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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 54

Robertson Davies

  So with all the fiery planets opposed to Uranus I am

  Yours sincerely,

  Samuel Marchbanks.


  THERE CAN BE no doubt that future historians will look upon this present age as an Age of Decline. True, it will have its glories, and may be referred to in histories of philosophy and humanism as the Age of Marchbanks, but it is scarcely possible for a single man to redeem a whole era. Today, for instance, I found myself in the company of several men of business, and they were boasting, which is no cause for surprise. But of what were they boasting? They were blowing, to my grief and astonishment, about the rate of Income Tax they paid. “Fifty per cent of all I make goes in Income Tax,” cried one. “Laughable pauper!” cried another, “I have paid sixty-five per cent for years!” “To the House of Refuge with you!” cried still a third, and revealed that he keeps only fifteen per cent of what he makes. When all men have left to be proud of is the poor moiety which the tax-gatherers leave them of their wealth, a greater decline than that of Imperial Rome is far advanced. Mark the words of Marchbanks the Prophet.


  (delivered by a Dove with an olive twig in its beak)

  To Big Chief Marchbanks:

  How, Marchbanks!

  Not out of jail yet, Marchbanks. This awful late Spring. No want freedom. Want jail. So when day come for let me out I kick Turkey awful hard when he inspecting beds. What for you kick me, he say. Seat your pants awful shiny, I say. Dazzle my eyes. Make me think sunrise. I kick for do Sun Dance. Ha, ha. Joke Marchbanks. Turkey get red neck. O, he say, funny fellow huh. Yes, I say. So he say I get no time off for good conduct and have to stay in jail another week. This good, Marchbanks. Maybe Spring in one more week. This awful snow remind me poem my grandmother Old Nokomis teach me.

  March winds

  And April showers

  Always a month late

  In this damn country of ours.

  Nokomis fine poet, eh Marchbanks?

  How again,

  Osceola Thunderbelly,

  Chief of the Crokinoles.57

  1 The Editor will attempt to identify, so far as possible, Marchbanks’ principal correspondents, where their relation to him is not immediately obvious. RICHARD DANDIPRAT, born in 1927 of obscure parentage and minimally educated, was at the time of his legal dispute with Marchbanks engaged in a paramedical capacity at the local hospital; he was, in fact, Chief Teller in the Sperm Bank. His job was always in hazard because of his objectionable habit of winking knowingly at any depositors at the Bank when he met them at parties and—far worse—nudging women who had appeared at the Withdrawals wicket, murmuring lewdly, “Anything doin’ yet, kid?” He was an incorrigible practical joker even in his domestic life and his wife was known to go home to her mother at least twice a month.

  2 MINERVA HAWSER, born 1887 (so far as anybody knows) was a maiden lady of Scottish antecedents, who entered Marchbanks’ life as a supply teacher for a few days when his regular teacher was ill; he was eight years old at the time. On this slight acquaintance she behaved as though she had taken out a lease on his time and energies for the remainder of one of their lives—probably his.

  3 It was as AMYAS PILGARLIC that Marchbanks concealed the identity of the Editor of these Works when first he published his Correspondence. If Pilgarlic appears as a dull pedant it was thus Marchbanks saw me, and if I wanted to make him appear as an overbearing mountebank in these pages it would be easy to do so, but I am too fine for such petty revenges.

  4 If Marchbanks appears in a harsh light in this letter it was certain that he knew the motto of the Hawser Clan—acted upon remorselessly by Miss Hawser herself—was Vexo (I pester).

  5 Mrs. KEDIJAH SCISSORBILL was another lady who, like Miss Hawser, had entered Marchbanks’ life when he was too young and innocent to defend himself. An ardent feminist, she was a zealous detector and denouncer of Harassment in the Workplace. (She always pronounced the word with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable, as HarASSment, giving it a sinister connotation, as though hinting at sodomy behind the filing cabinets.) Her unusual given name was chosen by her father Elihu Crossbite, when he was a prominent figure in the imported Arabian date trade; the name is that of the wife of the Prophet Mohammed. Kedijah married the prophet when she was forty, and fifteen years his senior. Despite a late start she bore him five children. Mrs. Scissorbill was founder and for many years Perpetual Chairperson of WAHIW (Women Against Harassment in the Workplace); a woman of unspotted virtue, she was never personally harassed. It was Marchbanks who pointed out to her that the word “person” in “Chairperson” was open to objection, as it implied someone slightly declassé; he proposed “Chaircreature,” the word “creature” being entirely neutral, and it was as a Chaircreature that Mrs. Scissorbill rose to a limited fame.

  6 Dandiprat was a singularly obtuse creature, or he would have realized that ethnic jokes, founded on the supposed comical characteristics of people other than Canadians, were falling into disfavour. The decline of the Ethnic Joke left funnymen with nothing to be funny about except Sex, with depressing result. Marchbanks, who was born in an era when sex was regarded as a private pleasure, like reading or drinking, has lived to see it become a public, vainglorious display, like jogging or dieting—even more discussed than practised.

  7 The meteoric career of HAUBERGEON HYDRA in the Canadian Civil Service is one of the wonders of the twentieth century. He might make an appearance in any Government Department. His stern application of all rules and regulations was the delight of his superiors, and the terror of such oppressed citizens as Marchbanks.

  8 Marchbanks has always been interested in murder and murderers, strictly as an amateur. John George Haigh, referred to here, was born in 1910 and in 1949 became notorious as the Acid Bath Murderer, and was dispatched by the hangman on August 10. He admitted to eight murders, the last being that of a sixty-nine year old widow, Olive Durand-Deacon. He had shot her through the neck and dissolved her body in a forty-gallon drum of sulphuric acid, except for an acrylic plastic denture by which what remained of her—described by the police as “sludge”—was identified. Haigh confessed blithely, saying, “Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. I’ve destroyed her with acid. You can’t prove murder without a body.” Haigh based his belief on a misunderstanding of the Latin phrase corpus delicti without which a criminal charge cannot be laid; he thought it meant the body of a dead person. But in Law Latin it means “evidence of the crime,” and the soup in the vat was damning evidence. Evidence, surely, of the stupidity of neglecting Latin studies in modern education.

  9 Of course this was before the present frankness which permits otherwise respectable newspapers to publish advertisements from people who want partners of all sorts—not invariably human—for amorous sport.

  10 As proof observe the spectacular success of the schoolgirl drama Daisy Pulls It Off by Denise Deegan, presented at the Globe Theatre, London on April 18, 1983 and still playing to full houses at the time of writing. In it the heroine, Daisy, wins a scholarship from her State school to a posh girls’ school where she meets with snobbish contempt until she exposes the Chief Snob as a rotten cheat, scores the goal that wins the Big Game for her school, solves the mystery of the Hidden Treasure (thereby saving the school from ruin) and discovers her long-lost father who is of aristocratic birth—so sucks to the girls who thought Daisy wasn’t of their class.

  11 At the time of writing Marchbanks is attempting to equate Canadian gratitude to the value of the Canadian dollar against its American equivalent. Thus “Thanks 74.3” or some similar wording hitched to the latest quotation would serve.

  12 Attempts had been made by friends of Dandiprat to soften Marchbanks’ heart by saying that Dandiprat came from a Broken Home. This was a tactical mistake, for Marchbanks gave a surly reply to the effect that he wasn’t at all surprised and supposed Dandiprat had broken it himself, having demonstrably been a malefactor from his mother’s womb. Cain similarly
gave a nasty twist to the Primal Family.

  13 Marchbanks is careless again. This operetta, The Village Coquettes, is to be found in the British Museum, from which an offprint was obtained and the work performed at the Christmas Gaudy at Massey College, in the University of Toronto, on December 13, 1970. If Marchbanks were not such a curmudgeon he would probably have received an invitation to be present. The operetta has some charming passages, owing to Hullah’s pleasing music, but Dickens’ libretto is wooden and his verse the work of a man determined to write verse rather than the effluxions of a true poet. Dickens, who longed for stage success, did not achieve it until after his death, with the production of Nicholas Nickleby by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1980 and later in New York to great acclaim.

  14 O yes, we can; it was nothing to what it is today, when smoking has been accorded the character-destroying, health-diminishing powers which were, in the nineteenth century, reserved for masturbation. But, Marchbanks has frequently demanded, what of the horrible effects wrought upon mind and body by cheap thinking and shallow reading, which poison the mind and bring about a foolish life, after which mere physical demise is barely discernible? But as Marchbanks has learned, if you attack Stupidity you attack an entrenched interest with friends in government and every walk of public life, and you will make small progress against it.

  15 May I modestly call attention to the prophetic nature of my comment? What about Ronald Reagan (b. 1911), hero of the ominously named film Accidents Will Happen (1938) and the even more ominously named Nine Lives Are Not Enough (1941), to say nothing of The Killers (1964)? Not since the Empress Theodora, who was the daughter of an animal trainer in a circus and had quite a career on the boards as a dancing girl and actress before her marriage to the Emperor Justinian in the year 523 and her elevation to joint authority with him in 527, has a member of the theatrical profession attained to such gaudy public honours.

  16 Anyone desiring to test the accuracy of this observation will find an effigy of Sir Oliver Mowat (1820–1903) in front of the Ontario Legislature’s main building. Neither an Apollo nor yet a fascinating grotesque, he stands there in all weathers, a typical Canadian statesman. The rendering of his spectacles, in bronze, has been much admired.

  17 The fascination of the character of OSCEOLA THUNDERBELLY is equalled only by that of another great Canadian Indian, known to fame as Grey Owl, who was in cold fact an Englishman named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (1888–1938); despite this accident of birth Belaney became the most famous Indian of his day, widely admired as an author and lecturer and exemplar of all that is finest in the Canadian native peoples. Thunderbelly, self-styled Chief of the Crokinoles, was also an Englishman, Algernon Moncrieff-Worthing, scion of a noble English house: he came to Canada suddenly after the breaking of the Oscar Wilde scandal in 1895. His family made him a very small remittance, and he eked out a leisured existence by assuming the guise of an Ignoble Red Man. Those who treated him with derision must not therefore be accused of racism or prejudice, because of course Thunderbelly was really a WASP, and thus a member of the only Canadian ethnic group which it is perfectly all right to abuse. Whereas Grey Owl said to his audiences, “You are tired with years of civilization. I come to offer you what … ? A single green leaf,” Thunderbelly often said to Marchbanks, “What the hell do you mean, civilization? I come to ask for what … ? A measly greenback.” Marchbanks, whose compassion for impostors was as boundless as his tongue was rough, never refused.

  18 Most embarrassing of all is that pretty plant sansevieria trifasciata, for if you identify it that way for your lady guests they will think you are a chauvinist pig, attempting to flatten them with Latin, but if you call it by its common name, which is Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (because of its extremely abrasive leaf) you will be lucky not to be snatched bald.

  19 The bitter fact is that harassment related to sex is a two-way street. The girl who is tormented by her boss (who is old enough to remember, and whistle, “Gimme a little kiss, Will ya, huh?” when he passes her desk) is partnered by her brother, who dreads the moments when the Vice-President, a woman, beckons him to accompany her into the stockroom. The results of this sort of thing are incalculable; a few days after the incident recorded above Marchbanks saw Teddy in the same ring of tormentors, who were chanting “Teddy’s got a boy-ee! Teddy’s got a boy-ee!” which made it clear that sexual harassment (or as Ms. Scissorbill prefers it, harASSment) had driven Teddy to adopt an Alternative Lifestyle.

  20 Hydra stole this idea and secured $25,000 for himself from his Minister in order to conduct a “feasibility study” which was in due course “laid before a committee” and like so many things that get laid, brought forth no fruit, which is sometimes just as well.

  21 The precise identity of Mrs. MORRIGAN cannot be determined. The name is that of the Great Queen of Celtic mythology, a woman of extraordinary sympathy and wisdom. Readers may consult mythological dictionaries or The White Goddess (1948) by Robert Graves for details. Who was Marchbanks’ Morrigan? A pretty problem for Ph.D. students in years to come, but beyond the present editor.

  22 Miss NANCY FRISGIG was Marchbanks’ god-daughter, with whom he maintained a happy relationship, sending her a birthday gift whenever he remembered. A revealing incident happened at Nancy’s christening, a very High Church affair where Marchbanks at a solemn moment was handed a candle by the clergyman, who said “Receive the light of truth.” “Ah, that it were so,” said Marchbanks, “but you must allow me my reservations as a determined Gnostic.” The parson, who was not accustomed to back-talk from the minor characters in the drama was further disconcerted by the infant Nancy, who was heard to laugh for the first time in her life. It was this and a thousand later laughs that made her very dear to Marchbanks.

  23 One of Marchbanks’ principal associations with the academic world was through his acquaintance with CHANDOS FRIBBLE, Ph.D. to the fourth power. Fribble was a Canadian example of that character familiar in Russian literature, the Perpetual Student; having achieved one Ph.D. he immediately set out on another, and as these projects can be extended to seven years he was, when Marchbanks first met him, already well-advanced in middle age. Student grants and Canada Council grants, though they do not provide an ample income, have about them a beautiful inevitability which endears them to the scholarly heart.

  24 No longer so; Lumbago, described as Lower Back Pain, is now a Status-Ailment, and to suffer from it is to be blessed with an unfailing excuse, and an unlimited source of anecdote and high-toned complaint.

  25 In the more advanced portions of society it is now freely admitted that the man who stays at home while the woman goes out to win the bread is not a Big Flabby Lout but the Jewel of the Harem, and must be cherished.

  26 This was written before the Stratford Shakespearean Festival brought new life and hope to the Canadian theatre. Since 1953 several provincial governments have caused to be erected gigantic structures suitable for monster conventions, political rallies and other such functions, and at one end of the auditorium there is a stage so huge that the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might be mounted on it, with the original cast; these are just as unsuitable for any rational drama as the midget stages of which Marchbanks complains.

  27 A stenographer was a woman who performed the duties now expected of an Executive Assistant, though unlike the EA the stenographer could frequently write shorthand and do neat typing. Many Executive Assistants, these days, seem to be drawn from the ranks of those who respond cheerfully to the advertisements that are seen in the subway, which read, “F u kn rd ths u kn gt a gd jb n rn bg mny.” It was not thus that Sir Isaac Pitman conceived of his system of phonology in 1837, nor yet John Robert Gregg his cursive shorthand in 1888. What happens if you gt a gd jb and your boss dictates a word like tetramethyldiamidobenzhydrols?

  28 In one important respect, however, Ottawa will not be confused with Moscow. Ottawa is, on a yearly average, colder and boasts the distinction of being the coldest capital city in th
e world. Scientists deny, however, that this is caused by the frost emanating from the Rideau Club.

  29 The Canadian Government has somewhat moderated its attitude toward authors since this was written, but Haubergeon Hydra is unshaken in his opinion that writing is not work unless it takes the form of a speech for the Minister or a feasibility study. The agonized solicitation of the imagination that is so familiar to poets and novelists is known to him and his kind only when they are looking for a place to impose a new tax. Perhaps for those who are not familiar with government phraseology it should be explained that a feasibility study is a document prepared at great cost and expenditure of time to enable a public or private body to do something they have decided to do anyhow, by showing that it is possible, which they knew to begin with. But it creates delay, and generates jobs, and is therefore dear to the business and bureaucratic heart.

  30 Several versions of Holy Writ are now available in mail-order catalogue prose, suitable for those who do not know what a shepherd is, or even what a sheep is, and who would change their butcher if he attempted to sell them veal from a fatted calf. When religion abandons poetic utterance it cuts its own throat.

  31 How many modern Christians would face even a middle-sized dog in defence of their faith?

  32 Frank Harris (1856–1931) was a greatly gifted but not wholly trustworthy writer and editor whose chief work, My Life and Loves (1925) remains a genuine eye-popper even in these days of demanding pornography.

  33 It may be that Canada’s day has come already, for during the 1984 visit of Her Majesty the Queen to this country the extreme dullness of its people was a matter of frequent comment in the British press, and Her Majesty was elaborately pitied by journalists (who normally seek to expose her to ridicule) for having to mix with such a pack of Airedales. We were said to be even duller than the Swiss, without the compensating factors of being very rich and self-preservative. We would be wise to accept this humbly. After all, are we to dispute the judgement of a nation that boasts the pulsing night-life of Tunbridge Wells or the fine-honed intellectual cut-and-thrust of a cocktail party in Peebles? No, let us develop our dullness so that when Hamlet’s father’s Ghost speaks of the dullness of the fat weed that rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, the thoughts of audiences everywhere fly to Canada and whispers are heard: “Compared with a Canadian that fat weed looks like a veritable Bob Hope!” To be world’s champion at anything, even dullness, is a form of distinction. Our real character—witty, ebullient, laughter-loving—doesn’t matter: it’s the publicity that counts.