Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

From My Correspondance

To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

I am impressed by the huge new banks which have either been built, or are now in the process of building, in the fair city of Toronto. As the towers of cathedrals in the Middle Ages were thought to point the way to heaven, these vast temples of commerce obviously stretch themselves toward the clouds as symbols of unimaginable wealth. And how typically Canadian these huge bank buildings are! They have a kind of stony austerity about them, and a frowning, tight-lipped expression around their doors, which strongly suggests our national attitude toward the really important things of life, such as money.

But their modern sculpture displeases me. The older bank facades were guarded by thick-waisted girls who contrived, though naked, to look unapproachable and No Fun, and by excessively muscular young men, who were tensed like young executives trying to Get Ahead. These creatures were all gods and goddesses in Banker’s Mythology, and the more important ones were easily identified:

FRIGIDIUS: a god usually represented with a beard and washboard muscles on his stomach; he is the deity of branch bank managers, and is always represented with a frown, like a manager refusing to lend $50 to a small business man.

AVARICIA: the goddess of thrift, and she is usually represented naked but unamusing, with a look in her stony eyes as though she could buy a fur coat, if she wanted to be silly, like other girls.

USURIUS: the god of compound interest and he is always represented with a thoughtful look, like a banker doing a sum in his head, and wondering whether he should check it on the calculating machine.

TRANSPIRIA: the goddess of professional secrecy. She usually has one hand over her open mouth, and looks as though she were hinting to a Government Loan salesman that there is a farmer out in the county with $5,000 in cash in a coffee can under the pigsty floor, and that his wife has $800 of egg money in a Savings Account.

BAROMETRUS: the god of Future Security, and he is represented seated, gazing into the future, like a bank president trying to guess whether the credit companies will cut into his business much more during the coming year. Now and again one sees a representation of a young man chasing a young woman: this is not what you would expect, but Good Money driving out Bad.

So far as I know, this school of sculpture, done with a sandblasting machine, was peculiar to Canada. Let us cherish the examples that remain.




To Mrs. Morrigan.

My dear Mrs. Morrigan:

I was at a concert last night where a pianist played Handel’s variations called The Harmonious Blacksmith. Of course Handel never called it anything of the kind and the name was not attached to the piece until long after Handel was dead. But the program note repeated the old story of how he received his inspiration for the piece while sheltering from a thunderstorm in a smithy. How good old George Frederick would have snorted! He loathed flapdoodle.

But this reminded me of that other legend, preserved in the old Ontario Third Reader, of how Beethoven, walking through the streets of Vienna with a friend one night, heard a piano being played in a basement; peeping through the window, he saw that a blind girl was playing to her aged father. “Alas, papa,” said she, “if only I could go to the concert tomorrow night, to hear the great Beethoven play, how happy I should be! But (sob) we have no money.” Without a word the great composer rushed into the cellar, sat down at the piano and played a magnificent program, improvising the Moonlight Sonata at the conclusion, and wowing the simple music-lover. As a child I was much touched by this story.

What disillusion awaited me when I began to look through the private papers of my Viennese ancestor, Wolfgang Amadeus Marchbanks, who was a close friend of Beethoven. Indeed, he was the very friend who accompanied Beethoven on that memorable walk. And my great-great-great uncle Wolfgang says that in reality Beethoven pushed his head through the window, and said, “Stop that row, woman; if you must play my stuff, stop vamping the bass.” Beethoven was not an easy man to please.

Truth, alas, is sometimes even uglier than fiction.

Your humble servant,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Miss Nancy Frisgig.

Charming Nancy:

Last night a friend of mine showed me a book which he has, illustrative of photography during the nineteenth century. It was a wonderful book, and a revelation to me, because it contained photographs of virtually every celebrated beauty of that era. And how plain they were! Empress Eugenie, for instance, looked as though she needed a dose of liver salts, and the glamorous Lola Montez looked like the back of a hack. The Princess Alexandra was by no means what tradition avouches, and indeed the only one of the lot who really lived up to expectation was the ill-fated Empress of Mexico. Is the beauty of women, then, an illusion which cannot safely be transferred from one era to another? Would Cleopatra, if we could see her today, be merely a scruffy gypsy, and Helen of Troy a greasy girl with a garlic breath? I shrink from such conclusions, but as a philosopher I must face them.

One of the most interesting photographs in the book to me was that of Rigolboche, the dancer who made the can-can famous. Nobody thought Rigolboche beautiful, or even wholesome-looking, but she waggled a wicked shank and was full of high spirits, and Paris loved her. And when she retired wise little Rigolboche bought a high class boarding-house with her savings, and was the perfect landlady until she died at a great old age.

For years thoughts of Rigolboche have made me look at my landladies with a speculative eye. Could they, I pondered, once have been glamorous courtesans and can-can dancers? Did noblemen drink champagne from their slippers in the days before they abandoned slippers in favour of lark-heeled house shoes with scuffed toes? I have come to the conclusion that boarding-house landladies of the Rigolboche type are uncommon in Canada. Most of them are profoundly melancholy women, and if they were ever in the public eye it was certainly as hired weepers at undertaking parlours.

Yours regretfully,



To Chandos Fribble, ESQ.

Dear Fribble:

I do not get to the movies as often as I could wish, but I saw one a few days ago which you really must study before you write your book on The Screen Epic. This particular Epic was presented to the audience as a wonderful evocation of the spirit of the Renaissance. It contained fine examples of three of the elements which are inseparable from celluloid epics. (1) The Virgin Heroine: in this piece she was married to an old man, and in a very pointed speech he made it clear that he had brought her up strictly as his daughter; this meant that when she was at last free to marry the hero she was, so to speak, leaping from the refrigerator into the frying-pan, which is what audiences expect. (2) The Good Villain: movie audiences like a villain to have large streaks of good in him, like the streaks of fat in a slab of restaurant ham; this gives them a comfortable feeling that although villainy is obviously fun, it is also All Right. (3) The Speech on Democracy: in film epics there must always be a moment when some minor character bawls out all the aristocrats in the cast, telling them that some day The Peepul will rise up and smite them; this is to show that all the good people in the film are democrats at heart, although they are dressed up like sixteenth century Italians; the dramatic climaxes are often complicated by the fact that the demeanour and speech of the actors makes it impossible to tell who is an aristocrat and who is Little Joe. It is doubtful if the cause of democracy is served by these tirades, but audiences like them.

At the film I sat in front of a young man who was suffering from Teen-Ager’s St. Vitus Dance, which caused him to kick the back of my seat so often and so rapidly that my head wobbled like a punching bag. Whenever the hero did anything of a spectacular nature he uttered cries like a horse in a burning stable. In spite of these annoyances I studied the piece intently. I recognized that my restless neighbour was, in the modern jargon, “empathizing.”

Yours to command,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Gomeril Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Uncle Gomeril:

Have you ever thought of going into the pawnbroking business? The attractions of the business are many. First of all, you have a cosy little shop, very informal in character. Then you have a wonderfully assorted type of merchandise, with a bias in favour of old watches, rusty precision tools, musical instruments of the twangling and tootling varieties, telescopes, binoculars and military decorations. It is the telescopes which ravish my soul; why anybody uses a telescope in these days of improved optical science I do not know, but obviously lots of people do. I am fascinated by telescopes, even though I have never been able to see anything through one but a lot of swimmy white stuff, like library paste in a mist. Just think of sitting in one’s shop all day, peeping through the telescopes, polishing up the lodge rings, blowing the bugles, and listening to the cuckoo-clocks! And, from time to time, helping some poor needy soul with a generous loan of $2 on a bass clarinet which cost him $85 in 1917, and which you can sell for $45 any time. Oh, how delicious to be a pawnbroker, and be an Uncle to all the world.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson