The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Revised Edition (1966) by Robertson Davies

Saturday: Was in a bookshop today, reading a magazine on the sly, when a man and a woman came in and bought a school-book for their child. Neither one had the look of a reader (this is understatement) and as they left the man said, “Jeez if they were onto their job they’d put all this school stuff in one book, and then I wouldn’t be all the time wastin’ money.” This seemed to me to sum up much of the popular attitude toward books and education. There was a time when reformers thought that if education were available to the masses, the masses would love it, and every humble cottage would be bursting at the seams with cheap reprints of the world’s classics. In this supposition, as in many another, the reformers were somewhat optimistic. A real dictatorship of the proletariat — if such a thing existed — would quickly result in a bookless world.


– XIV –

Sunday: One of those fine bright days upon which communion with Nature is all but obligatory, so I obediently made my way into the country and tried it. But fine as the phrase “communion with Nature” sounds, it is anything but easy in practice. Observed that the pussywillows were well advanced, but what of it? I never cared much for pussywillows. The roads were muddy, and the air smelled pleasantly of spring, except when I passed a swamp, where it smelled powerfully of drains. Investigated an old churchyard and read some old tombstones, and admired the carving on them, which was really very skilful, though not particularly tasteful. Nature seemed to have no special message for me, so I went home and resumed the combat with my furnace, which is trying to roast me alive.

Monday: Pondered upon the condition of my garden this afternoon. April and May are my heavy gardening months. I plant and sow and reap and mow and am a farmer’s boy until early June every year, and then, as the weather warms up I take to the hammock and trouble the soil no more until it is time to rake the leaves in Autumn. But April calls forth all my talents as a manurist, and this year I have been scientifically dosing every living thing around the Towers with costly, nasty-smelling substances. Two weeks ago I doled out sheep manure, for foliage; last week I distributed heaping teaspoonfuls of a magical chemical compound, for bloom; in ten days I shall creep up on all my plants with a hypodermic needle, and inject them with a colour-enriching plasma. But as I perform these rites I wonder how it is that jungles, which nobody loves, bloom so profusely. They need weeding; they get little sun; they worry along with a trifle of lion’s manure, but they do better than my pampered garden.

Tuesday: A friend of mine who is of a quaintly reflective turn of mind hailed me today with these words: “Has it ever struck you that Dickens, who made such a hullabaloo about Christmas, has nothing whatever to say about Easter? Can you imagine what might have happened if he had given us Easter at Dingley Dell? Can’t you imagine the Pickwickians walloping into the hot-cross buns, eating eggs by the dozen (probably with the shells on, out of pure high spirits) and knocking back gallons of Easter drinks? And what would an Easter drink be? Probably something flavoured with chocolate; cold cocoa and gin, for instance. Easter would be a different festival today, I can tell you, if Dickens had got his hooks on it!” And with these words he passed on, leaving me bewildered by the vision he had conjured up. Certainly it is true that there is an odd duality about our celebrations of Easter. The religious side of them, even the Resurrection, is treated in a pretty solemn fashion. And the other side — the secular business with rabbits and eggs — is paganism, with all the heartiness drained out of it. Yes, Easter needs its Dickens.

Wednesday: As I was slicing some bread this morning there was a ring at my door, and I opened it to find an ugly-faced ruffian with a heavy paunch standing on the mat. “D’yuh own this house or rent it?” he demanded. “Who wants to know?” I asked. “I do,” said Pauncho; “this house had oughta be insulated, and if yuh don’t own it there’s no good my wastin’ time talkin’ to yuh.” I disembowelled him neatly with the breadknife, and called the Sanitation Department to come and clear away the mess. . . I am often amazed that reputable firms, anxious to sell their products, will permit underbred, impudent, discreditable, rascally slubberdegullions to go from house to house, losing friends and alienating people from them. Nowadays, when there are so many government snoops and stool-pigeons asking questions everywhere, mere hawkers of potato-peelers, loose-leaf encyclopaedias, and patent jamjar rings think that they may adopt the same insulting tone. Consumption, cancer and the pox are all said to be on the increase in this country, but in my opinion the disease of bad manners is outstripping them all.

Thursday: Visited the dentist today, and as I was a few minutes early I had a chance to look around his waiting-room and make a few Holmes-like deductions from what I saw. Like all dentists, he is apparently a slow reader, for magazines which other people discarded in the 1942 salvage drive are just beginning to find their way to his table. Examined his diplomas carefully. Why do all the boss-dentists who sign these things write so illegibly? A man who cannot control a pen any better than that is surely a dangerous fellow to be poking about in one’s mouth with the nut-picks and tiny power driven grindstones which dentists use. Lying on the table was a parcel which obviously contained a pound box of a popular brand of candy, left there by the patient who was at that moment in the monster’s clutch. “Aha,” I thought; “a woman, obviously, and a self-indulgent woman at that; probably fat.” But when the door opened the candy was claimed by a big bruiser in a leathern jerkin, who had been getting his snappers put in condition for a delicious feast of nougat, chocolate creams, fudge, and caramels. There are times when I think that Sherlock Holmes was a fraud.

Friday: My furnace passed peacefully away in its sleep last night; I could have prolonged its life with a transfusion of coke, but I thought it better not to do so; its temperature had risen to 82°, and I was sweltering, so I let nature take its course. The obsequies will be celebrated very quietly by the ash-man. . . Thus ends another winter’s epic struggle, and as I watched my old enemy grow colder and colder this morning, I was able to think of him with the magnanimity of a victor. He did all he could to outwit me, but science, skill, experience, and superior brainpower were on my side. When I hung up my long poker and my clinkerhook, my scraper and my shaker, and put the shovel in the corner, there was triumph in my heart, but a little sadness too. . . My furnace now being extinct, and invalid as a source of grief and irritation to me, I masochistically turn my attention to my garden. I am learning about gardening in the only practical way — by experience. Last year I planted $3.45 worth of flower seeds, all in 5 cent packages, and not one single bloom rewarded my efforts. Maybe my method was wrong. My desire was to have a garden which might be described as “a riot of bloom,” and so I mixed all my 69 packets of seeds in a big bowl and sowed them broadcast through the flower beds; all I got was the usual riot of weeds. But once again I am filled with hope for my garden. Upon the pleasures of the past the sun never sets, and over its horrors the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy.

Saturday: The coming of spring may mean blossoms and picnics for some people, but I am faced with enough repairs and painting to keep me busy till the dogdays. Did some staining today, with a particularly volatile stain, most of which I absorbed into my system through my nose; probably my breathing apparatus is a rich mahogany colour in consequence. . . . The fumes of the stain, combined with some chocolates which I unwisely ate, produced a mystical lethargy, in which I saw strange visions; the lethargy was succeeded by a headache, which I cured with tablets. . . Was trying to explain about Hitler to some children today; he was, I said, a very bad man. “Was he the kind that wanted his custard before he’d eaten up all his meat and vegetables?” one of them asked. I said that his sins had been even more scarlet than that, but was unable to abridge the iniquities of the Third Reich to nursery terms, for fear of putting ideas into their heads. . . It turned cold tonight, and as my fireplace was inadequate for my wants, I had to relight my furnace. I make no bones about it; this was an humiliation which I found hard to swallow. The furnace giggled and sniggered and made thumping noises all evening, just to let me know that it was there, and had not finished with me yet.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson