disgusting object under a belljar which was described as a cigar butt thrown away by the great Franz Liszt. Marchbanks believed that if he set it on the lid of his own piano it might improve his playing, but stinginess proved his undoing, and another amateur pianist got the cigar butt for $17.



  THE DIFFERENCES between Montreal and Toronto are basic and significant. In Montreal I see dozens of men wearing wigs, and almost as many who obviously wear corsets. In the Queen City of the Trillium Province wigs are a great rarity, and prolapsed abdomens are commonplace. The shiny dome, the swaying paunch—these are marks of respectability in Toronto, and are carefully cultivated; a special wax is used by Toronto barbers for polishing those heads, and the tailors cut the trousers in such a way as to throw the bay window into prominence. They seem to say, “I am a plain, blunt fellow and I scorn subterfuge; the flesh may be weak, but the spirit is of brass.” In Montreal, on the contrary, fanciful wigs are worn by old men, and cruel stays are endured by them, as a tribute to the charm of youth and beauty. Your Montreal man, at thirty or so, cries to the Fleeting Moment in the words of Faust. “Ah, stay, thou art so fair!” and then he buys anything he can get which will keep up a pretence—however scarecrow-like—of youth. It is the old conflict of Hebraism and Hellenism, and upon the whole I plump for Hellenism, even when it means wigs and circingles.


  SOMEBODY HAS sent me a clipping which attempts to prove that the drinking of mead was given its death-blow by the Reformation. The implication is that the Reformation was therefore a Bad Thing. It may be so. I can never decide the matter to my own satisfaction. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I am a rollicking Chestertonian medievalist, shrieking against the Reformation, exulting in any manifestation of unreason, and shoving wads of my shirttail into delicate machines to harm them and show their inferiority; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I am a fiery-eyed Puritan, attempting to reconcile modern progress with the blackest Old Testament morality, and yelling for a church which is both completely secular and all-powerful. On Sundays I rest from these theological exercises and read Voltaire…. As for mead, I have been told that it is a delectable drink, and I suppose that my Welsh ancestors drank it out of the horns of rams, in true Celtic style. But they were hearty, outdoors types, innocent of the complications which beset a man today, and I suppose that if one of them had a horrible mead hangover nobody noticed it, or mistook his mutterings for poetry.


  I SEE IN THE paper that a celebrated Canadian educator said today that no one should consider himself educated unless he has some knowledge of science. I wonder if I am educated, by this standard? As a schoolboy I failed with monotonous regularity in chemistry, but I was rather good at physics, which seemed to me to make more sense. Chemistry appeared to consist of efforts to make crystals in a test-tube—efforts which were doomed to failure because the tube was wet, or the chemicals old, or simply because I put too much of something in the mixture. But physics was good fun, permitting me to blow bugles in the classroom (to learn about sound) and to slop happily with acids (to produce electricity) and to grind the cranks of old rusty machinery in order to study the centrifugal principle. My present knowledge of science is not profound; when a car will not go I know enough to say, “Dirt in the gas-line” in a weighty manner, and I can replace a fuse, if goaded to it. I also know that the pressure of the atmosphere on my body is fourteen pounds to the square inch (or is it an ounce to every fourteen pounds of body?). All I know about atoms is that they are teeny-weeny. Does this make me educated? Don’t answer.


  CANADA IS growing up. Why? Because we are beginning to have interesting phonies upon our national horizon. Of late I have seen two or three good examples of the Phoney Westerner. This type is interesting, for although he comes from the West, he is a business man, in no way different from his Eastern counterpart. But he wears a big hat, and a horse-head pin in his tie, and he is very, very breezy. He walks with the gait of a man who is carrying a keg between his thighs, and this is meant to suggest a familiarity with horses. He is full of tangy, open-air oaths and he treats women as though they were idiots, this being his way of showing respect for their purity. He corresponds to that American type, the Phoney Southerner. We shall see more of him, as time passes, and the West becomes more and more sophisticated.1


  I ATE MY FIRST Canadian margarine today and found it disappointing. It was neither the nauseous concoction of train-oil and soap which the dairymen had led to me to expect, nor did it taste of glorious liberty and the Triumph of the People over Vested Interests. It just tasted like butter. And yet this might have been expected. Surely man can produce, by scientific means, something as good, or better than the goo which a cow exudes without using her mind at all? Having beaten the cow at her own game, Triumphant Man will march onward to the synthetic egg and then to laboratory-made beef-steak. At the moment a whole large class of society is doomed to coddle and valet a lot of idle, ungrateful animals. Get rid of the animals, say I! Kick them back into the forests whence they came! They have leeched and battened upon man for aeons, but their day is done. In the world to come there will be no farmers—only scientists, leaning on the gates of their laboratories, yammering about the low prices they get for their stuff, and whining if it is suggested that they pay income tax.


  A MAN WAS HOLDING forth to me before dinner about how much he disliked baby-talk; anyone who used baby-talk to a dog, or a woman, or even a baby, was in his opinion a contemptible creature, capable of any inanity. But I am not so sure. I don’t care for men who have no silliness in them, and I have known some men of remarkable character who were not above a spell of baby-talk, upon a proper occasion. And indeed that wonderful man Dean Swift used a lot of very babyish baby talk in his letters to Esther Johnson, whom he called “Stella.” One winces a little as one reads it, but one winces far more sharply when one thinks what Swift might have become if he had not been able to let himself go in that manner. There is a cert
ain spiritual indecency in overhearing any man talking baby talk or making love, but that does not mean that it is wrong or indecent of him to do so.


  A FRIEND WAS telling me today about a little girl he knows who was sent some handkerchiefs for her birthday. “Look, Mummy,” cried the moppet in amaze; “cloth Kleenex!” This child will be an ideal citizen of the Age of Substitutes, into which we are fast moving. For a time we shall use nothing except foods, fabrics and substances which have been made in imitation of the age-old gifts of nature. Then as time passes, distinguished scientists will discover that a cloth of superior properties can be made from the wool of sheep, that amusing drinking cups can be made from the horns of beasts, and that a piquant beverage can be produced by allowing honey to ferment. And thus, by the roundabout methods which appeal to scientists and worshippers of Progress, we shall return to the Golden Age. I hope that I live long enough to see it.


  YEARS AGO I possessed a dictionary in the back of which was some information about the language of flowers; it appeared that the most complex messages could be expressed by a properly composed bouquet. Mind you, those speaking floral tributes might not always be pleasing to the eye: to say, “I shall love you till death; meet me at the hollow oak tomorrow evening; my laundry has come back and I shall wear a clean shirt,” one might have to combine a pansy, a gladiolus and a truss of Baby’s Breath—a difficult bunch to make presentable. Later I learned that there is also a language of stamps; if the stamp is stuck on the envelope cockeyed it means, “I despise you” or “I adore you,” according to the way the King’s head is pointing. There are other variations, some of which I invented myself. To omit the stamp from the letter altogether means “You are richer than I am and can well afford to pay double postage.” To glue a cancelled stamp on a letter means “I am in revolt against our Country’s fiscal system.” To draw spectacles on the King’s head means “I harbour subversive opinions.”


  I SEE THAT THE art of tattooing is said to be in decline. When I lived in England I passed No. 72 Waterloo Road every day on my way to work, where a great artist in this field, G. Burchett, had his atelier. I never ventured inside, but I admired the rich display of designs in the window, and sometimes I would see a man going in or coming out, wearing a special defiant look. I am too timid to do anything so irrevocable as to have my hide ornamented but I understand and sympathize with those who do so. The ordinary designs—fouled anchors, flags, ships, naked women and the like—obviously would appeal to many men; but who, I wondered, took up G. Burchett’s offer to tattoo the Apostle’s Creed on his chest, or his thigh? Did divinity students creep through the door at night, for this service? Or did atheists cause themselves to be so tattoed that whenever they sat down they affronted, so to speak, the whole of Christendom? Perhaps I shall never know…. No, madam, I did not know that your husband is a clergyman…. Yes, as a child I often sat upon the whole of Holy Writ, in large print and fully illustrated, in order that I might reach the level of the dinner table…. Very well, if you choose to take that attitude.


  I SEE THAT A family has died of carbon monoxide poisoning at a place called Ingomar, in Pennsylvania. Was the town named after the old play of Ingomar adapted by Maria Lovell from the German drama by Eligius Franz Joseph Munch-Bellinghausen, called Der Sohn der Wildnis which was popular from 1842 until the beginning of this century? Ingomar is such tripe that I wonder why the movies do not do a version of it. Ingomar is a wild man of the woods, who laughs a great deal until he meets a very civilized girl who quickly has him twining rose wreaths, working sixteen hours a day as a farm hand, and eating cooked food. Then he stops laughing, and realizes that in Civilization Woman has the Upper Hand (a philosophy widely popular on this continent at the moment). A movie of this piece, with Bing Crosby as Ingomar (singing Boo-boo-boo instead of laughing) and Joan Fontaine as the Civilized Maiden should prove one of Hollywood’s most successful boobsqueezers and I give them the idea free.2


  THE LADY ON my right who has had quite a bit of experience of lending libraries tells me that a great many people demand a historical novel, “but not too far back,” for weekend reading. Now why “not too far back”? Perhaps because of the widespread belief that people who lived long ago were not as smart as we are, and did not do very interesting things. Modern historical novels have spread the delusion that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people gave all their time to sex, and in the nineteenth century devoted themselves wholly to sex and adventures, such as building railroads. But previous to the seventeenth century people had neither sex nor railroads, and were consequently of no interest to anyone, even themselves.3


  I WATCHED A very small child playing with a Mama-doll this afternoon; when the doll emitted its painful, catlike cry (as much like the squeal of an overloaded stomach as the voice of a child) the face of the tot would be filled with concern, and it would stare deeply into the eyes of its toy, obviously wondering what ailed it. I take a mild interest in dolls and I am always a little irked when I hear the Mama-doll referred to as a triumph of American ingenuity. As a matter of fact it was invented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who died in 1838 and was a German; he is best known for his invention of the Maelzel Metronome, to the nagging tick-tock of which millions of music students have practised their pieces. He was an inventor and handyman of unusual ability, and among other things he invented an ear-trumpet which his friend Beethoven wore for many years; it was an awesome crumpled horn which was affixed to the head with a clamp. Maelzel’s Mama-doll may have had a better voice than the modern product, for it contained a more elaborate works, and it could also say “Papa.”


  I WAS TALKING to a man whose job it is to reproduce antique furniture, which he does remarkably well. When he has made a perfect piece, he then knocks a few bits out of it, scratches it and digs a hole or two in it. This process is called “distressing” the piece, he told me, and it is not to be confused with faking. There is no intention on his part of selling the distressed piece as a genuine antique, but he finds that people do not want antique reproductions that look too new. There is some moral obliquity in this matter, but I cannot discover exactly where it lies. The thing which interests me is that mankind does not yet appear to have improved upon the designs for chairs which were perfected in the eighteenth century. What is wrong? Has human inventiveness reached a dead end?


  NO MAN’S NEWSPAPER writings should be saved and produced in evidence against him. Take the case of G.B. Shaw, who served a term as a drama critic about 1895; today I was reading what he said about the first appearance of The Importance of Being Earnest; he did not think much of it; this play, which is now pretty generally acknowledged to be one of the great farces of our literature, appeared to Shaw to be old-fashioned—as if that made any difference, so long as it was good. But the funniest thing in the review is Shaw’s assertion that the comedy was not of a high order because he was not “touched” by it. It is a popular delusion (and therefore the last thing one would expect G.B.S. to embrace) that really funny things are also “touching.” Sentimental twaddle! And, by the way, was anybody ever touched by any of the comedies of Old Barney Shaw, the Swan of the Liffey?


  AT THE RISK of giving offence to any living descendants of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, I must confess that I hate and fear the telephone. There is something superstitious in my attitude toward it; I credit the thing with the ability to see, as well as hear. When I speak on the phone I wear a false smile; while I am listening I grin and nod my head and flash my eyes, to show it that I am paying attention. Real men of business, who are not afraid of phones, do not do these things. They grab the phone a
nd spit in its face; I have even seen them grip the thing by pressing it into the flesh of their necks, and then use their hands to write, strike matches, and push buzzers. I have tried this neck trick once or twice myself, in a spirit of bravado, but I merely drop the phone, giving the impression on the other end of the wire that I have fainted, or been shot. My neck isn’t strong enough, or adhesive enough, I suppose. A deeply creased neck, with hundreds of tiny suckers in it, like the tentacles of an octopus, is what’s wanted.


  AS THE ONTARIO Hydro is suffering from what certain advertisements (not theirs) call “waning powers and general debility” I have to install a kerosene heater in one room of my house which I used to heat with electricity. This has brought to my notice the appalling rise in the price of kerosene since my boyhood. In those days everybody had a large can of the stuff in the woodshed, with a potato stuck on the spout, and if a stove was not burning satisfactorily you poured a gallon or two of kerosene on the flames. Women were burned bald, doing this, and children were consumed like little phoenixes (although they never rose again from their ashes) and even fathers of households were Called to Their Reward blazing like heretics in the fires of the Inquisition, and shrieking to be extinguished. But with the cost of kerosene nowadays only the very rich would be able to afford this form of spectacular demise.