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

INSPECTOR: True, and if I decide against death I don’t want to catch a cold.

That is a snatch from Ibsen’s early drama The Pensions Co-Ordinator. It was never much of a success.

Monday: A magnificent day, and I passed a considerable part of it wishing I did not have to work. The more complex our civilization becomes, the less fun there is in it and the more work there is to do. The ultimate in civilizations is that of the ants, who work ceaselessly, and have no fun at all. And what do they get out of it? Well — did you ever look at an ant’s face under a microscope? It looks exactly like a photograph of Henry Ford. . . To the movies tonight and saw a very dull film which tried to make out that missionaries have a lot of fun. Well — did you ever look at a missionary’s face under a microscope? That is the result of trying to persuade the heathen that it is wrong to get stinko on the fermented juice of the banyan, without using profanity, police or physical violence. The fact that many missionaries are married also makes it hard to interest the heathen in the Christian institution of monogamy, which they confuse with monotony.

Tuesday: Upon the advice of my physician (a distinguished man who has a perfect understanding of my case) I take a little rest each day after lunch. But recently my repose has been shattered by a bird which imitates the sound of a telephone-bell perfectly. I compose myself for slumber, then br-r-r-ring goes this accursed bird, and up I jump and rush indoors to the phone, to find that there is nothing stirring at the other end of the wire. Naturalists deny the existence of any such bird, but it lives in a maple tree just by my verandah, and I have seen it; it is about the size of a jay, and has a black and green plumage. If I can catch it there will be telephone-bird pie on the menu at Château Marchbanks.

Wednesday: A very hot day, and owing to some lack of caution I had committed myself a week ago to do some heavy gardening today — to clean out a wilderness, in fact. The wilderness was a mosquito headquarters, and they were holding an oecumenical conference, which I broke up with a great display of personal bravery. There were times however when I debated whether it would not be easier to lie down and die on the spot than to go on with the job. I was forcibly reminded of a poem which I read years ago in Second or Third Book about a negro slave who collapsed in the field with his sickle in his hand, and died while thinking of his days of glory in Africa, where “the lordly Niger flowed”; he was too far gone to feel the heat of the sun, or the cruel overseer’s whip, or the indignity of his present position. That was just the way I felt. “Better death than work!” I cried, throwing myself into the jaws of my lawnmower, but it spat me out contemptuously. It is too dull to cut grass, let alone serve as an instrument of suicide.

Thursday: Was chatting today with a man who has just had a baby; that is to say, his wife actually had the baby, but as anyone knows who has experienced it, the work of the superintendent in such processes is often as exhausting as that of the mother. He was weak and run down, and subject to dizzy spells, as the people who have just had babies always are in the advertisements, so I urged him to get himself a good nerve tonic, and did what I could to revive him with strawberries. . . As men will, when they get together, we discussed the curious fact that, whenever it becomes known that you are going to have a baby, everybody hastens to tell your their favourite Horrible Tale about the Baby With Two Heads, or the Baby that Vanished, or the Baby that Got Mixed Up In The Hospital, and never knew whether it was a boy or a girl. Everybody likes to scare the wits out of an expectant father. I am going to write a book some day, called Radiant Fatherhood, which will make the whole thing seem beautiful and natural, and an experience to be cherished for a lifetime (which is, indeed, as long as one can cherish anything).

Friday: The morning paper contains yet another repetition of the claim that the Bible is the best-selling book in the world, and that Pilgrim’s Progress comes next. I see this assertion in some form or other about once a month, but I have never seen any figures to prove it, and I suspect that it is merely something which a number of devout people would like to believe. Of course many Bibles are sold; I have seven Bibles myself, three of which I bought, and four of which I was given. But for Pilgrim’s Progress — does anybody ever finish it? As a child my gorge rose at the lugubriousness of Pilgrim, and I had a wicked hankering for Vanity Fair; after I grew up I tried to read it again, and failed. Bunyan was a notable stylist, but his mind was the mind of a sanctimonious tinker.

Saturday: I see that the Dominion Bureau of Agriculture is urging us to keep goats; the bureau writes about goats with tenderness and affection. Once it was my duty to look after a family of goats — a nanny, a billy and a kid — for a week during an outdoor production of As You Like It, and in that time I grew to like them, and even to trust them. They had some nasty ways, but were really much more intelligent and friendly than cows. It is a lie to say that they eat tin cans and underwear; they like glue, and esteem the label from a tin can as a great delicacy, but they do not eat the tin, and they simply turn their noses up at an old undershirt. Nor do they butt you if you treat them kindly. My only complaint was that they stank — not a dirty or unwholesome smell, but a powerful animal emanation — and after I tended the goats I had to change my clothes before I was acceptable in fastidious circles. . . Goats have a lively sense of humour. They like to push and shove you to see if they can make you angry, and if you resent it, they jump up and down and laugh. But if you shove them back again, and hurl genial insults at them, they know that you are a good fellow, and accept you as a sort of honorary goat. I have had some high old times with goats.



Sunday: Off on my annual holiday today, to the United States for the first time since 1958. Crossed the St. Lawrence on a ferry, in company with fifteen million fuzzy insects; asked a man with a glass eye what they were; “Sand fleas,” he replied laconically. Did not believe him. . . Stayed tonight in a hotel in the Adirondacks, which is famous because Theodore Roosevelt once changed horses there. Many relics of him were on display, including his raincoat, rucksack, and a horseshoe which was wittily labelled as “not from one of his horses.” Reflected that I have many such relics at Marchbanks Towers, including a bed in which Queen Elizabeth never slept, a pen which was not used to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and a cake which was not burned by King Alfred. Take this negative attitude toward antiques, and we all are richer than we ever imagined.

Monday: On the road all day, with pauses for refreshment and to look at dubious antiques. Visited the New York State Capitol at Albany, and saw a drum displayed in its entrance-hall which had been seized from the British in the Revolutionary War. Was filled with a wild impulse to break the glass, snatch it back again, and run like hell for the Canadian border, but as I had just finished lunch I decided that it would not really be a practicable plan. Pressed onward, and gaped in amaze at the magnificent palaces which line the Hudson River. Wanted to visit President Roosevelt’s former home at Hyde Park, but for some reason it was closed. Stopped for dinner at Tarrytown, and in the Florence Hotel there had an adventure so frightful that I shall not even confide it to the private pages of this Diary. Never, since Mr. Pickwick found himself trapped in the bedchamber of the Lady with Curl Papers, has a traveller suffered so acutely and so undeservingly.

Tuesday: Entered New York this morning; it cost me ten cents at the Hendrick Hudson toll-bridge, which I thought rather expensive; I am used to getting into cities for nothing. However, when one is travelling, one must expect to spend a certain amount of money foolishly. . . Had lunch in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, which was about as pleasant as anything could be, for in addition to serving a top-notch lunch these enlightened Americans permit one to have a bottle of their own California wine at meals. In spite of this freedom I did not see anyone who was even slightly drunk, much less in a condition to swoon upon the ground, or hack at the modern statuary. . . Afterward rode in Central Park in an open carriage (I am essentially a barouche man, and have never really accepted the motor car) and the driver attempted to cheat me out of a dollar, but was foiled. After some argument I drew myself up: “Shall we submit this to the arbitrament of a constable?” said I. “Aw Cheest!” he said, and drove away. New York, I perceive, contains almost as many rogues as Toronto.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson