Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

THE YO-YO / A child of my acquaintance was displaying her skill with the yo-yo for my benefit. She did the Elevator trick, Spank the Baby, Walk the Dog, Round the World, and the whole repertoire. I borrowed her yo-yo and attempted to recapture the skill of my younger days; as I never had any skill whatever with a yo-yo, I suppose I may say that I did so. The truth is, I was a great theorist of the yo-yo, but a poor practitioner. I could explain what made a yo-yo work, but could not persuade one to work for me. I read all the available literature on the subject; Art du Yo-Yo, by Charles Marchand, Der Yoyokunst and Die Yoyoweltanschauung, by Dr. Hermann Wurst, and The Lives of a Bengal Yoyoist, by Sir Roger Rattlebotham. I formed a collection of historic yo-yos and gave it to the Royal Ontario Museum which promptly put it in the basement. But I could never work a yo-yo. It demands the kind of skill shown by people who can play cat’s cradle, and fold pieces of paper into lifelike birds. The mystical relationship between the yoyoist and his yo-yo, which enables him to call forth the best from the apparently inanimate object, is one of the miracles of the world of Unimportant Things.

From My Files

To Genghis Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Cousin Genghis:

I don’t understand what all this fuss over Einstein’s theory is about, or why so many people think it hard to understand. It seems to me that it is merely a statement in mathematical terms of what you and I and a number of thoughtful people have known all our lives — that there are a lot of funny things in the universe, and that they are all hitched up in some incomprehensible way to a central Funny Thing, and that you never really know where you are about anything. You remember Mr. Curdle in Nicholas Nickleby, who talked about “a completeness — a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time — a sort of general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression”; that sums it up perfectly. Those Indian fellows who sit with their legs curled up and say they don’t want to go anywhere because every place is just the same as every other place have the right idea, but they lack the insight into the matter which is possessed by such great mystics as ourselves. We are quite happy to go anywhere and do anything, because it is all the same, at bottom. All that Einstein has done is to express this in a somewhat different way.

Yours cosmically,



To Raymond Cataplasm, M.D., F.B.C.P.

Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

My memory, which as you know has never been my best feature, is rapidly growing worse. Is there some sort of degenerative disease of the brain which makes people forget things? If there is not, you can ensure yourself of a great place in medical history by discovering it. If you are going to discover it in me, I insist that it be called Marchbanks’ Malady; if you use some inferior specimen you can call it Cataplasm’s Spasm.

The chief symptom is a kind of seizing up of the intellect when I try to recall a name, or a bit of information; I can distinctly feel my brain contract, like a snail that has been given an electric shock; sometimes this happens in the middle of a sentence, and I forget what I was going to say, and even forget to close my mouth for some time afterward. A secondary symptom is my tendency to go upstairs for something, and bring down something else, making another trip necessary.

Do you think that anything can be done about this? I see that the insane are sometimes treated by chopping out a piece of brain: do you think it would help to open my skull and give my brain a refreshing whisk with a toothbrush?

Your perennial patient,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat.

Dear Mouseman:

Get busy at once and apply for a patent on the greatest of my inventions — the Marchbanks Alert Mask for the Weary Face.

Thumbing through a magazine yesterday, I came upon an advertisement for a rubber mask which, pulled over the face, makes the wearer look like Boris Karloff in his role as Frankenstein’s Monster. A toy, Mouseman: a trifle meant to enliven an evening party. But it touched off an explosion in my mind. Why not a rubber mask which makes the wearer look like himself — yet not himself as he usually appears, but himself at his best — alert, kindly, intelligent and yet also non-committal and reserved?

Think what a boon this would be to judges on the bench, newspaper editors, psychiatrists, university tutors, and others who have to spend hours every day listening to tales of woe, boring accounts of boring events, and threshing of old straw in general. Under the mask the wearer could relax, allowing his jaw to slacken, his lips to curl, his cheeks to slump and his dewlap to throb like a frog’s, while to the observer he would seem a model of solicitous goodwill.

This will crown my career as an inventor and philanthropist. You may have stock in it to cover the amount of your bill, thus getting in on the ground floor.

Yours triumphantly,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

You know where I stand on dogs: I am not a person in whose life Man’s Dumb Chum has played a leading role. But a day or so ago I had to attend a dog show, and as I watched the eager crowd I was visited, for perhaps the fiftieth time in my life, by the reflection that if people had to meet the rigorous standards of physical appearance which are set for dogs and other show animals it would go hardly with most of us.

The judges at the show, for instance, would have cut poor figures if the dogs had been judging them. The most important of them had a really shocking head — coarse muzzle, apple-domed skull and, so far as could be seen, a poor coat. The other judge had a narrow, splayed front, a snipey muzzle, and ears set far too high. The third judge was a woman and, though I hate to say it, a poor mover, being cow-hocked and badly spaced between her shoulders, hips and stifles. None of the judges had a bright eye nor, I should say, an affectionate nature. They did not answer readily to words of command, and showed a strong tendency to turn right when it was necessary for them to turn left. Poor creatures, useless for breeding; it would have been better to drown them as puppies.

Have you observed that a miserable-looking dog is regarded, quite rightly, as a poor-spirited creature, probably in need of worming, whereas a miserable-looking man is usually taken to be a philosopher, or at the very least, an economist? There is food for profound reflection in this.




To Raymond Cataplasm, M.D., F.R.C.P.

Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

May I ask you, as a psychologist, to explain something which I observed recently at a wedding where I was a guest. At the wedding breakfast the centre of attraction was a huge cake upon the topmost tier of which stood little effigies of a bride and groom, made (I suppose) of sugar. After the cake had been cut and slabs of it had been distributed among the guests, it came the turn of the happy pair to partake. The groom offered the bride a piece of cake on a plate, but she shook her head, smiling a secret smile. And then this girl, who for weeks had been as meek as Moses, plucked the sugar groom from the top of the cake, crunched it up in her strong white teeth, and swallowed it at a gulp.

Please, Dr. Cataplasm, what does this mean?

Your inquisitive patient,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Mrs. Morrigan.

My very dear Mrs. Morrigan:

Because, for many years, there has been confusion in the popular mind regarding the terms which are used to describe periods of sleep which are enjoyed with the clothes on, I have prepared the following definitions, which I am sending to the editors of the Great Oxford Dictionary. I thought that you might like to see them, my dear friend:

1. nod: a “nod” is any brief period of informal sleep, enjoyed without benefit of bed. e.g. “I had a nod in my chair.”

2. doze: a “doze” is a nod which one takes when one should not — as for instance when somebody important is talking, e.g. “I was just dozing — I heard every word you said.”

3. snooze: a “snooze” is an extended nod, accompanied by sound effects, gagging on accumulations of spittle, murmuring, moaning, neighing, bad dreams, and being cross when one wakes up. e.g. “Sh! Grandpapa is having his snooze.”

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