Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

CARELESS MUSICIAN / Joined in a private sing-song — one of those affairs where three or four people work through a book called The Jumbo Volume of Songs the Whole World Loves, or something of the kind. We sang The Lost Chord, familiar to me as a boy through a gramophone record of Arthur Pryor playing it on the trombone. But, as I sang, I wondered how the musician in the song ever lost that chord, which sounded like a great Amen? I am no master of musical theory, but the number of chords on an organ which could have sounded like a great Amen to a Victorian organist were remarkably few, and if he was unable to find it again the Royal College of Organists should have insisted that he repeat his final examinations.

GOGOL UNMASKED / Was talking to a Russian, and worked up courage to address him thus: “For many years I have read in books about literature that the Russian author Nikolai Gogol was a very great humorist — the peer of Shakespeare, Aristophanes and Cervantes — and that his novel Dead Souls is one of the world’s great funny books. During a bout of ‘flu last year I read Dead Souls carefully, attentively and receptively, but my gravity was not disturbed. Am I stupid, or does Gogol not translate well into English, or what is the matter?” (During this I took care to pronounce Gogol’s name in a gargling fashion, which I hoped would sound Russian.) To my amazement he replied: “My dear Samuel Marchbankovitch, I have never thought Gogol very funny myself. Indeed, Russian writers are never funny in the way that English or American writers are. They are rather facetious, little father, but that is all.” (I observed that he pronounced the name “Goggle,” which I take to be the true Russian manner.) So there it is. I suppose that the Russians, like every other nation, like to pretend that they have a sense of humour. I have been told Chinese jokes, too, by people who thought them funny though, like much Chinese art, the only interesting thing about them was that they were Chinese.

CANADIAN SHIBBOLETH / Was at a party where a merry fellow — a Ph.D. and much respected in academic circles — was tormenting an Australian lady about the accent he believed to be characteristic of her native land. “I can always tell an Aussie by the way they say ‘stewed fruit,’ ” he declared, and then went on saying “stewed fruit” very comically, as well as he could through his laughter. “Please say ‘wash and curl the hair of the squirrel,’ ” said the Australian lady, and the savant obligingly said, “Worsh ‘n currl the haira the squrrl.” “That is how I always know a Canadian,” said she, and he was not pleased. But there is something about a Canadian which compels him, however much education and sophistication he may have attained in other realms, to preserve intact the accent in which his barefoot old granny used to curse the timber wolves that raged around her cabin. It is one of the last areas in which illiteracy is equated with integrity.

Communiqué (Dropped down my chimney)

To Big Chief Marchbanks.

How, Marchbanks:

Meet fellow on park bench yesterday. Bum, Marchbanks. He awful fat. I got to get rid of this fat, he say. Why, I say. Fat not healthy, he say. All doctors say fat make you die young. First I got to get money to eat, he say, then I got to go on diet. You got fat head, I say. Look at bear. Bear awful fat. Bear healthy, too. Bear healthier than any doctor. Skinny doctor meet fat bear, bear win every time. You poor ignorant Indian, he say. You know nothing about modern science. I know bears, I say.

Not in jail yet, Marchbanks. Winter come soon. How can I get in jail?

How, again,

Osceola Thunderbelly,

Chief of the Crokinoles.

Culled from the Apophthegms of Wizard Marchbanks

A book is criticized by the reviewer in direct proportion as the reviewer is criticized by the book: no man can find wisdom in print which is not already waiting for words within himself.

(August 24 to September 23)

Virgo is the sign of the Virgin, and those born under it have a special gift of emerging from the most dishevelled situations looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. You who are born under this sign will do well to take fullest advantage of your air of inexperience and untouchability which, with careful husbanding, should last all your life, deluding thousands of people, some of whom ought to know better. Staggering as the notion is, all astrologers agree that the greatest danger to you lies in over-work; therefore you should never lose an opportunity to rest, and should always put off until tomorrow what people born under Leo have demanded that you do today.


As you might have expected, those born under the sign of Virgo have a somewhat cool group of lucky colours — green, greeny-yellowy, blue and black. Your lucky flowers likewise are on the quiet side — bachelor’s button, mourning bride, lavender and azalea. Your lucky stones are marcasite (or white iron pyrites if you want to drag the thing down to its lowest level) , agate (of the kind from which children’s marbles are made), jasper and the more attractive emerald and topaz. You will probably wonder why those born under the sign of the Virgin are not encouraged to wear white. I do not know, but I think you should be pleased that you have been spared such a trying colour; it is a nuisance to maintain and very few people look really well in it. Also, it is a ridiculous colour for men. The only man in recent history who habitually wore white clothes was Mark Twain, who was born under Sagittarius and should have worn black, both for astrological and laundry considerations.

Health Hints for Those Born Under Virgo

Disagreeable as such a revelation must be to the Virgin-born, your weak spot is your intestines, and astrologers for five centuries have advised your kind to keep away from rich foods and sweetmeats. Your liver, spleen, pancreas and tripes are all of a delicate and readily incommoded disposition. Much of your pensive and romantic character in youth springs directly from this source, but as middle age overtakes you these qualities are likely to be transformed into simple dyspepsia. It is then that you must either behave like a philosopher and eat a restricted and moderate diet, or embark on a life of alternating excess and remorse — the Christmas Dinner followed by the Awful Session in the Night. Many of the Virgo-born attempt to sublimate their dyspepsia — to render it nobler by pretending that it is some mysterious and debilitating complaint which they bear with a martyr’s smile — but this rarely works. The eructation and the borborygmy, the yellow eyeball and the pallid cheek betray too plainly where the trouble really lies.

Meditations at Random

INVENTOR OF THE HANDKERCHIEF / I should like to learn something every day, but whole months pass during which I learn nothing at all. Today, however, a crumb of information came my way which I had never nibbled before, and it was this: the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II. He was the first man known to history to carry a piece of linen or silk, clean every day, for blowing his nose. This seems to me to raise Richard to a higher place in the ranks of English royalty than he is usually granted. We make a hero of Henry V, who was a loudmouthed brawler, and we take an indulgent view of his father, Henry IV, who was a crook. Both of these fellows, though usurpers of Richard’s throne, blew their noses on their fingers and slept in their underwear. But Richard, who invented the handkerchief and seems to have been one of the very few English politicians who knew how to get along with the Irish, is usually brushed off as a foolish fellow who liked poetry and music, attended plays and wasted money on triflers like Chaucer. For his invention of the handkerchief I insist that he deserves a statue in pure gold.

CHURCH ECONOMICS / Attended an entertainment in a church hall this evening, and during the intervals some little girls sold fudge in aid of their Sunday School. They handed over a large sack of first-class fudge in return for ten cents, and this struck me as typical church economics, for there was at least twenty cents’ worth of delicious fattening sweetmeat in each bag. If these little girls had business instincts, they would reckon their overhead, time, cartage to the church, and materials, and would then sell the fudge at thirty-five cents a bag; but as no one could then afford to eat it, they would lobby for a government subsidy, which would pay them twenty cents on each bag of fudge, allowing them to sell for fifteen cents. As the fudge would still sell very well at that price, there would soon be a glutted market, and they would get the government to buy their surplus fudge at the full retail price, and sell it to Europe for ten cents a bag. However, I did not explain these things to them, but contented myself with buying two bags of bargain fudge, and stealing another, which somebody, in the seats in front of mine, left behind them at the end of the entertainment.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson