Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

From My Files

To the Rev. Simon Goaste, B.D.

Dear Rector:

Do you believe in reincarnation? I don’t suppose you do, and neither do I, but it is attractive nonsense, none the less. I ask because it occurred to me last night that I might possibly be a reincarnation of Good Queen Bess. I read that she “passionately admired handsome persons and he was already far advanced in her favour who approached her with beauty and grace. She had so unconquerable an aversion for men who had been treated unfortunately by nature, that she could not endure their presence.” I feel just the same. I like handsome people, particularly women. I also like people who are fascinatingly ugly. It’s the in-betweens who give me eye-strain and I generally treat them with bad-tempered indifference.

So perhaps I am Queen Elizabeth returned to earth. Have you noticed that people who believe in reincarnation never imagine that they were a person of no importance in another life? Have you ever heard one claim that he was a slave who worked quite contentedly on the Pyramids, and died of rupture at 23? Or that he was a peasant who neglected to go to see Joan of Arc burned because he was mending his roof? Or that he was a Scottish crofter who saw young James Watt watching the tea-kettle and said “Yon laddie’ll never amount to owt”? But the world is full of unrecognized Napoleons, Cleopatras and similar great ones.

Yours sincerely,

Samuel Marchbanks

(or possibly Queen Elizabeth).


To Miss Nancy Frisgig.

Charming Nancy:

I have your note in which you say that you wish you had lived in the Middle Ages, because it must have been such fun. I’m not so sure. Do you know that during the greater part of what we call the Middle Ages nobody had a bed? They slept on heaps of straw, quite naked, and it was considered pernickety to change the straw more than two or three times a year. Those who had beds slept in curious contrivances which caused them to lie at an angle of forty-five degrees; it must have been rather like sleeping standing up. Do you know that there were no chimneys in those times? Fires were built in the middle of the main room of the house, and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof, but only after it had whirled all around the room and choked everybody. When, late in the Middle Ages, chimneys were introduced, they caused outraged complaint among architectural critics and moralists who thought discomfort must be healthy.

But the real trial was the music. Last week I had a chance to hear quite a lot of mediaeval music, played on a lute, by a modern expert. I suppose you think of a lute as a charming instrument which young men would have played under your window to show that they loved you? Ha, ha. The lute sounds pretty much like a guitar with a cold in its head. A catarrh, in fact. Ho, ho.

So when you are tempted to idealize the Middle Ages, imagine yourself lying naked in dirty, tickly straw, breathing smoke and listening to the lute. There is really a great deal to be said for modern comfort.

Yours as always,



To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

My dear Mr. Hydra:

I am not an unreasonable man, I hope, but the Government’s action in bringing in Daylight Saving, or Summer Time, has caused me a degree of inconvenience which rouses me to protest. And naturally it is to you, as Deputy Commissioner of Officially Approved Nuisances, that I turn.

The principal timepiece in my home, sir, is a striking clock. At the half hour it goes Dong, and at the hour it goes Dong as many times as it is o’clock. Or rather, I should say that it goes Whang, for the thing in its intestines which makes the noise is not a bell, but a coiled spring, which simulates the sound of a bell less than perfectly.

Now some years ago this clock fell ill of a horological malady which caused its Whanging apparatus to lose an hour, so that it always Whangs one too few. And now that you have further complicated matters with your Daylight Saving, it Whangs two too few, which is more than flesh and blood can bear, particularly when it Whangs midnight at two a.m.

As you know, it is fatal to tamper with a good clock. One must take it as it is, or not at all. But my clock is unnerving me, and I hold you and the Government responsible.

Yours at sixes and sevens,

Samuel Marchbanks.


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

Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

Cannot the medical profession do anything about the vast quantity of medical misinformation which is foisted upon the public under the guise of beauty hints? I am just as anxious to be beautiful as anyone, and I read in a magazine yesterday that it was a very good thing to lie down for half an hour with your feet higher than your head. The writer stated flatly that this would relieve bags under the eyes, blotchy complexion, sinus trouble, slumped abdomen, taedium vitae and all the other ills from which I suffer. So I tried it.

It was not positively unpleasant, though it produced an effect rather like slow strangulation. The article led me to believe that this was wonderful fresh blood swirling around in my blood-starved brain. But when the half hour was up, and I rose to my feet, everything about me which had been slumped before slumped again with such sudden force that for a moment I thought the shock would bear me to the ground. I was just able to stagger to a sofa, and lie down in a perfectly horizontal position until the fit had passed.

My beauty has not been noticeably enhanced by this experience. Why are such impostures permitted?

Yours in a condition of utter slump,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

It is a bit thick, your rebuke to me for believing in ghosts, calling them “superstitions unbecoming a scientific age.” If there is one lesson science impresses on us all, it is surely that nothing is incredible.

Haven’t you heard about “neutrinos”? Apparently there are such things — little doodads of which sixty billion penetrate each square inch of our bodies every second and go on their way having done no harm whatever. But nobody has so far suggested that the neutrinos are, in their way, unaware of us. I put it to you that to a neutrino you and I probably seem like ghosts. And I put it to you also that we may, in our turn, be as neutrinos to other beings, whizzing in and about them without much awareness, but with an occasional intuition that things are not quite as simple as even our five wits lead us to suppose.

Multiply my bulk in square inches by sixty billion, and reflect that it is from amid that assemblage of unknown but active creatures that I now adjure you to bethink yourself, and stop talking nonsense. We are all much more ghostly than we know.

Your eerie comrade,

Samuel Marchbanks.

A Garland of Musings

TECHNICOLOUR FLAUBERT / Picked up Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo, a book which I read as a schoolboy and looked upon with wry smiles even then, as it appears to me to be written in Technicolour; however, as I read it in translation I would be wise to keep quiet, for any Frenchman can shout me down. But the tone of the book is exhausting; nobody ever says “Giddap” to a horse; they always “urge it forward with a hoarse cry.” Nobody looks at a woman; he devours her with his eyes. I prefer a quieter life. . . Salammbo suggests that medical practice in ancient Carthage was on an equally irrational footing with war and the pursuit of love. One remedy which is described is “the blood of a black dog slaughtered by barren women on a winter’s night among the ruins of a tomb”; a druggist who had filled a few prescriptions like that in the course of a day might well think of going into some other business. . . However, Salammbo is enthralling, in its strange way, and I read it for half an hour after lunch before I realized that I had work to do, and urged myself toward my desk with a hoarse cry, devouring several women with my eyes as I trudged through the snow. One of them was eying a black dog reflectively, and I concluded that she was at least on the Pill.

A MEAGRE DIET / For several weeks I have been following a diet prescribed by my physician, which includes a great deal of seafood. Yet I find that when I order lobster or jumbo shrimps at a meal, and explain that I must mind my diet, the people with whom I am eating snigger in an underbred fashion and hint that I am a luxurious rascal, and that my diet is a thing of the imagination. This is bitterly unjust, but I do not know what I am to do about it. I like seafood, and eat it with obvious relish; is it necessary that everything on a diet should be nasty? I don’t like spinach and broccoli, but I eat them, and get no pity for it. Why am I grudged a simple little thing like a lobster or a dozen oysters?

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