Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

INFORMATION SCORNED / To the movies and sat first of all behind a small boy whose hair had obviously been cut at home; the poor child looked as though an Indian had begun to scalp him, but had been called out on strike when half done. Behind me sat a woman with a package of sticky popcorn; I did not much mind her noisy champings, but it bothered me that she dropped a lot of the goodies on the floor, and they rolled down under my feet and gave me a sense of treading on broken eggs. So I moved, and found myself behind two girls, both at the very pinnacle of romantic yearning. The film, however, seemed to be beyond their modest intellectual grasp; it was about a period of history before the advent of the combustion engine, and everybody went everywhere on horses or behind horses. At one point a lady entered a room and said that she must stay a while because a shoe had been lost. The girls whispered busily between them, and then agreed that she must be crazy, as she was wearing both her shoes, as any fool could plainly see. I leaned forward helpfully, “Her horse lost a shoe, poppets,” I said. They viewed me with the scorn of youth. “Drop dead, Gramp,” said one of them; “since when did horses wear shoes?” Since when, indeed?

UNEARNED INCOME / Have been looking over the questions the census-taker will ask me. One of them is an enquiry as to how much money I earned last year. The answer to this will be, “about $125.” Of course I had more money than this, but I didn’t earn it. The Government itself says that I didn’t. For I get my living as a writer, and the Government makes it very clear in its Income Tax forms that what a writer gets is Investment Income, comparable to the guilty gold which the Idle Rich derive from their holdings in Stocks and Shares. The census-taker will stare about him in amazement, his eye straying from the rich tapestries upon my walls to the priceless products of old Persian looms beneath his feet; as I scratch a match upon a rare piece of cloisonne, and scissor a chunk out of an early Picasso in order to mend a hole in my shoe, he will scratch his head and wonder how I came by such Byzantine luxury without earning it. But if my Government says that I do not earn my money, I am not the kind of saucy fellow who will suggest that they do my job, and see if it feels like work. No, no! I am behind my Government one hundred per cent, and when it says my labour is idleness, I knock my head upon the floor and cry Selah!

REVIVING A LOST ART / Had occasion to look at a display of wallpaper. Fastening decorative paper to walls is an old trick, which came into favour when it became too expensive to use decorative cloth. The decorative cloth fastened tight to the wall followed the painted cloths which the people of Tudor days hung loose upon their walls, and these in their turn were substitutes for tapestries. Personally I think it might be interesting to return to tapestries, for in these days of labour-saving household devices women have plenty of leisure time for tapestry work. Modern tapestries, of course, would have to have modern themes. A really loving wife might work for ten or twelve years to create a tapestry showing how her husband had worked up from the lowly post of office boy to be vice-president in charge of the mail-order department, along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry. As a substitute for wallpaper this might take rather a long time to prepare, but it would have a personal touch and, after the husband had been fired or demoted, a pleasingly nostalgic quality.

From My Archives

To the Rev. Simon Goaste, B.D.

Dear Pastor;

Don’t you think it is high time that the Americans had their own translation of the Bible? Recently I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s film of Samson and Delilah, and afterward I re-read the story as it is written in Judges 13-16; it was clear to me what DeMille had gone through, trying to turn Samson and Delilah into good, respectable Americans.

Consider: in the Bible version Samson carelessly allowed twenty years to pass between his strangling of the lion and his adventure with Delilah. Such a lapse of time would have made him at least forty when the film ended — practically an old man by Hollywood reckoning. In a new translation this period of time could be tactfully left out. And it is recorded also that Samson had an adventure with a lady about whose virtue the Scriptures, in their coarse way, leave no doubt. In fact, it appears that Samson was not A Nice Clean American Boy but a rowdy old delinquent. This blot on his character could be glossed over in a new translation, as it was in the movie. And there is also the flat statement that Samson set fire to the tails of a lot of foxes; the SPCA would certainly not have tolerated that if it had been shown in the film.

What the USA needs is a translation of the Bible all its own. It is now the dominant Western power, and should avail itself of the traditional privilege of a dominant power to impose its religion, or its version of an existing religion, upon the rest of the world. There is much in the Bible that is undemocratic and un-American. Indeed, I put it to you that the implication that the Supreme Being was not democratically elected to that position casts grave doubts upon the moral magnitude and spiritual significance of the Constitution. It is time to abandon the King James Version, with its seventeenth century cast of thought and its strongly English slant, and to adopt something more in keeping with the Gospel according to Washington.

Your expectant parishioner,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

One of the things that is wrong with the world today, but which nobody ever complains about, is that children are not as religious as they used to be. No doubt about it, a religious child is a good example to its elders, and children have a duty in this respect which they are neglecting.

Two fine examples of youthful piety have come up in the course of my reading this past week. Consider Katherine Philips, the poetess, who was born in 1631. John Aubrey records of her that “She was when a Child much against the Bishops, and prayd to God to take them to him, but afterwards was reconciled to them. Prayed aloud, as the hypocriticall fashion then was, and was overheared.” And then consider Edmund Gosse, as a Victorian child. When his father told him that he intended to marry again, and that the lady did not belong to the strict evangelistic sect of the Gosses, young Edmund, who was then eleven, shook a finger at him and said, “Papa, don’t tell me that she’s a paedo-baptist?” He records that this affected his father painfully, as well it might. What modern child has the gumption or the learning for such an enquiry?

If the world is going to the dogs, it is the children’s fault as much as anybody’s. Sometimes I receive the impression that modern children are living solely for pleasure.


Simon Goaste.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Sam:

The other day I was looking at the Modern Library edition of Boswell’s Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and in the Preface it was said that the inclusion of that book in that particular library of reprints awarded it “an accolade of modernity.”

What a base passion our age has for pretending that whatever is good is necessarily “modern.” What a depraved appetite we have for mere contemporaneity! How old Samuel Johnson would have snorted at the idea that a classic — particularly a classic about himself — was in some way ennobled by being declared the contemporary of the Wettums Doll, sliced, wrapped bread, and the singing telegram! This is an age without humility.

Your aggrieved

Amyas Pilgarlic.


To the Rev. Simon Goaste, B.D.

Dear Pastor:

I have spent part of this week reading The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it as an excellent book about Heaven and Hell. But without illustrations. I feel that this is a real lack.

When I was a child there was in my home a strange book, the name of which I have forgotten, devoted to a detailed description of what evil-doers and worldly choosers might expect in the hereafter. It was bountifully and imaginatively illustrated with pictures of the damned being fried, grilled, toasted, fricasseed, barbecued, boiled and pressure-cooked by nimble little black devils with tails and disagreeable expressions. Since then I have read many speculations about Hell, including those of Dante, but none has impressed me so deeply. Another childhood book of mine was a Bible with Doré’s illustrations including some which I think he made originally for Paradise Lost. And Doré’s Devil will be my Devil forever — the humourless, malignant, infinitely sad winged creature; if we should ever meet he will not, I am sure, understand me at all, and to be misunderstood in Hell would be more terrible than to be understood through and through. This is a mighty persuasion to grace, and accounts for my lifelong circumspection.

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