Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Normally I do not mind cigars. I smoke them myself. But on a train –! Opposite me as I write sits a little bald man with a baby face and a head like a peeled onion who has, for the past 45 minutes, burned and sucked the most villainous stogie I have ever choked over. He has doused it with his drool, and re-lit it, five seperate times. He is just about to do so again and I must leave him to it, or strike him with the emergency axe, or be sick myself. If he made that stench by any other means, the sanitary inspector would condemn him.

Yours gaggingly,


From My Notebooks

WHERE AM I? / Was driving through the countryside today with some people who insisted upon frequent recourse to a road-map in order to discover, as they put it, “Just where they were.” Reflected that for my part I generally have a pretty shrewd idea of just where I am; I am enclosed in the somewhat vulnerable fortress which is my body, and from that uneasy stronghold I make such sorties as I deem advisable into the realm about me. These people seemed to think that whizzing through space in a car really altered the universe for them, but they were wrong; each one remained right in the centre of his private universe, which is the only field of knowledge of which he has any direct experience.

DE GUSTIBUS LOTS OF DISPUTANDUM / Had a pleasant chat with Dr. Boyd Neel, the conductor of the celebrated chamber orchestra. I asked him if he meant to play any contemporary music while he was touring Canada. “Oh yes,” said he, “I expect we may play a few new tunes.” This reply delighted me, for I am sick of the cloud of mystery and fear which surrounds modern music. It is not all harsh to the ear — to any ear, that is, which does not regard the barrel-organ as the last word in harmony — and much of it is very jolly and enlivening. There are even tunes in some recent pieces, though not tunes that you can whistle. I strongly suspect that it is hard work to write a tune if you set your face against the aids of folk-song and the forthright spirit of the Salvation Army Band. But I admired Dr. Neel because he spoke of modern music without passion. I grow weary of those people who become super-charged at the mention of modern music, or modern poetry, or modern painting; these are topics of great interest, but why must one be expected to take sides, violently for or against? “There is no disputing about tastes,” says the old saw. In my experience there is little else.

NON-STOP CULTURE / A man was exulting to me today about the wonders of a gramophone which he had given to himself and his family at Christmas. The beauty of it, in his eyes, is that it will play for eight hours without a stop, and he can heap four or five symphonies on it and let them rip. Ah, well; each to his pleasure. I find one symphony about all I can cope with in a day; my emotional blood-pressure rises sharply if too much passionate symphonic music is forced upon me in a single dose. Anyway, I don’t like to have a huge orchestra roaring in my living-room when I am trying to rest. For the chamber, chamber music is the proper fare.

AN ILLUSION SHATTERED / Was in the country today, and coming over the crest of a hill was surprised to see a fox a few yards away; it did not see me, and the wind was in the wrong direction for it to scent me, so I watched it for what seemed a long time, but was probably two minutes. Then it turned, saw me, gazed for a few seconds, and trotted away grinning. This is not what I would have expected, and when I returned to town I called a naturalist friend and told him that the fox had not appeared to be afraid of me. “Oh no,” he said, “unless you shot at it, or shouted, it probably wouldn’t fear you; foxes are stupid creatures — any dog is smarter than any fox — and if it couldn’t scent you it probably didn’t realize even that you were a man.” This was a blow to the notion I acquired as a child, from countless stories, that foxes are brilliantly intelligent, and the masterminds of the forest world. And after all, what evidence have we that a fox is clever? When chased it runs away, and makes better time in country it knows than a dog does. Is that clever? But a fox looks clever, and with animals as with humans, that is more than half the battle.

Telling Fortunes By Moles

(A bonus for readers of the Almanack)

There are many ways of telling fortunes, and no Almanack is complete without some allusion to at least one of them: Palmistry is the favourite, but it has been done to death; anyhow, it is hard to learn and there are too many people whose hand-lines do not conform to any known pattern. Therefore Wizard Marchbanks will confine himself to Fortune Telling by Moles, which is easy and rather dashing. Of course, there are people who are sensitive about their moles, and you had better avoid them. Here are the five easily memorized rules which will enable you to practise this fascinating branch of White Magic.

Moles on the Face: if extremely numerous and whimsically placed, the subject is likely to be unlucky in love.

Moles on the Arms: do not really count.

Moles on the Legs: should not be alluded to if the fortuneteller is desirous of the continued acquaintance of his subject.

Moles on the Back: are usually visible only when evening dress is worn and should not be mentioned.

Moles Elsewhere: are rarely disclosed until the immediate future of both subject and fortune-teller is easily predictable anyhow.


(Shot through my window attached to an arrow)

To Big Chief Marchbanks.

How, Marchbanks:

Good news, Marchbanks, I in jail now. Last week I try awful hard to get in jail. I throw brick at cop. He just wag finger and laugh. I call insult at mayor. He just lift hat. Getting near election time, Marchbanks. I write dirty word on City Hall. City Clerk come out and write “Ditto,” under it. No hope, Marchbanks. Then one day cop look at me very queer. You pay your poll tax, he ask. No, I say, I never own no pole. Aha, he say, you got to pay poll tax. I never have no totem pole, I say. Sell ‘um to tourist twenty year ago. Come along, he say, and we go to court. They find I owe $3,000 back poll tax. Put me in jail. Ha ha. That great tax, Marchbanks. Friendly tax to poor Indian. All set for winter now. You got money? I not need money.

How, again,

Osceola Thunderbelly,

Chief of the Crokinoles.

Culled from the Apophthegms of Wizard Marchbanks

Prophecy consists of carefully bathing the inevitable in the eerie light of the impossible, and then being the first to announce it.

(September 24 to October 23)

Libra is the sign of the Scales, and those born under this sign are noted for their tendency to balance one thing against another. This characteristic is not understood by persons born under less subtle signs and they may sometimes accuse you of trying to eat your cake and have it too. You may comfort yourself with the knowledge that they would do the same if they knew how. Your passion for symmetry extends to every sphere of life; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the law of the Libra-born, and “getting even” is absolutely necessary to those with such a nicely balanced temperament. In order that this dominant trait in your character may have fullest scope, you would do well to embrace such professions as the law or the civil service, in which society will recognize and support your desire to arrange things to suit yourself. You are not moved by an ugly desire to overreach your fellow-man; you are simply determined to keep level with him at all times, and as people born under other signs are usually losers in some of the encounters of life you, the Libra-born, must not be surprised if, on the average, you come out a little ahead of everyone else.


Your lucky colours are white, yellow and blue. Your lucky flowers are foxglove, violet, daisy and lily-of-the-valley. Your lucky gems are the moonstone, sapphire, opal, beryl and coral. These are trivial considerations, however, when compared with the long-established astrological fact that women born under Libra are exceptionally lucky in love. Do not trade too heavily on this; do not assume that whatever you do, you can’t go wrong. But if you use ordinary gumption, you have a better chance than most girls of having a few recollections to whisper to your grandchildren when your children are out of the room. This particular kind of good fortune does not extend to Libra men; their success lies in trades which mean delving in the earth — mining, plumbing and grave-digging. Whether this latter good fortune extends to the higher flights of the mortician’s art is a question for which Wizard Marchbanks has not yet been able to wring an answer from the stars.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson