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

Thursday: My coal bin is empty at last. For weeks I have been feeding my furnace a mixture of coke, slack, wood-shavings, cannel coal and odds and ends of rope and raffia from the floor of my coal bin, and now it is all gone. I shall not buy any more. I am, I think, a tolerant, easy-going fellow, but when it is suggested that I should spend any more money on that accursed furnace this year, everything goes black before my eyes, and I fall on the floor, foaming at the mouth and uttering animal cries. Of course, I cannot freeze. I have a woodpile, and I shall keep my furnace burning with that. If, when it is all done, the weather is still cold, I shall move to an hotel. My furnace does not like wood, and makes horrid stinks when given wood to burn. It shoots smoke up its heating pipes, and heat up its chimney, and keeps my whole house at the temperature and atmosphere of an Indian tepee. But I do not care. I can endure anything better than spending money for another load of coal — half of which (the big half) will be coke. Anyhow, other big expenses loom before me. My lawnmower simply must be sharpened; I neglected having this done and now a large machine shop has undertaken the work, on a cost-plus basis.

Friday: Nothing happened to me today which was not routine; my life grows duller and duller. Sometimes I think that I should take up a hobby, but the problem always is, which one? I could breed budgerigars, but I’m not sufficiently interested in budgerigars. I could become an authority on the history of something-or-other, but that would be so much like my ordinary work that it would not recreate me. I once worked up a small enthusiasm for wood-carving, but when I found that it meant investing $100 or so in chisels and gouges, and haunting lumber yards in search of fine pieces of Spanish mahogany and sandalwood my enthusiasm waned. The trouble is that I don’t really like doing anything; I just like to sit, and when I sit I become bored. It’s a vicious circle, and I suppose I am what the psychologists call maladjusted. . . I once knew a man whose hobby was making jewellery. He had a few stones and a few chunks of gold and silver, and he made rings and brooches which he gave to his friends. They were so horrible that nobody would wear them, but that was his fulfilment. I also knew a chap who did rotten bookbinding; his system was to take a book which you really liked, and bind it in suede leather which made your teeth grate. I finally got so I didn’t care whether he was fulfilled or not.

Saturday: Having averted my face from it for several weeks, I tackled the problem of Income Tax today. People of a mathematical turn of mind tell me that the forms are very simple if you attack them logically, but I am incapable of attacking an Income Tax form logically, or even coolly. Whatever my Better Self may say about citizenship and duty, my Worser Self remains convinced that it is a wicked shame that the government should take a big chunk of my earnings away from me, without so much as telling me what the money is to be used for. I know about the Baby Bonus, of course, but whose baby, specifically, am I bonussing with my money? Probably a damp, sour-smelling baby which I should hate if I met it face to face. Whose Old Age Pensions am I paying? Probably those of some lifelong prohibitionists, if the truth were known! People to whom I would not give a used paper handkerchief if I met them in the street are picking my pockets by means of this iniquitous Income Tax! The whole thing puts me into such a passion that I am incapable of adding and subtracting correctly. Clutching hands seem to snatch at me out of the paper until I scream and scream and scream.


Sunday and May Day: A man who spent part of the winter up in the Kapuskasing district told me that the best-dressed people in Canada live there. They haven’t much to spend their money on beside personal adornment, and they go in for rich and colourful raiment of a kind never seen in the city. Manufacturers prepare special lines of Babylonian parkas and Tyrian wind-breakers for the northland which are unknown in the cities of Ontario, where men dress in gray and blue sacking and allow their wives to choose their ties for them. In the north, this man told me, the trappers and loggers are great patrons of the beauty shops, and like to have their hair and beards arranged in crinkly marcels. I was not surprised to hear this, for man in a natural state is a vainglorious creature; it is only when he puts on the shackles of civilization that he becomes colourless, shamefaced, and slinking. . . May Day today, which I celebrated by organizing a dance round the May Pole for some children, after which I treated them to chunks of May Pole sugar, which is scarce this season.

Monday: Today at lunchtime I saw a girl’s hat blow off into the street; she was a pretty girl (well — fairly pretty — not fat, anyhow), nicely dressed, and her distress was pitiable to see. The hat was a small round gray felt gourd, and after rolling about in the dirt for a while, it came to rest under a parked car. With the alertness of an old campaigner in the Sex War, I at once took cover in a shop door, for I knew that that girl would immediately be on the lookout for a man to get her hat for her, and I had no mind to crawl on my ulcers in the street, under somebody else’s oily old jalopy. Sure enough, she had her victim within three minutes; simpering pathetically he fished out the hat, and his reward was a smile — not nearly enough in these days. . . But at five o’clock I saw a young workman lose his cap in the street, and what happened? His companions jeered coarsely, young women sniggered and sharpened their fingers at him, and a big fat capitalist in a blue car rode right over his hat just as he was snatching for it. This typical display of the inequalities under which men struggle in the modern world saddened me so much that I hardly had strength to resist a young Jehovah’s Witness who tried to sell me a magazine on my way home.

Tuesday: My cold is not better; it is worse, and I am confronted by one of those vexing problems for which there is no wholly satisfactory solution. Shall I stay at home, and enjoy the delights of mild invalidism, or shall I do my day’s work, and enjoy the gloomy pleasures of martyrdom?. . . To lie in bed, cosseted with hot-water bags and flannel chest-warmers, supping gruel, syllabubs, and tansy tea — that is the ideal state on a vile, rainy, soggy day like this. But again, to snuffle at my work, to throw paper handkerchiefs into the waste basket in monotonous rhythm, to cough pitifully and roll my rheumy eyes toward Heaven whenever anyone reproaches me — this, too, is bliss. . . Then again a man with a cold is a privileged snarler; he can be as abrupt as he likes with his colleagues, and they are forced to believe that it is his illness which speaks through his lips, and not his habitual sweet spirit. Lying in bed, there is no one to snarl at, for if one snarls at one’s nurse she may retaliate with a mustard plaster — which is, of course, for one’s own good, and has nothing whatever to do with revenge. . . I eventually decided in favour of work, and developed a cough which sounds like coal pouring down a chute.

Wednesday: I watch the TV a good deal these days, for I am enchanted by the wonders of the newscasts, though occasionally I shed a tear for the ignorance of the announcers. Today I heard Connecticut with the second “c” sounded — an inexcusable solecism, and yesterday I heard Count Bernadotte called “Bernadotty.” I am often told that TV announcers cannot be faultless; I know that, but I insist that they should speak like educated people, and not like members of the backward squad at the Frontier College. After all, they are paid to talk, and if they cannot speak well they are bad workmen, and deserve criticism like other bad workmen. If man has conquered the air merely to fill it with bombs and illiteracy, we might as well discount this civilization, and try a new one.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson