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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 39

Robertson Davies


  I LISTENED TO some people discussing an absent friend this afternoon, and as always on such occasions, they were much franker than if the friend had been within earshot. He was, they agreed, sadly given to self-pity; they seemed to regard this as a grave defect. I wonder why people are so down on self-pity? It is a cheap, agreeable amusement, requiring no elaborate equipment, like golf or polo. It imparts a pleasing melancholy to the countenance and a note of gentle charm to the voice. Most people despise self-pity in others because it makes them slightly uncomfortable, which is a selfish reason for disapproving of anything. But I have always found that there is nothing like a good wallow in self-pity when my spirits are low, and I do not grudge to others an indulgence which has given me so much harmless pleasure.


  I WAS INVEIGLED yesterday to help a friend stretch some new canvas over the frame of a chair. I should have more sense than to get myself involved in tasks which lie beyond the limits which Nature has set upon my capabilities, but I never learn wisdom. We fastened the canvas on, and of course there was a bubble in it, so we chased the bubble up and down for an hour, pulling out nails and knocking them in again and getting them crooked and smashing our thumbs and growing very ill-tempered. To soothe our nerves we ate most of a heart-shaped box of salted nuts which he had given his wife as a Valentine; prohibitionists talk about the devilish hold which Demon Rum takes on its devotees, but it is a trifle compared with thralldom to the salted nut. We both tied on a sizable nut bun, and the whites of our eyes were turning yellow before midnight.


  EARLIER THIS EVENING I joined in a discussion as to whether hanging is not to be preferred to life imprisonment; they all thought it was, particularly the ladies. But I am not so sure. Life is sweet, even when it is confined, and I am sure that if I were imprisoned for life I could, by various winning ways, get myself a soft job in the penitentiary library, or as the Warden’s chef, and contrive quite a pleasant existence. I would tell the warders funny stories, and suck up to the Chaplain so that he would let me play the organ on Sundays, and become the Prison Pet. In time I would be a “trusty,” perhaps even a stool-pigeon, and in the kingdom of the mind I should roam freely. So much for prison. But what of hanging? The trap drops, down I go, and then—? No, no; not for Marchbanks. Social security and a nice cell for him, every time.


  I WAS READING that great Canadian classic, Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders,4 to some children today. I had forgotten what a grisly book it is. Cruelty, drunkenness and meanness abound in it, which accounts for its popularity with the young, who love cheap sensationalism. But, oh how good the good people in it are! In one chapter a poor sailor boy, who owns a parrot, confesses to a clergyman that he calls his pet “Beelzebub.” This flummoxes the parson, and one of the parson’s little boys “turned away with his face a deep scarlet, and walked to the window murmuring ‘Beelzebub, Prince of Devils.’ ” How the child got this notion I do not know; an adherent of some church with a very loose theology, no doubt, for when I went to Sunday School “Beelzebub” meant “Prince of Flies,” and was considered a very third-rate sort of devil…. In modern children’s books no boy ever flushes a deep scarlet; they are too dumb. The heroes and heroines of modern children’s books are all feeble-minded…. But the good clergyman persuaded the sailor boy to rename his parrot “Bella,” thus whitewashing it. I never knew but one parrot, which was called “Stinker,” for the best of reasons. It lived in a pub.


  THAT GENTLEMEN over there, whom I met just before dinner, remonstrated with me about my careless statement, hastily thrown into the conversation, that Thackeray drank 1,500 bottles of wine a year; the correct figure, he said, was 500. This seems very likely, and I attribute my use of the larger figure to the rich generosity of my nature. I have never been good at remembering figures and statistics depress me. When I was a schoolboy I was the despair of the teachers of mathematics, and since my escape from the education-mills I have had as little as possible to do with their dismal mystery. When I have to estimate a yard of anything I do it by stretching whatever it is from the tip of my nose to the end of my outflung arm; when I have to estimate heights, I mentally judge how many times I could lie at full length in the distance to be measured. These are not the methods of an Isaac Newton, but they suffice for my humble needs. I live a non-mathematical life, full of uncertainty, unreason and delicious surmise.5


  I VISITED A famous Toronto confectioner’s this afternoon and found all the salesgirls wearing their coats and shivering with cold. One large window was out and was being replaced with a new sheet of plate glass. It appears that last night two men had an argument in front of the shop and one of them was thrown through the window, wrecking the pane and bringing about the ruin of two dozen Maids of Honour. Outside a young man walked by with his arm in a sling. “That’s the fellow who was hurt the other day by the young girl,” said one of the coated waitresses, but did not say how, or why. What violent creatures these Torontonians are! What passions smoulder beneath those flat bosoms, what rage lurks behind those lack-lustre eyes! There is a Sicilian strain in the people of Toronto, ready at any moment to shatter their exterior of blancmange-like calm.


  LAST WEEKEND I went to Kingston, to attend the Eastern Ontario Drama Festival. All these festivals have many factors in common. The small people are always seated behind the big people, and even the biggest people are apt to find themselves behind middle-sized people who have fuzzy hair or are wearing huge hats; the proportion of coughers in every festival is constant, and they whoop up the rags of their lungs with the same revolting relish year after year; the pictures of theological professors on the wall are as disapproving as ever, though as their paint fades they become more remote from the scene; the actors, whether they are playing earls or garbage men, are all linked in the same conspiracy never, under any circumstances, to polish their shoes; doors which opened inward at dress rehearsals show a baffling tendency to open outward at performances; and, among the audience, blood lust against the adjudicator rises hour by hour, as he probes the sore spots, the malformations and the tuberculous lumps of each festival offering with a pitiless finger. It is all fascinating but painful, and in Spain where the bullfight is enjoyed, drama festivals are strictly forbidden as inhumane.

  I found time in the midst of the festival to make a hospital visit, and had a chance to observe several interns, while cooling my heels in the halls. In the movies, whenever Gregory Gable or Clark Peck pretends to be an intern, he wears a beautifully fitted white suit which shows his hairy forearms (and if a nurse had wool like that on her arms she would be thrown out of the profession as unsanitary, but never mind that) and swathes his neck in a roundabout collar which gives him a fetchingly clerical look. But in real life interns tend to be fellows with no chests, and their pants have been so shrunk by the laundry that they walk as though they were being sawn in two, which is probably the case.

  A play about Irishmen, written by a man with a German name, engaged the attention of the festival-goers at a matinee. It made a liberal—not to say prodigal—use of a peculiar type of speech never heard in Ireland, or anywhere but in such plays as this. In this play, if one character said “Good morning” to another, he was likely to get some such answer as this: “Houly St. Pathrick, Barney O’Lunacy, sure and bedad ’tis yerself is just afther kissin’ the Blarney Stone, at all, at all!” I rather like plays in which pretty girls confess their readiness to be loved by anybody at all, and in which old Irishmen cry into red handkerchiefs without any apparent reason, and in which policemen are much wittier than they ever are in real life—but I cannot bear these things when expressed in phoney Irish dialect. If I have to listen to more than one act of such stuff,
sure an’ ’tis meself is the boyo that’s after throwin’ up in the aisle. So I crept from the scene, and refreshed myself by listening to a couple of real Irishmen who were digging a hole in the street nearby, and who conversed solely in grunts.


  I AM ALARMED by the increase of special “weeks.” “Eat an Apple Week,” “Immunization Week,” “Education Week,” “Sterilization Week,” “Swat the Fly Week,” “False Teeth for Pensioners Week”—there is no end to them. Every seven-day stretch is two or three “weeks.” There was a time when the Holy Church suffered from so many saints’ days that nobody was able to observe them all and do any work as well, and a calendar had to be arranged with a very few important saints who got a whole day to themselves, while the remainder were taken care of on All Saints’ Day, November 1. I recommend that an All Weeks’ Week be decided upon, and that every form of enthusiasm be given free rein while it is in progress. But once it is over there must be no “weeks” at all.


  AN ENVELOPE full of tracts came for me in the mail this morning. Tracts always ask foolish questions. “Are you on the way to Heaven?” said one of these. “Are you prepared to meet God?” said another. “Are you prepared for Eternity?” asked a third. “Are you going to a Christless grave?” enquired the last of the bunch. Really, I do not know the answers to these questions, and I doubt the ability of whoever writes the shaky English grammar of these tracts to answer them for me. I am not even prepared to meet Professor Einstein or Bertrand Russell; why should I vain-gloriously assume that God would find me interesting? And I really cannot claim to be prepared for Eternity when I have so many doubts about today. I wish that whatever God-intoxicated pinhead directs these inquiries to me would cease and desist. In the struggle of the Alone toward the Alone, I do not like to be jostled.


  AN OPPORTUNITY presented itself to play a reed organ, or “parlour” organ this afternoon, and I seized it eagerly, for it is many years since I had a whack at such an instrument. Really it is not more than a gigantic mouth-organ, blown by foot power. And what foot power! It is popularly believed that our grandmothers were unathletic, but no girl who operated a parlour organ lacked exercise, pumping with her feet, clawing at the Vox Humana and Celeste stops with her hands and wagging her head to keep time. But the parlour organ went out when short skirts came in. Many a young fellow of the nineties, charmed by his girl’s command of her organ, married her, only to discover on his wedding night that she had legs like an eight-day bicycle racer—the result of furious pedalling. When skirts were raised, the jig was up.


  I HEARD LAST evening about a physical fitness test which was used in the Air Force, called the Harvard Step Test. Here it is: step on and off an ordinary kitchen chair once every second for three minutes. If, by the end of that time you have not dropped dead, your physical condition is satisfactory, and you probably will not drop dead until tomorrow. As soon as I heard of this I was agog to try it, and lasted splendidly for about twenty seconds; then I heard a sound in my ears like the boiling of a cauldron of maple sap, and I decided to sit down and accept a cool drink. The only physical exercise at which I really excel is walking downstairs.

  Many people complain to me that the world has become degenerate, and that we now rely on mechanical entertainments, instead of making our own fun. This is not true in one aspect of life, at least; nowadays we all make our own wrong numbers. There was a time, before the dial phone, when we relied on the operators at “Central” to get wrong numbers for us, and very good at it they were, too. But now we do it all by ourselves; somebody hoiked me out of bed at 7:10 this morning absolutely unaided…. Those “Central” girls developed wonderful voices and stupefying accents. One lifted the receiver from the hook. “Nubbaw?” said a voice. “9999,” one said. “Nyun, nyun, nyun, nyun,” said the voice, and after a few clicks one was talking to 9989, who had got out of his deathbed to answer the ring. Effete, dependent old days!

  • A TREND? •

  I AM DEEPLY interested in a news dispatch from South Africa which tells of twin girls who suddenly became boys. I want to know more about this. Was the change the result of deep emotion generated by the Royal visit? What are the feelings of the girls with whom, until now, they mixed on terms of girlish intimacy? Is there any sign of a trend toward this sort of thing in the Sister Dominion? Have bearded Boer farmers begun to look speculatively at their reflections in the glass, wondering how they would look in one of those saucy Voortrekker bonnets? Canada is outclassed now. All we can show is a set of Quintuplets when our King visits us, but in South Africa they are ambisextrous.

  Personally I like being a man, and I can face with stoicism the possibility of becoming a woman, but I dread the intermediate period, during which I should be an It, tossed hither and thither on the turbulent seas of irreconcilable ambitions.


  I TALKED TO a man this morning who is financially interested in Ontario wines. I asked him why they were no better than they are, and he replied by telling me of the extreme care and cleanliness shown in manufacturing them. “But that’s just the trouble,” I said; “you make wine as though it were a disinfectant. In the wineries of France they concentrate on flavour, and not on cleanliness, and as a result they produce great wines; wine must be made by vintners, not by analytical chemists. Wine and cheese are two things which cannot be made under laboratory conditions if they are to be good. It is better for the connoisseur not to poke his nose into the cheese factory or the winery. Cleanliness is the bugbear of this continent, and too much is sacrificed to it.” He goggled a bit, and then said that he didn’t know anything about it; he was a rye drinker himself. Oh, for a glass of real wine from grapes pressed by the feet of joyous, pleasure-loving Ontario farmers.


  I ARGUED TODAY with the most illogical opponent I have met in a long time. For my part, I can argue quite logically when it suits me, having been trained to it at my school, where there were a number of clever young English masters who supervised our boyish wrangles. “That’s an argumentum ad hominem, Marchbanks,” they would cry, when I was buttering up my opponent before giving him a verbal K.O. Or they would shriek, “Tu quoque!” when I sought to unnerve my rival by shouting “The same to you, with knobs on!” at him, hoping to make him lose his temper. They were also very critical of something called “an undistributed middle” which I apparently made use of when I was being particularly foxy. Under their tutelage I learned the useful art of logic, which permits me to hold my opponent very closely to the rules, while pulling a dialectical fast one on him whenever I can. But when I argue with someone who scorns logic, and even reason, I have to depend on my talent for abuse if I hope to win.


  AT CHRISTMAS someone gave me some Russian cigarettes, wrapped in black paper and with elegant gold tips. From time to time I smoke one, enjoying a deep sense of sin as I do so. Thus it is to have been brought up in a household of Continuing Presbyterians; when others wallow happily in the flesh-pots I gather up the skirts of my immortal soul and dabble my feet timidly over the brink…. I shovelled a lot of heavy snow this afternoon, which caused a great lethargy to come upon me. But I revived myself with a glass of sherry, which made me so hungry that I ate a huge tea, after which I could do nothing but loll by the fire and yawn until it was time to come here. Physical activity of any kind is my downfall; in order to keep my brain working and my productiveness at its height, I should be carried everywhere in a chair, like a Chinese mandarin.


  THERE WAS A time when I took a modest pride in my handwriting; of late years it has degenerated into a scrawl. This probably means that my moral stature is increasing, for I have observed that beautiful writers are usually uncommonly wicked men. One of the most e
xquisite writers who ever lived was Casanova, and everybody knows that he was a fellow you wouldn’t trust even with your old Aunt Bessie; another impeccable master of the cursive hand was Poggio, who used it chiefly to write down dirty stories about the clergy. Of late years I have grown so moral that I am becoming dull company for myself, and it is my invariable habit to remove my hat to all wearers of back-to-front collars. Result: I can hardly read my own notes.6


  I ATTENDED A committee meeting this afternoon to decide certain matters bearing upon the public weal, and tried to look serious for three hours and a half. As I am incapable of concentrating on any single theme for more than an hour at a time, this was a strain on my histrionic powers. My imagination wandered; I thought about what I would do if I had a lot of money, what I would do if I were wrecked on a desert island with Joan Fontaine, and what I would do if I were a woodcarver of the genius of Grinling Gibbons. I drew funny faces on the paper which had been given to me for the purpose of making serious notes. I wondered what would happen if an evil fairy were to sneak into the room through the keyhole and strike us all stark naked. I wondered if I would be able to eat a woolly old Life Saver which I found in my pocket with my keys, without being rebuked by the Chair. It is useless to put me on committees: I have an incorrigibly frivolous and vacillating mind.


  I WENT TO SEE Donald Wolfit in Ben Jonson’s Volpone last evening, and liked it much better than I liked Lear last week; the company seemed more suited to the satirical work. This play is all about avarice, and was a delightful change from most modern plays which are all about love. But avarice, as a vice, seems to have gone out of fashion. Nobody is miserly in the grand manner nowadays. Of course, following the trend of the times, the State has taken over avarice, and for genuine grasping, grinding, scrunching, scraping meanness and extortion it surpasses immeasurably all miserliness based on individual whim. In fact, I think it would pay the Income Tax Payers’ Association to engage Mr. Wolfit and his company to stage a special performance of Volpone and give free seats to the Government, the deputy ministers, and the heads of all bureaux and boards at Ottawa as a lesson in avarice punished…. The genius of Jonson never fails to astonish and refresh me. What a torrent of golden words! And what a magnificent detestation of cant and folly.