Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

CHILDREN AND CERAMICS / Attended a little party where there was a type of pickle hitherto unknown to me, though I consider myself rather an expert on pickles. It was made of infant ears of corn, an inch or two long, preserved in some savoury embalming fluid; they were delicious. But as I looked at these tiny ears, plucked before they had grown to fullness and maturity, and arrested in their growth for our delight, I was strongly reminded of those children who, during the Middle Ages, were turned into dwarfs for the pleasure of people whose income permitted them to run to the luxury of a household dwarf. Gypsies kidnapped these children and encased them in pottery forms, so that they could not grow, and developed into wry shapes, regarded as funny by our strong-stomached ancestors. When they had reached adult years, the pottery form was broken, and there was a child, of a kind, with an adult mind, of a kind. I do not suppose this curious trade will ever be revived. I have watched some of the pottery classes sponsored by our recreational associations, but I have never seen anybody at work on a pot which suggested that it was for the jugging of a child.

From My Archives

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

Dear Dr. Cataplasm:

I see that an eminent member of your profession has declared that in his opinion sleep was the original and natural state of all living things. The lower organisms still exist, says he, in a somnolent condition: great numbers of higher creatures pass months every year in hibernation — which is a kind of sleep: the most sleepless of all is the king of them all — Man, proud Man. He suggests that we might be better off if we slept more. But it seems to me that it might be argued to the contrary that we should be even more civilized if we slept less.

I write to you from a transcontinental train, upon which I am hastening toward our great Canadian West. As I bump and clatter across the broad and lumpy bosom of our motherland I find it impossible to sleep at all. Other people sleep, but not Marchbanks, the super-civilized. My eyelids feel as though someone had been striking matches on them, and when I push them down over the peeled grapes swimming in stewed rhubarb which are my eyes, hot balls of pain bounce around in my head.

But am I more civilized than in the days when I slept for the usual eight hours? I am certainly more fearful, jumpy and crossgrained, and these are the badges of civilization today. When I return, I want you to give me some medicine to uncivilize me. A barbiturate to make me barbarous, shall we say?

Your unbearably civilized patient,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

Yesterday I was in Banff and its mountainous environs. Have you ever thought how romantically some mountains are named? The Three Sisters, for instance. If I had been asked to name it I should have called it The Three Jagged Snags, or, in a more poetic vein, The Hag’s Lower Denture. But no: The Three Sisters it is. There are cases, of course, where the names are well chosen. Several mountains are named after millionaires and bankers, and they have just the right unapproachable, frosty look. One is named after a missionary: it has a look of suspicious disapproval like the banker-mountains, but on a more spiritual plane, if I make myself clear. I like mountains, but I refuse to be patronized by them.

What really astonishes me here in the West is the superstitious awe which is extended toward the East. Whenever Westerners are behaving in a natural and jolly manner, somebody is likely to say, “Of course, we know you don’t carry on like this in the East.” It is rather a new thing for me to be in a place where Ontario is regarded as a gentle, old-world, tradition-encrusted civilization, but I suppose I shall get used to it. Indeed I am doing so right here in Banff. I am older than the rocks among which I sit, and my eyelids are a little weary. I am beginning to take pride in certain gracious old Ontario traditions, such as wearing a neck-tie in the morning and depending on braces instead of a belt. I have not, as some Easterners do, bought myself a white cowboy hat. Something — a life-long mistrust of cows, perhaps, and a conviction that their milk is the most over-rated drink known to man — prevents me. Tomorrow I press on dauntlessly to Vancouver.




To Waghorn Wittol, ESQ.

Dear Wittol:

When I was at Banff yesterday my guide showed me, with utmost pride, a big heap of sticks, mud and dirt which was, he said, a beaver lodge.

In fact, it was undistinguishable from the big heap of sticks, mud and dirt behind the garage at Marchbanks Towers. I have been trying to get a man to come and haul this away, but I shall not do so now. If anyone asks me what it is I shall say airily, “Oh, a beaver lodge.” The word rubbish will not be uttered in its presence. — How travel broadens one’s outlook.

My regards to Mrs. Wittol, if you can find her.

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Hydra:

As a citizen and taxpayer of this country I write to you, as Deputy Guarantor of Tourist Attractions, to complain about our prairies: they are not as flat as I was led to believe. People have assured me for years that the prairie is as flat as a billiard table. This, sir, is a lie put out to attract tourists. It is not nearly so flat as that.

There is much talk of conservation these days, but very little action. Let us not lose our prairies. Tear down the farmhouses at once: nobody wants them: the farmers are all in California spending their wheat subsidy. And then put a fleet of steam rollers on the prairies and get those unsightly humps out of them. Keep at it until they are, as advertised, flat as a billiard table.

Your indignant taxpayer,

S. Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

Since last I wrote to you I have gone through what is widely believed to be one of the most moving spiritual experiences a Canadian can sustain — a jaunt through the Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed it, but spiritually I am exactly where I was before. I have seen them in full sunlight, which robs them of all mystery, and I have seen them in a rainy haze, which is much better. I have gaped at chunks of rock which are said to resemble the faces of Indians, though the likeness escaped me. I have looked shudderingly down into gorges over which the train was passing. I have been pleased, diverted and surprised, but I am not one of those who finds a sight of the Rockies an equivalent for getting religion at a revival meeting.

To make a shameful confession, the Rockies put me in mind of nothing so much as the first act of Rose Marie, a musical comedy of my younger days and the favourite theatre entertainment of his late Majesty, King George V. At any moment I expected a lovely French-Canadian girl to leap on the observation car, saying, “You make ze marriage wiz me, no?” Or an Indian girl, more lithe and beautiful than any Indian girl has ever been, to begin a totem dance on the track. The scenery was right: only the actors were missing.

Upon arrival in Vancouver, the first thing to meet my eye was a notice, signed by the Chief of Police, warning me against confidence tricksters. It told me in detail how I might expect them to work. I would be approached, first of all, by someone who would try to make friends: this would be “The Steerer” who would eventually steer me to “The Spieler,” who would sell me Stanley Park or the harbour at a bargain price. Not long after I had read this I was approached by a crafty-looking woman carrying a handful of pasteboards. “Juwanna buy four chances on the Legion car?” she cried, blocking my way. “Madam, you are wasting your time,” said I; “I know you for what you are — a Steerer.” She shrank away, muttering unpleasantly. Never let it be said that Marchbanks failed to heed a warning.

Vancouver has much to recommend it as a city; indeed, if it were not on the other side of those pestilent mountains I should go there often. Among other attractions it has a large and interesting Chinese quarter, where I ate the best Chinese food I have ever tasted. There are times when I think that I shall give up Occidental cuisine altogether, and eat Chinese food for the rest of my life. After lunch I wandered among the Chinese shops, and found one which sold a scent called “Girl Brand Florida Water.” There is a simplicity about that name which enchants me. In the same shop I saw the only piece of Chinese nude art that has ever come my way; the Chinese are believed not to care for representations of the nude: but this was plainly the result of Western influence; it was a Chinese girl, lightly draped, holding aloft a bunch of paper flowers. Her legs were short, her body long, and she seemed more amply endowed for sitting than Western standards of beauty permit. It was, I suppose, the kind of thing one finds in Chinese bachelor apartments, just as Occidental bachelors enrich their rooms with ash-trays held aloft by naked beauties in chrome, and drink beer from glasses into which libidinous pictures have been etched. East is East, and West is West, but bachelors are wistful rascals the world over.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Categories: Davies, Robertson