Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

And like an angel bending down above you

To breathe into your ear

“I love you.

I love you.”

I’m getting silly. More of this and I’ll be crying and nobody would ever understand why. Bed, now.

“Min, bring my hot milk upstairs in about five minutes, will you? No thanks, I can manage the stairs alone.”


I shrink from watching this film; it is deeply embarrassing. Getting painfully near the knuckle. The Loyalists fleeing to Canada and the gradual rot after that great expenditure of spirit. Yes. The hegira from Dinas Mawddwy to Trallwm and the rise and fall of a Metho­dist family. Yes. But this — that young man who seems to be reading The Faerie Queen but is really stewing in his own juice, like the other three, is my father and I don’t want to know about his involvement with anyone called Julia. My mother’s name was Nuala — Nuala Connor from Dublin, a female aca­demic and a cool but kindly and sufficient mother. There was no extreme heat between my parents. Sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, I would reckon it. The heat in the library at St. Helen’s — the palpable, real heat — must be well over eighty F. and the psychological heat is just below boiling — a slow simmer. But I cannot escape the film.

Can it be called a film, this extraordinary evocation of things that go far beyond the photographable, physical pres­ence of these people? This film that gives the truth of temper­ature, of smell, of the sense of physical sickness that hangs about my grandmother and spreads through the room, of the subhuman life of the dog Janie who can know nothing of the complexities around her but, as dogs do, absorbs them all and makes them manifest in her somnolence, feebleness and glut­tony; Janie is sick with the life of that house.

The technique of the film is advanced beyond anything I ever saw in my days of life as a film critic. The screen divides and shows many images, or a number of contrasted images that comment upon one another, or swells to one monstrous and frightening close-up; the colour ranges from the dim sepia in which the sad life of Min is seen to the rich Caravaggio palette of my frustrated, imaginative grandmother. This is a film that reaches all the senses including smell. Smell — which our age has made the least acceptable of the five, but which rouses emotion with a painful immediacy. We are not supposed to smell people, and millions of dollars are spent on various devices to kill human smell, either at its source, or in the nose of the proximate companion. But to the aroused, the truly curious, the enchanted or the enchained, is there any better revealer of truth than a smell? As now, when a smell of health, soap, bay rum, and expensive clothes assails me, and I know it is my grandfather.


RHODRI: (The music which supports his thoughts is from a musical comedy of the twenties, called Lady Mary; the voice of Herbert Mundin, a comedian of the day, is heard:

What do the Yanks know of England

Who know not Austin Reed?

They may have the dollars

But they buy their shirts and collars

From the Boys of the Bulldog Breed.

He is rereading, for the sixth time, a story by Wodehouse in which Bertie Wooster reflects on his one-time love for Cynthia, “a dashed pretty and attractive girl, mind you, but full of ideals and all that. I may be wronging her, but I have an idea that she’s the sort of girl who would want a fellow to carve out a career and what not.”)

Carving out a career. That’s what I’ve done, I suppose. But what a release to read about somebody who had no need to do it, and not the slightest intention of trying. What a holiday to read about people who have no real problems, who are not chained to day-to-day, year-to-year obligations. What a sat­isfaction to read about aristocrats whose chief concerns are growing flowers, or prize pigs, or simply having a good time. What do the Yanks know of England? What do the Canadi­ans know of England? Come to that, what does P.G. Wode­house know of England? Because this isn’t England, it is a fairy-tale land, an England that never was. Brocky tells me that somebody has said that Wodehouse’s stories are musical comedies without music. That’s their charm for me. That, and the magic of the language. Escape from reality. And what’s wrong with that? Haven’t I had plenty of reality? Or what people call reality, which always seems to mean something nasty? I took on reality when the Pater announced that we were emigrating to Canada. (Music changes to “Yn iach i ti, Cymru,” a farewell to Wales.) Lance and me first, to spy out the land, he said, but in reality I suppose to be spared the final misery of selling up the shop, and the furniture, paying debts — he paid every penny, good man — putting up the shut­ters and leaving the place he loved. But I seized on one reality, and that was that twelve pence made a shilling and twenty shillings made a pound, and an extra shilling made a guinea. Where did I learn that? Is a sense of money inborn? The Pater had none. Uncle David certainly had none, though he had the craftiness to marry Mary Evans the Angel, who had money. Grandfather had a sense of money, but not enough sense of how to hang on to it. Backing that debt for Thomas! Couldn’t he sniff that Llewellyn Thomas was unsound, if not actually a crook? Sanctimonious old twister! Religion was like a drug to those people. It could blind them to anything. A great day for me when I put it aside. Yes, put it aside without giving up the outward forms, because it would have grieved the Mater if she thought I wasn’t a Methodist from my crown to my soles. Was it hypocrisy? Hypocrisy is a necessity if life is to be endured. All hypocrites: some hypocrites for God’s sake. The Mater. The finest woman I’ve ever known. The last time I met Lance, when I went to his sixty-fifth birthday party, he said, “Rhod, our Mater was the dearest and best” — then he wept. So did I. Her prayers were what saved our skins in this awful country. (The music changes to “Do Something for Somebody Quick.”) That was a silly song, but she wasn’t a silly woman. Every night in that awful first year, before a poor supper she made us all kneel, and she would pray — the Pater couldn’t pray, he was too low in his mind to pray aloud — that God would bless us in the new land. Which He did. No getting away from it. That night in December, when Lance was late for supper and for prayers, and he suddenly burst in and interrupted the prayer — which showed how overwhelm­ingly important it was — saying, “Pater, there’s a sign on the door at the Plough and Harvester saying they want an accountant,” and the Pater jumped up in mid-prayer and ran out, and came back later to say that he’d just caught Mr. Knowles as he was locking the door, and landed the job. Knowles told him to take down the sign and be there at eight in the morning. I suppose he was impressed by the Pater’s good speech and honest look. A great night for us, that was. The Mater didn’t actually say that God had answered our prayers, but we didn’t need to be told. Even I believed it. And from that day we never wanted. The Pater was accountant in that factory till the day he died. It was below his abilities, but it was a job, and he never knew how to capitalize on his abilities. That deathbed promise to his mother. His ruin, in a way. I’ll never forget the moment Lance broke into the Mater’s prayers with that promising news. Has my career been evidence of God’s goodness? Or luck? Or my way of capitalizing on my abilities? Nobody can say, but I know what the Mater would have said. . . . A little intelligent hypocrisy might have saved the Pater. Too good. Excess in virtue can be ruinous. . . . Those awful first days on the job. The men at The Courier used to tease the life out of me.”Rhod, is that woman that wears the dog-muzzle really your mother? What’s wrong with her? Does she bite? Is that why you left the Old Country? She bit somebody?” I couldn’t mention it at home. I couldn’t ask her not to wear that damned wire cage over her mouth and nose when she went out-of-doors. Packed with some sort of mentholated wool that she was sure was a protection against the Canadian cold, and a certain remedy against her asthma. She never thought it made her look strange. To make fun of a boy’s mother! They were a rough lot. It hurt me in a special way. An intrusion into my deepest feelings. My home. . . . The Pater, too. That ad he made me put in the Courier:

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Categories: Davies, Robertson