Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

BUILT-IN LSD / The charm of LSD, I gather from some excitable pieces for and against that have been in the papers, is that it enables the user to see deeper into inanimate things, to perceive colours more splendidly and sounds more ravishingly, than most people. It dawns upon me that it gives something of the perception of an artist — specifically a poet; indeed, it brings back something of the clean vision of childhood. I can recall, at a very early age, standing transfixed before a peony, feeling myself drawn into its gorgeous colour; I know I was very young at the time, for the peony and I were about the same height. But the important thing is that I can still do this, with sight and sound, when I choose, so it is very easy for me to go on a trip — which I believe is the expression now for this sort of experience. But one does not always enjoy it. “If a monkey looks into a mirror, no apostle will look out,” says Lichtenberg, one of my favourite philosophers. We all have a good deal of monkey in us, and when he is uppermost we should be very careful about seeking extensions of experience.

DOGS ON THE UP-AND-UP / For years people have belaboured me about what they consider to be my disrelish for dogs; not only do they love dogs — I must love them too. But recently a philosopher friend (well, as much a friend as any real philosopher ever permits himself to be, for fear of accidents) took up the fight. “Dogs relate us to the chthonic realm,” said he, “and without some measure of chthonicity you are an imperfect human being.” He thought to bamboozle me with his fancy Greek word, but I already knew it, and what is more, I pronounce the initial “ch” which is more than he could do because he always has catarrh. It just means “of the lower world,” and the lower world is much in fashion these days. But I know dogs. They are aware that they belong to a lower world, and are trying to improve themselves by begging upper-world food, lolling in upper-world chairs, and snuffling wetly at upper-world ankles (from which they proceed upward until outraged modesty demands that I give them a kick in the slats). Dogs are trying to take over, and I know it. Not that a dogocracy could be much worse than what we have now.

BLESS YOU! / Since childhood’s happy hour I have been the possessor of a particularly loud sneeze. It is not the loudest in the world; an Irishman I have known for many years has a super-sneeze which he heralds with a plaintive cry, somewhat like that of an epileptic just before a seizure, and beside him I am but a child in sternutation. But I am a pretty good sneezer, and kindly people say “God bless you” in awed voices, after they have crawled from under the tables where they have taken shelter. This custom of blessing a sneezer is said to have originated with Saint Gregory the Great, though the Romans said “Absit Omen,” which is as near as a Roman ever got to blessing anybody. My Jewish friends, of course, say “Gesundheit” and one of them explained to me that it is an old Jewish belief, traceable to the Cabbala, that when a man sneezes his soul flies out of his mouth for an instant (presumably on an elastic) and in that fateful twinkling a demon may rush into his body, cut the elastic, and take charge. I know a good many people whose general hatefulness, contrariety and all-round objectionableness may well be the result of a sneeze during which the blessing was forgotten.

From My Files

To Apollo Fishorn, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Fishorn:

I am ashamed that a young Canadian playwright such as yourself should write to me complaining that he cannot think of a theme for a major work.

Out of pity for you, I suggest the following: the steps by which the barbarous mediaeval treatment of insane persons was supplanted by our modern comparatively humane methods.

That would make a fine chronicle play. And don’t forget that the Quakers were the first people to establish a hospital in which the insane were treated as human beings with personal preferences and rights. It is a matter of history that Quakers spent many hours finding out from their patients what they liked to eat, instead of giving them dirty skilly in dippers. And there is one of your best scenes, roughly like this:

SCENE: a cell in a Quaker hospital. Mad Bess is happily banging her head against the wall. Enter a Quaker.

QUAKE: Peace be upon you, woman. Prithee give over. Thee will injure thee’s brainpan.

MAD B: Yahoo! Cockyolly, cockyolly!

QUAKE: Tell me, prithee, dost thee like marmalade or jam on thee’s breakfast toast?

MAD B: They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.

QUAKE: Very like, dear sister. But speaking of breakfast toast —

MAD B: Come, my coach. Good night, ladies, good night.

QUAKE: It may be as thee says. But in the morning, dost thee like jam or marmalade on thee’s breakfast toast?

(Enter Elizabeth Fry, the great Quaker humanitarian)

E. FRY: How fares the work, brother?

QUAKE: But tardily, sister. This dear sister here cannot say whether she wants jam or marmalade on her breakfast toast.

E. FRY: Come sister, I am Elizabeth Fry. Tell me what thee wants on thee’s toast.

MAD B: Oh, so you’re one of the Frys, are you? Then bring me a great big delicious, steaming, vitamin-packed cup of Cadbury’s breakfast cocoa!

(Confusion; Elizabeth Fry and Quaker look pained, and Mad Bess strikes the wall again with her head; the wall breaks through; she escapes.)

There; you see how impressive it could be? Shame on you for despairing.

S. Marchbanks.


To Genghis Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Cousin Genghis:

I am laid low with a cold on my chest which I have been treating with medicated steam. How do you suppose the notion took hold of the gullible public that steam was good for such afflictions? For three days I have lived in an atmosphere like that of a Turkish bath, and I think I am worse, if anything. I have a roaring cough, and pains in my back and legs as though dozens of malignant gnomes were prodding me with old-fashioned bone hairpins. Other gnomes are busy among my tripes with knitting needles.

Steam has been my watchword in such afflictions since I was a boy. I well recall that when I lived in England a friend of mine burst into my room one day as I sat with a towel over my head inhaling the balsam fumes from a fragrant jug; he crept away on tiptoe, and told me afterward that he thought I was at some sort of special worship — a Canadian Day of Atonement — or perhaps weeping uncontrollably into the jug. But I have never found steam of much use. My face takes on a swollen, boiled look, and that is all. Still, steam is as good for a cold as anything else the medical profession has dreamed up.

Yours from the fog,



To Mervyn Noseigh, M.A.

Dear Mr. Noseigh:

No no; I am not in the least offended by your letter asking about my sex life. I fully realize that no study of an author, living or dead, is of any value without this sort of saucy exploration. And my disenchantment has undoubtedly had more effect on literature than anything since Henry James had his mysterious misadventure.

Like every Canadian of my generation, I picked up my knowledge of Sex in the gutter. I well remember the day I did so. There it was, a torn scrap of print, fluttering on the very edge of a manhole. I picked it up, and studied it with care. So far as I could make out, much of it was in foreign languages — squiggly scripts that meant nothing to me; but there was a little left of the English section, and from it I discerned that headaches, a furred tongue, and occasional spots before the eyes were signs of — the fragment was torn at that point, but it was obviously Sex.

From that time forward I made discreet enquiries of every attractive girl I met about her headaches; they never had any. Once I reached a point of intimacy where I was able to ask a marvellous girl to show me her tongue; it was as clean as could be, so obviously I had been misled about her feelings for me, and broke off the affair with a heavy heart.

Years later I discovered that what I had found in the gutter was part of the literature that comes wrapped around bottles of Eno’s Fruit Salts.

Such are the tragedies that maim the lives of millions.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson