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

Tuesday: Sent a telegram today containing the word “critic.” Had a hard time convincing the girl who took my message that such a word existed, and that I did not mean “cricket.” Later on I went into a bookshop and asked for Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of A Little Town. The girl in the shop had never heard of it! One of the finest, if not the finest, book ever written about Canadian life, read all over the world and translated into several foreign languages, and she had never heard of it! What do these people learn at school? What occupies the chamber in their minds where miscellaneous information should be stored? How do they manage to get through life without finding out anything? And how do these intellectual shut-ins ever get jobs?

Wednesday: I may not be able to grow flowers, but my garden produces just as many dead leaves, old overshoes, pieces of rope and bushels of dead grass as anybody’s and today I bought a wheelbarrow to help in clearing it up. I have always loved and respected the wheelbarrow; it is one wheeled vehicle of which I am perfect master. I cannot drive a car, I fall off bicycles, and the only time I tried to get into a wheelchair it tipped forward and threw me out. But with a wheelbarrow I am any man’s equal: I have not only a practical, but also a theoretical mastery of it; I once won a debate on the subject “Resolved: That a wheelbarrow is of more use on a farm than an Old Maid.” I took the affirmative side, and stunned the judges with my eloquence. But until today I have never had a wheelbarrow of my own. I must have a name painted on its side: Shall I call it “Falcon” or “Zephyr”?

Thursday: Sometimes I wonder if school teachers have any idea of the effect produced by their lessons in the minds of the young. This afternoon, filled with the fresh spirit of Easter, took some children for a country walk, and in no time at all they had discovered a dead skunk. In vain did I attempt to lure them from this treasure with seasonable talk. A dead skunk, so far as they were concerned, was directly related to Easter, for they had been instructed in the horrible death of the traitor Judas “who burst asunder in the midst and all his bowels gushed out”; they wanted the skunk to repeat this interesting and unusual feat. I had no great objection, for I thought that a little practical anatomy might be instructive, but I am never sure how dead a dead skunk really is: just as certain dead bodies in history have proved the undoing of their murderers, I feared that this skunk might prove the undoing of the children, so I applied a Russian veto, and we moved on to safer pleasures.

Friday: A conference which is going on now has caused the papers to be filled with cartoonists’ ideas of what personified Peace looks like; she is either an iron-jawed, gimlet-eyed female with a bust like the prow of a destroyer, or she is a droopy, big-eyed miss with no bosom at all, who looks as though she lived entirely on marshmallows; in both cases she wears a garment equally suggestive of a modest girl’s nightie, and the glory that was Greece. Why should Peace be such a pill?. . . Saw a couple of handsome stuffed owls in a window today and was sorely tempted to add them to my collection. But fond as I am of owls, stuffed or on the claw, there is no disputing that they create a somewhat close atmosphere, and people are complaining about my office already. Asthmatical visitors, and those who are allergic to feathers, begin to wheeze as they cross the threshold. Some day, when I have completed my collection of native owls, I am going to import one of those pretty little owls from Greece; they are about a foot high, and extremely fetching in appearance. They are the true owls of Minerva, and very intelligent; they say “Whoo!” in Greek. . . I get a good deal of mail, but little of it is personal, and none of it is interesting. The strangest people and institutions choose to send me letters; for some weeks past I have been getting communications from the American Institute of Laundering, who want to tell me why it takes them so long to do the washing. Frankly, I don’t care; I would never dream of sending my laundry to the States to be done up; I have it done in the Marchbanks Institute of Laundering, an excellent institution with a 100 per cent Irish staff, and it takes no time at all; if I want anything in a hurry, I can always fish it out of the ironing-basket and wear it rough-dried. . . The railways keep sending me messages, too, boasting about how much money they have made, which I think dreadfully bad taste. What would they think of me if I sent them letters saying, “Last year, after paying all bills and charges, Marchbanks had $7.68 to spend as he liked.” They would be disgusted; so am I.

Saturday: Discerned symptoms of a cold deep in my inner being today, and immediately set to work to circumvent it. For twenty-four hours before a cold breaks out in its unmistakable symptoms of salt rheum, cough and taedium vitae I suffer from tremblings of the spirit and a sense of impending doom; during this period I consume glass after glass of sodium bicarbonate in hot water; sometimes it does the trick and sometimes it does not. I got the idea that it would stave off a cold from a man who subsequently died of pneumonia, so I may be on the wrong track. But the results, whether healthful or not, are certainly violent. My frail form is racked by horrendous belchings, like the roars of a lion. The Chinese are said to frighten away evil spirits by beating gongs; I have my own not wholly dissimilar method.

– XVII –

Sunday: A cold, the like of which has never before confronted medical science, has me in its grip, and my head feels as though it had been roughly scooped out with a tin spoon, and stuffed with soiled laundry. My sense of taste has completely gone; I cleaned my teeth with a widely-advertised drain-opener tonight and did not even notice until it ate the bristles off my toothbrush. Went to bed, propped up on many pillows, so that I should not strangle in the night. Had a chest-rub, a hot drink, and crunched up a mouthful of aspirin before going to sleep. Woke, some hours later, having dreamed that I was in the grip of a big dog, which was tossing me from side to side and barking furiously. Was alarmed to find that in truth I was being thrown all over the bed by some mysterious agency, and the sound of deep, angry barking was deafening. As consciousness returned, I realized that I was having a Coughing Fit. As the old song has it:

I attempt from love’s sickness

To fly, in vain;

For I am myself

My own fever and pain.

I was myself my own dog, bark and all; each paroxysm raised me at least two feet above the bed, and then as I emitted a frightful roar it flung me down again. This went on for some time — long after I had begun to ask of Death where was its sting? But everything passes in this world, and at last I fell asleep, and dreamed that I was being suffocated.

Monday: Today I live in the gray, muffled, smelless, puffy, tasteless half-world of those who have colds.

Tuesday: Made the acquaintance of a rum-drinking budgerigar this evening. Was chatting with some people who offered me a glass of rum, and after I had been convinced that they were not joking and not crazy, I settled down in the cosy beatitude which comes over a man who has unexpectedly been given a drink. At this moment their budgerigar broke out of his cage, whizzed across the room and settled on my shoulder. I thought it was my simple and child-like nature which had fascinated him, but I was wrong. He cake-walked along my sleeve, suddenly dipped his beak into my glass and took a hefty swig; luckily Nature has not equipped budgerigars with much in the way of a gullet, so he didn’t get more than his share. He had a few more gulps, and then flew off to a mirror, in which he kissed his own reflection several times, with evident satisfaction. It has been years since I had enough rum to provoke any such ecstasy; there are advantages in a limited capacity.

Wednesday: A man who had been poking his nose into the MS. of this Diary told me he didn’t think it was very funny. This is the sort of comment which makes me secrete adrenalin by the bucketful. First of all, how did the ridiculous assumption spring up that my Diary was meant to be funny? What record of man’s life, shot through and through with toil and anguish, disappointment and shame, frustration and denial is ever funny? When Tolstoy gave up wealth and rank and, in an agony of pity and idealism, tilled the land with his peasants, was it funny? When Gauguin left a secure life in Paris and went to paint the beauties of Tahiti, casting his lot with savages, lepers and degenerates, was it funny? And when Marchbanks, furnace-fried and garden-torn, commits his reflections to his Diary, is that funny? No, baboon! No, donkey! Tragic, mystic, sublime, perhaps. But only a coarse and warty soul could find food for laughter here.

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