Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

It’s June in January

Because I’m in love — )

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” Noel Coward. Place the quotation, Mr. Gilmartin. Private Lives. And how right he is. This gets to me as better stuff doesn’t. Because my feelings are cheap? No; because this is the voice of my genera­tion and all popular romanticism inclines toward cheapness, and I can’t expect to escape it. Not completely, or I’d be a prig. I know better, or think I do. When I want the music of romanticism I turn on the Big Boys and my elders think

If that’s not good enough for him

Which is good enough for me,

Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth

This kind of youth must be.

G & S. And very good stuff, too. A lot more wisdom in it than most people think. What’s that —

The pain that is all but a pleasure will change

For the pleasure that’s all but pain —

Nobody includes that in his Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor. But old “Q” has room for some stuff that isn’t nearly as close to the mark. I wish Frosty wouldn’t always call him “Q” as if he was an intimate friend. Doctor James Pliny Whitney Frost, the eminent poet and lecturer, Professor of Eng-Lang-and-Lit at Waverley Univer­sity. The personification of poetry and good taste, as pre­sented to the young. Never try a quote from Noel Coward on Frosty. Not a bad guy, if only he wasn’t so bloody impecca­ble. Give me old Jimmy King who will always be Number Two to Frosty because he Drinks. I’ve seen him Drinking right in this room. Dad keeps very good Scotch. . . .”I’m a teetotaller, but not a bigoted one, “Jimmy says, when his eyes are swimming, as if we’d never heard it before. I’m the pride and joy of both Frosty and Jimmy because I know how to write the kind of essays they like; impeccable for Frosty, and rather more peccable, but funnier, for Jimmy. I understand very well how to be a Pride and Joy to my teachers, and I play it to the hilt. But not a pride and joy to Dad and Mother. I’d have to be something other than a Grade A student of Eng-Lang-and-Lit to make the Grade A with them. I’d have to give up Julia. . . . Why does Mother hate her so? Because she does, though she’s all good manners and “graciousness” when I have the nerve to ask Julia here. That’s when Mother speaks with all her nineteenth-century clarity and correct­ness. It’s that ass Bidwell who keeps telling me that Mother is “gracious,” which he thinks is a very fine thing to say about an older woman. Bidwell: my rival in Eng-Lang-and-Lit, but he never quite tops me. Can’t, because, although he knows everything and has read everything, and reads Vir­ginia Woolf and gives papers about her to the English Club, he’s never had a real feeling in his life. Or if he has, he takes good care to keep it out of his essays. That time he made Frosty furious by hinting that there was something dicey about Tennyson’s friendship with Hallam — that was when the shit hit the fan!. . . “I’m not sure I fully understand what you are suggesting, Mr. Bidwell, but if what I dimly appre­hend is correct I must ask you never to make such a sugges­tion in this class again.” I knew better than anybody in the class what Bidwell was suggesting because he suggested it to me one warm spring night and I hope I was tactful in my refusal. Don’t want to hurt his feelings but No Thanks! . . . Bidwell knows all about Oscar Wilde, who must be handled with kid gloves, at Waverley in this year of grace. Bidwell has read about Wilde’s trial in the Notable British Trials series, which he wormed out of the Reserved Shelves in the library. But he didn’t know that the person who lured Wilde into those treacherous bypaths was a Canadian. Yes, Robert Ross, a member of one of our First Families. An odd footnote to Canada’s meagre association with Eng-Lang-and-Lit, but this is an odd country. Wilde, betrayed by those errand boys and out-of-work valets. Why didn’t he see through them?

An habitation giddy and unsure

Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.

Place the quotation, Mr. Gilmartin. Yes sir. Henry IV, Part 2. Do you think it means that Shakespeare was a snob, Mr. G? Not necessarily, Professor JPWF. Maybe it just means that Shakespeare knew his onions, and how many beans made five and a few things like that. Anyway, snobs aren’t always wrong. Q: Are you a snob, Mr. G? A: From time to time, sir, as occasion serves and the situation demands, like yourself and the rest of us. . . . There’s nobody who doesn’t hold himself superior to somebody is there, sir? We academic snobs, now. Not that I class myself with you, sir, but I am beginning to see people in terms of what they know about Eng-Lang-and-Lit. That isn’t easy. . . . My mother, now, thinks Thomas Hardy is the bee’s knees and the feline’s slumberwear, but I notice that she turns to Les Misérables and tonight she was reading St. Elmo which must surely hold some sort of award for the Most Awful Novel. What am I to make of that? There is no accounting for tastes, to which Aunt Min invariably adds, “as the old woman said when she kissed the cow.” And my father, who reads P. G. Wodehouse over and over again, and then stuns me by coming out with a scrap of Ossian that he learned at his mother’s knee. I’ve never read Ossian, though I suppose I ought to take a peep, some time. . . . What did I learn at my mother’s knee? Swiss Family Robinson, which isn’t too bad, and The Water Babies, which bears the Prof JPWF Stamp of Approval as genuine Eng-Lang-and-Lit and which must also be one of the beastliest, most finger-wagging books ever written for children even by a Low Church parson, but also Sammy and Susie Littletail and Bunny Fluffkins’ Birthday Party, which aren’t any kind of Lit. . . . Q: Has anybody, possibly excepting you, sir, Prof JPWF, ever been brought up on a strict diet of the Best That Has Been Thought and Said? We all need to take aboard a certain amount of rubbish to keep us human (again except­ing you, Prof). Like “It’s June in January,” so let’s have it again, shall we? Would it surprise you to learn, Prof, that I grew up on a heavy diet of the comic strips — yes, the de­spised Funny Papers — and that I still gobble quite a few of them every day? Mutt and Jeff has provided me with many a treasured phrase.”Such ignorance is indeed refreshing,” says Mutt, when Jeff has insisted on spelling Eugene with a U. And Jeff says, “Mutt will throw a jealous fit,” when he has himself engaged the affections of that fair enslaver, Miss Klutz. And “Insect!” and “Lowbrow!” as Maggie says when she beans Jiggs with the rolling-pin. I have to have this stuff as the drug addict has to have his snort. It keeps me from sinking under the sheer weight of excellence, of aspira­tion, of insight, of transcendent beauty, which is Eng-Lang-and-Lit. The mind can only endure so much grandeur. Or my mind, anyhow. Obviously not yours, Prof. . . . Q: Tell me Prof, how in God’s name did you come to be saddled with the name of James Pliny Whitney?. . . Not that JPW was inconsiderable. By no means. He was no slouch, and his finest achievement was to bring Niagara Falls right into everybody’s room, like Love in Bloom, twinkling and shuddering into a glass bulb with a tiny prickle on the end. Yes, our never-sufficiently-to-be-praised Hydro Electric Power System sprang from the loins — pardon the seeming indelicacy, Prof — of James Pliny Whitney. . . . Q: Was that it? Did your parents foresee in a vision, when you were still snoozing in the womb, that you would bring another kind of light into the lives of Young Canada? The Light of Eng-Lang-and-Lit? The light that never was on sea or land until chaps like you channelled it down into a thousand shimmer­ing, shuddering light-bulbs like me, to say nothing of an infinitely greater number of dim bulbs, fit only for the clothes closets and the boarding-house-back-halls of academia? And all with our little prickle at the bottom, for piercing and deflating people who question our authority, as you yourself so efficiently do, Prof? Ah yes, I see it now. Your name, James Pliny Whitney Frost, is one of those splendid puns that life delights in and that only a few people see. People like me. . . .”June in January” has ceased to feed my melancholy. So what now? “Love in Bloom”?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson