Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Each member of the Laudable Litter League pledges himself never again to give his garbage to a wasteful urban collector, for burning; instead he takes it into the country (preferably in the dark of the moon, as this is the time approved by our hero, the late Rudolf Steiner) and throws it into the field of some farmer whose soil appears to be impoverished. This should be done by stealth, for the League seeks no credit for its good work.

Begging you to become an honorary L.L.D. (Laudable Litter Distributor) at once, I remain,

Yours literally,

Minerva Hawser.


To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Hydra:

As I have written to you so often in tones of complaint, it gives me particular pleasure to pay you a compliment on the agreeable manners of the men who deal with immigration on the international bridges at Niagara Falls. As Overseer of Conduct for Civil Servants I thought that you would like to hear about this. During the past month I had some work to do in Niagara Falls, Canada, but I was living with some friends in Niagara Falls, USA, and I use the bridges a good deal.

Each time I crossed I answered much the same questions. “Where were you born?” “Skunk’s Misery, Ontario,” I would reply, in an accent which I acquired abroad, and which has at various times caused me to be taken for an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman, and a native of the Scilly Isles. This accent, and an appearance which suggests an archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church, sometimes throws doubt on my Skunk’s Misery origin. But I was always believed. Then, after a few more queries about my sex life and financial status, I would be passed through, with bows and cries of “Huzza for Marchbanks!” If I had any luggage the Customs men would finger it delicately, compliment me on the neatness of my packing and the exquisite taste which I showed in choosing socks and underpants, and wave me on.

The bridge attendants have a sterner side, however, as I saw on my last journey across the bridge. The man who came after me was elderly, with flowing white hair and a goatee — obviously a Southern Colonel. “Have you anything to declare?” asked the Canadian Immigration man. “I declare it’s a mighty hot day, suh!” said the Colonel. As I drove away he was dragged into the Customs House and the thud of cudgels on pulpy flesh mingled with screams in a Southern accent rent the air. Presumably he was suspected of importing a joke, which would of course have been intolerable to our local funnymen, completely upsetting the economy of their trade.

Yours loyally,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Chandos Fribble, ESQ.

Esteemed Fribble:

I want you to look into a curious psychological twist which has recently become observable in advertisements for cars. One of these (I need not specify the maker’s name) shows a young man who is about to kiss a very pretty girl, but turns his head at the vital moment to look at a passing car. The second shows a young man in the act of telling a charming girl that he loves her hair, her eyes, and her father’s new car. The third shows a young couple doting upon — a baby? each other? — no, upon a bright shiny car.

Now, Fribble, it looks to me as though the North American male were beginning to exalt motor cars to the position in his esteem once held by women. This is dangerous, and I would like to find out how far it has gone. For if this trend continues the day is not far off when the American male will mate, not with a woman, but with his car, and the result of this union will probably be a winsome, cuddly little motorcycle.

Yours in alarm,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Waghorn Wittol, ESQ.

Dear Wittol:

I understand your position exactly. When strange men call on the phone and want to know where Mrs. Wittol is, or to describe to you their feelings toward Mrs. Wittol, it must be very boring for you. But why do you not develop a technique for such callers?

For years I have used a variety of methods for discouraging phoners who are nuisances. The simplest, and one of the best, is to pretend that you can’t hear, and demand repetitions, which you interrupt with cries of “It’s no use: I can’t hear a word you say.” But it is also a good idea to lay the phone down gently, and then to go elsewhere and read a book. This gives the impression that you have been carried off by fairies, or perhaps a great eagle. Sneezing and coughing into the instrument are also effective, when followed by a muttered “Excuse me,” and another blast, or perhaps a groan. And you can always pretend to be talking to someone else in the room with you, so that the phoner gets an impression of divided attention.

There are dozens of ways to discourage telephoners. You must learn to protect yourself.

Regards to your wife — if she is still yours.


From My Meditations

MUSICAL PUZZLER / Mingled with some musical people today, almost on terms of equality. I like musical people but I am always astonished by the dogmatic quality of their statements, especially when they are young. For instance, a young lady who was probably about nineteen asserted this afternoon that J. S. Bach had embraced the whole scope of human feelings in his music in a manner more sublime than that of any other composer. I could not permit this to pass. “Where does Bach make even a passable stab at an expression of romantic love?” I asked her, and she could not answer. And truly old Bach, who had two wives and twenty children, had not much to say about this important matter; the majesty of his harmony and the remorseless deedle-doodle of his counterpoint were not geared for it, and in this sphere such lesser creatures as Puccini beat him hollow. The young woman took her revenge by behaving toward me as if I had no soul, which was typically feminine, and pained me not at all. I have quite a large soul — a number 9.

SCENTING AN AUDIENCE / In a weak moment some months ago I agreed to talk to a women’s club today. I am a hardy optimist; when people ask me to make speeches several months before the appointed time I often accept, stupidly thinking that in the interval something will happen to prevent me from making good my promise. But the fateful day always comes, and there I am, on my feet, clutching my notes, with despair in my heart. An audience entirely of men is bad enough, but an audience entirely of women is as frightening as a battery of machine guns. There is one thing about female audiences, though — they have a delicious smell. Powder, expensive textiles and scent — all favourite sniffs of mine, — combine to make them more glorious than a June garden. I am sure not one of these ladies today was wearing any scent below the rank of Chanel Number Five, and I thought I detected several twenty-five-dollars-an-ounce whiffs, for they were wealthy women, knee-deep in good works. So I inhaled deeply and gave tongue. Audiences of men smell of cigars, whisky, and shoe-polish, which inspires me with solemn and world-shaking thoughts, unsuitable for the more delicate intellects of women.

UNVEILING THE FEET / A rainy day, and this afternoon I attended a gathering at which several ladies appeared in overshoes of a type new to me. They were not the honest old goloshes which for generations have made Canadian women look like Brahma hens, but new-fangled creations of a milky-semi-transparent plastic, which gave their feet a mysterious air and which, when removed, looked like the ghosts of overshoes. Several ladies, I also observed, wore what appeared to be bedsocks under their goloshes, but upon closer examination I found that these were little bags which they wore to protect their shoes from being scratched by the (presumably) harshly abrasive linings of their overshoes. There is no enchantment in the spectacle of a woman unwrapping her feet; in my younger days girls wore heavy knitted bloomers over their fine silk-step-ins when attending winter parties, but they always took them off in a room provided for that purpose. A room for foot-unveiling would save much coy balancing in hallways.

DECLINING ART / Pondered upon the decline of the once great art of Striking-the-Match-on-the-Seat of the Pants; I saw a girl in slacks trying to do so, and although she had an impressive acreage of taut trouser upon which to work she could not manage it. A girl! The greatest master of this art I ever knew was an employee in a woodyard, who never spoke of girls save in terms of obscene contempt; how his oaken heart would ache, and his teak head tremble, if he knew that now only girls seek to excel in the trick of which he was a master. He relit his pipe — a short clay — at least fifty times every morning, and always struck his match with a glorious ripping sound upon his blue-jeaned fundament. He died when a load of logs fell on him; if he had survived, shame would finish him now.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson