Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

CROWNING ENORMITY / I can no longer deceive myself that Autumn is not here, so today I retrieved my hat from the bottom of the hall cupboard, where somebody had stood an umbrella in it, and put it on. This Assumption of the Hat is a symbolic act with me, marking the end of Summer. As I trudged to work I saw many men wearing hats which bore unmistakable signs of imprisonment in hall cupboards; there is a crippled look about the brim of a long-disused hat which is ignominious. The wearers, too, have a self-conscious look, as though they expected people to laugh at them. In the ‘Twenties the enthusiasm for going without a hat in Summer arose, simultaneously with the Decline of the Straw Boater. It was thought to be good for the hair to expose it to the sun, wind, soot, sand, smog, fall-out and other elements. Even bald men allowed the Sun to beat down upon their poor skulls, hoping that some sort of vegetation might be encouraged thereby. The delusion that going without a hat is good for the hair has long since been abandoned; ordinary common sense shows that it is bad for the hair, making it dirty, dry and frizzled. But the habit persists, and every year, come Michaelmas, we have to learn to wear hats all over again.


(Discovered in entrails of a wild duck, written on birchbark)

To Big Chief Marchbanks.

How, Marchbanks:

This one hell country, Marchbanks. Look at weather. Every Fall people say to me how about Winter. And I say long Winter or short Winter if bears go to sleep or sit up till maybe Christmas. This year my best bear that I trust nearly twenty year go to sleep awful early. He sound asleep right after hunting season. So I say to everybody long hard Winter cause bear asleep. But no hard Winter come. So I go to bear nest and look inside. Bear sound asleep. What hell, I think. Then I see bottle in bear paw. Grab bottle. It say sleeping pills on outside, Marchbanks. Bear steal bottle from some big city hunter, busy fellow can’t sleep without pills. Bear eat every pill. Bear sleep like dead. I wish big city hunter stay out of woods. They ruin woods and weather forecast business for good Indian.

How again,

Osceola Thunderbelly,

Chief of the Crokinoles.

Culled from the Apophthegms of Wizard Marchbanks

It is hard to make an empty bag stand upright; even the most complete Social Security scheme can scarcely achieve it.

(October 24 to November 22)

Scorpio is the sign of the Scorpion, and those born under its influence are especially gifted in all matters relating to sex. It is usual for works on astrology to advise the Scorpio-born to do all that they can to master and subdue this remarkable and, let it be said, uncommon advantage. Wizard Marchbanks takes no such unrealistic attitude. You will find that most people are doubtful of their capacities in this respect; it is here that you have the advantage of them, and you would be stupid not to use it, for it is virtually the only advantage you have in the battle of life. You can do with a glance what others must toil to achieve and in the arts of entertainment you are invaluable, though rarely talented. Do not attempt to rival those born under other signs in such accomplishments as conversation or elegant attire, but concentrate on your specialty and in the end everything and virtually everybody will fall into your lap.


Not a bad group of colours for you: gold, yellow, red and orange. Your flowers are the honeysuckle and red carnation. Your gems, the moon crystal and the topaz. All astrological authorities, from the earliest to those appearing last year, are agreed that Scorpio people are very lucky in love — and when they say love, they do not mean mooning on a swing-seat on a verandah, but real-blood-and-thunder stuff with Eternal Triangles, Wagnerian music and pistols-for-two-and-coffee-for-one. Understandably, with a fate like this, you will need a fairly extensive wardrobe of gold, yellow and red clothes, and if you are a man you will naturally have a standing order for red carnation buttonholes with a reliable florist. Persons born under other signs are warned to be particularly careful of emotional entanglements with those born under Scorpio. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse: a nod or a wink to the Scorpio-born may mean the end of your peace of mind for quite a long time.

Health Hints for Those Born Under Scorpio

I do not intend to discuss your special focus of physical weakness with you. All I say is Look Out! Wizard Marchbanks flatly declines to discuss this matter further, and will not, however opulent the bribe, send any additional information in a plain, self -addressed envelope.


STEALTHY TERROR / There is an ugly development in the cellars at the Towers. I discovered a few days ago that a jar of brandied peaches which I had prepared against the Christmas festival had popped its seal, and made a mental note to do something about it. Today, when I got around to this chore, I found that a third of the peaches and a third of the brandy were gone, and there were signs about that mice were the culprits. Does this mean that a coven of inebriated mice are at large somewhere in my house, engaged in who can say what excesses? A mouse with a brandy jag might turn ugly, and decide that it wanted my bed. I am not unnerved by mice, as some people are, but they tickle, and what is more, their personal hygiene is of the most elementary sort. A mouse is not the lovable little creature that Disney presented to the world; it is as much like a rat as a pony is like a horse, and its disposition is unstable. I am rather worried about this situation, for I do not know how many mice have been at the brandy; ten or more could easily take over the proprietorship of the Towers, in a sudden, mutinous rush. I sat all evening with ears cocked, listening for tiny hiccups, almost too high for the human ear to detect, behind the wainscot.

A VULGAR ERROR / A man said to me today that what ailed the modern world was that it had forgotten about the Seven Deadly Sins. Not to be outdone in this line of argument I said that I considered that it was far worse that we had forgotten the Four Cardinal Virtues. He goggled, and had plainly never heard of these, so I named them — Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. He was himself an exemplar of what ails the world, with his yelping about sin, and his neglect of virtue. I suppose the poor boob thought that mere abstention from sin was virtue enough — a common, comical and somewhat criminal error.

MEALINESS OF MOUTH / “What pretty china!” exclaimed a guest who was taking a dish of tea at Marchbanks Towers this afternoon. “Madam,” said I, in what I hope was a polite tone, “that is not china, but crockery, and if you don’t know the difference between the two it is time you found out.”. . . The North American continent is afflicted with a vast amount of pseudo-gentility; we hate to call things by their proper names, and as a result we degrade and debase a number of fine words. Any fool knows china when he sees it; it is porcelain, has an unmistakable glow and finish, and can be wrought much thinner than crockery; crockery — which includes most of the vessels from which we eat and drink — is thicker, and in spite of its glaze it has no glow. It is made of clay, and looks it. There is no shame in using crockery; it is good, honest stuff and some of it has great beauty. But why pretend that it is china? If you can judge the height of the tea through the side of the cup, you are drinking from china; if you can’t, you aren’t. . . It is this same mealy-mouthed prissiness which describes any old chunk of cloudy bottle-glass as “crystal.”

WISDOM OF GILBERT / Saw the D’Oyly Carte opera company perform H.M.S. Pinafore, which I first saw them do when I was twelve and which I have seen roughly ten times since. Pondered upon this piece and the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in general. Though not a fanatic I am fond of them, not only because they are true works of art in themselves but because of the orderly, reasonable, intelligent and literate Victorian world of which they are a distorted reflection. There is a background of good sense and real wit to Gilbert’s libretti; this afternoon, at a tenth view, I saw more clearly than before what a wry and pungent piece of work Pinafore is; like Gulliver’s Travels you may take it as a pleasant phantasy, or as a powerful kick in the slats to all stratified societies, including those of the North American continent and the USSR. The Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been extravagantly praised for many reasons, but never, to my knowledge, for the savage and often melancholy wisdom that is in them; Sir William Gilbert was not a nice man, and his operas are not nice. They are something rarer; they are wise.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson