Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Yours apprehensively,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Mervyn Noseigh, M.A.

Dear Mr. Noseigh:

I am enchanted by the thought that you wish to do a full-scale Ph.D. thesis on my work. Of course I recognize your name immediately as that of the writer of essays already famous in the very littlest magazines:

Oh Marmee, What Big Teeth You Have: A Study of the pre-Oedipal mother in works of Louisa May Alcott — (Peewee Review: Vol. 1, pp. 23-47)

Withering Depths: A Study of womb-frustration in Emily Bronte — (Wee Wisdom: Vol. 1, pp. 22-46)

Codnipped: A Study of impotence-fantasy in the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson — (Microscopic Quarterly: Vol. 1, pp. 24-48).

These splendid studies are daily reading in the Marchbanks household. I cannot wait to see what you will make of me.

Tremulously yours,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

I had an enlightening experience yesterday, when I went to the exhibition of pictures at the Ontario Art Gallery with my friend Crosshatch, the artist. I had rather dreaded the visit, for Crosshatch knows a great deal about pictures: I know nothing of them. Crosshatch is widely admired for his taste: I am often told that my taste is all in my mouth. I am afraid of Crosshatch and shrink from displaying my ignorance when he is around.

When we entered the gallery, therefore, I was ready to put on an act as an Art Connoisseur. I had determined to pause for at least ninety seconds before every third picture, and to nod approvingly at least once in each room (but not at any special picture, for fear of showing ignorance). I reminded myself to stand at least eight feet from the pictures when looking at them, and to squint a lot, so as to look discerning. I worked up a little repertoire of remarks, such as “Interesting treatment,” “Character there,” “Nice feeling for colour,” which I could murmur if Crosshatch liked a picture. I was loaded for bear when I entered the art gallery.

Judge of my amazement then, when Crosshatch whizzed around the rooms at a fast walk, neglecting whole wallfuls of pictures; he marched right up to others and glared at them, and tried the paint with a fingernail to see if it was dry; often he sniggered and sometimes he burst into a loud, derisive laugh; once he swore sharply, and made several people jump. We covered the show in half an hour flat, and he said, “Come on, let’s get out of this,” loudly enough for several obvious Art Lovers to hear him. But they whispered, “That’s Crosshatch” in reverent voices, which seemed to make it all right.

Next time I go to an art show I shall know how to behave. Maybe somebody will mistake me for an artist.

Yours in the pride of enlightenment,



To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Hydra:

Enclosed find a cheque for $2.16; this, added to the $11.26 already deducted from my salary in weekly portions by my employers, completes the full sum of $13.42, the total of my Income Tax for the past year. It is also, if you care, almost an exact quarter of my yearly earnings, and I hope that you, as Deputy Confiscator-general, will take the utmost care of it.

Are you aware, sir, that when Captain Cook went to Australia in 1770 one of his men pointed to a kangaroo, and said, “What is it?” A native, standing by, said, “Kan g’aroo,” meaning “I don’t understand you.” But the sailor thought that it was the name of the beast, and it has stuck to this day.

Now a similar error occurred when Jacques Cartier first set foot on the soil of our country. “What do you call this place?” he cried to a native. “Canada,” cried the Indian in return, and Cartier took it for the country’s name. But the Indian — one of the Crokinole tribe — actually said in the remarkably economical language of his people, “Take my advice, gentlemen, and go back where you came from; the taxes here are well-nigh insupportable.” That is what Canada really means, but the time for turning back has passed.

And so, Mr. Hydra, as you press my $13.42 into the hand of a career diplomat who is going to fly round the world in order to see whether it is round or merely egg-shaped, or as you send it to a Western wheat-grower who needs it to enable him to go to California for the winter, remember how hard I had to work to earn it.

Yours maliciously and grudgingly,

Marchbanks the Tax-Serf.

A Garland of Musings

SACRED TO WHOM? / This evening I heard The Rosary (the work, if I recollect aright, of the ineffable Ethelbert Nevin) announced on the radio as a “sacred song.” This caused me to laugh uproariously, for The Rosary is a love-song of a particularly gooey sort, in which the hours the lovers spent together are compared to rosary beads, and the final bust-up (probably when he deserted her for a girl who didn’t wear her rosary to bed) to the embrace of the Cross. True lovers of the devotion of the rosary might fittingly shriek in protest every time this song is sung.

MONOTONY OF DIET / This evening to the movies and saw Fabiola, an Italian film about the goings-on of Christians under the Caesars — in this case the Emperor Constantine. It concluded with a grand mass martyrdom in which, at a rough guess, eight or ten thousand head of Christians were fed to a total count of six lions. Afterward I consulted Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he says he can find no record of more than ten Christians being turned off at a time, so I dismissed Fabiola as what Gibbon himself calls “holy romance.” But the statistics and dietetics of the film still bother me, for even the most anti-clerical lion must weary of an unrelieved diet of Christians, consumed under circumstances of hustle and bustle.

THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS / While I was away from home today a man brought a load of sand needed for some cement work; instead of dumping it where it was meant to be, he dropped it all in my driveway, making it impossible to put the car away. I presume that it is such thinking as this which makes sand truckers what they are, instead of eminent biologists, respected theologians, or the scented darlings of elegant boudoirs. With a heavy heart I set to work to heave the sand off the drive, and as it was wet I soon found that my heart was giving audible crunching sounds, as though somebody were crushing apples in my breast; my spine developed a hairpin bend and my knees shook; large black specks floated slowly before my eyes, my liver turned completely over, and bells tolled in my skull. The sand, however, was not without interest. In one shovelful I found what I believe is called a garter-belt. Who, I wondered, could have discarded her garter-belt in a sand pit, and why? Was I, all unwillingly, turning over the grave of some fleeting summer romance? And if so, was a sand pit not a somewhat gritty place for extra-mural amours? I shall never know. Crept into the house like a horse with the heaves, and took cordials suitable to my many ailments.

PRIMEVAL FILM / To the movies, to see Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressier in Tilly’s Punctured Romance, which they made in 1913. In my younger days I was an ardent follower of Charlie, but as I watched this relic from the Old Red Sandstone Period of the cinematic art, I realized that time had bathed the humour of another day in a golden but untruthful light. It was the most restless film I have seen in years. Nobody stood up if he could possibly fall down. Nobody fell down without at once leaping to his feet in order to fall down again. Nobody entered a door without slapping somebody else in the face with it. Food was never eaten, it existed only to be thrown. Liquid was not taken into the mouth in order to be swallowed, but only that it might be squirted into somebody else’s face. The usual method of attracting a lady’s attention was to kick her; she invariably responded with a blow. The life of man in the comedies of the silent films was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. And viewed from this distance it does not appear to have been especially funny, at that.

Culled from my Archives

To Mrs. Kedijah Scissorbill

Respected but Unloved Madam:

Walking along the street today I passed an organ-grinder; I gave him ten cents. I write to you of this because you are a dominating figure in many charities, and I often receive unpleasantly mimeographed, badly worded letters signed with a facsimile of your niggling signature, asking me for money. These letters always stress the deserving nature of the cause, and the care with which the money is administered by a staff of competent, well-paid officials. I usually respond to your letters with a donation, for your causes are genuinely good, and I am sure that you use the money wisely. Nevertheless, my heart does not go with them. My heart was with the organ-grinder’s ten cents, even though he was unable to give me a slip entitling me to deduct my gift from taxable income.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson