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

Wednesday: Having heard many travellers’ tales of the dreadful deceptions practised upon strangers in New York, I walked about the city today expecting to be accosted by men who wanted to sell me gold bricks, or possibly the controlling interest in Brooklyn Bridge. However, nothing of the sort happened. Decided that perhaps my appearance was too urbane, so this afternoon I tried chewing a straw and saying, “Wal I swan to thunderation!” every time I looked at a high building. Still no rush of confidence men. Perhaps the perils of New York are exaggerated. . . The shops are full of things to buy — possibly too full. At any rate I suffer from a sensation of surfeit when faced with so much merchandise and don’t want to buy anything. I am content to stroll about the streets and admire the beauty of the women, which is somewhat standardized, but breathtaking none the less. Strawberry shortcake is standardized, but nobody ever gets too much of it. . . And the charm of this city is that when one is tired it is possible to get a glass of beer without resorting to a stinking pest-hole called a Beverage Room.

Thursday: Wandered about the streets, enjoying whatever sights came my way. Looked into the Temple Emanu-El, the principal synagogue, and thought it vastly more beautiful than St. Patrick’s, which, by the way, is having its face washed, and nothing can be seen of the outside of it but scaffolding and irritable, plethoric pigeons. . . Saw also a man in sackcloth, with unkempt beard and hair, bearing a sign which read “Indict Senator Bilbo; UNO and World Government.” Recollecting J. S. Mill’s warning that a country where eccentricity is a matter for reproach is in peril, I tried not to stare at him too curiously, though his lacklustre eye and general appearance of madness fascinated me. Was talking to a lady this afternoon who said, “Have you been to the theatre yet, Mr. Marchbanks?” I replied, as politely as I could: “Madam, when I am in a city which possesses a theatre I am on hand whenever it is open to the public. I consider the theatre to be the most rational, enspiriting, rewarding and ecstatic of human entertainments, greatly superior to music and painting. Does that answer your question?” She fled in dismay, poor witling.

Friday: Henceforth, when anyone asks me “Were you in ‘Twenty-One’ when you were in New York?” I shall say that I was, but my answer will be disingenuous. This evening a New Yorker took me to dinner, and as we discovered a mutual passion for Chinese food he whisked me to 21 Mott Street, an unimpressive establishment in Chinatown where I ate such food as only the gods and a few particularly favoured mortals are privileged to taste. After a careful inspection of the menu we decided to order the Wedding Banquet For Eighteen, and eat it all ourselves. This we did, augmenting it with many bowls of rice and uncounted cups of delicious Chinese tea. (At least, I stopped counting after my tenth cup.) Together, this congenial soul and I waded through such a mass of fried shrimps, chicken, pork, almonds, bean shoots, bamboo sprouts, ginger, soybean and crisp noodles as I never saw before in my life, while our female companions picked away daintily (in the way of women) at a few poor trifles provided for them. After this we went for a ride on the Staten Island ferry, to enjoy the air and contemplate our inward bliss.

Saturday: Left New York today. Passed through a ghost town called Piercefield, which contained more derelict houses than inhabited ones. I suppose young ghosts go there to get a little preliminary experience in haunting. I don’t know why they complain of a housing shortage in the U.S.A. when Piercefield is wide open. . . Picnic lunch, and tried to open some bottles of root beer with a penknife, with the usual explosive, sticky, messy result. At last drove off in dudgeon to get a decent lunch at an hotel, and had no trouble in finding an excellent one. Why is it, I wonder, that the hotels even in New York State villages are so much pleasanter, better-smelling, and better provided with food than those in quite large Canadian cities? Consumed steak and lemon pie not far below New York standards. . . . On into the Adirondacks for the night and slept amid scenery that would delight a Welshman or a Scot. Mountains, like the sea, are in the blood.


Sunday: Some important atomic bomb tests were held today, but no consequences were observable in my part of the world. Half-consciously I had been expecting the end of everything, and had made preparations accordingly. I burned a few letters which I did not wish to have vaporized; when we are all reduced to atoms, who can tell what atoms will read other private atoms, as they hurtle through space? I put a few of my more prized possessions in prominent places so that they would be vaporized as prominently and showily as possible. I threw a few bricks and rocks into my furnace, so that its vaporization might be painful. Then I spent as much time as I could manage lying on a sofa so that if necessary, I might enter Eternity in a relaxed posture. But nothing happened.

Monday: Cut my grass today. I neglected it over the weekend, thinking that the atomic bomb might settle all such problems forever. As I plodded back and forth I reflected miserably upon my own political rootlessness, in a world where politics is so important. When I am with Tories I am a violent advocate of reform; when I am with reformers I hold forth on the value of tradition and stability. When I am with communists I become a royalist — almost a Jacobite; when I am with socialists I am an advocate of free trade, private enterprise and laissez-faire. The presence of a person who has strong political convictions always sends me flying off in a directly contrary direction. Inevitably, in the world of today, this will bring me before a firing squad sooner or later. Maybe the fascists will shoot me, and maybe the proletariat, but political contrariness will be the end of me; I feel it in my bones. . . Tiger, my kitten has wandered away.

Tuesday: Tiger not back for breakfast; that cat treats its home like an hotel. . . No mail this morning. It is a constant source of surprise and indignation to me that, although half my life is spent in writing letters, nobody ever writes to me. Of course I get mail; there were the usual government handouts, addressed to me by chair-warmers at Ottawa and Toronto; there were the usual printed appeals urging me to hasten somewhere and give my life in the cause of somebody’s freedom; there were the usual people who wanted to give me a course in short-story writing, or convert me to the cult of colonic irrigation; there were thick reprints of speeches delivered by the presidents of insurance companies; there was a letter from a woman urging me to investigate the unsatisfactoriness of modern underpants, in which (she says) electrician’s tape is used instead of elastic. But not a word addressed to me personally — not even a postcard. Disheartening.

Wednesday: Still no Tiger; worried about her. Enquired of some children if they had seen her. “Perhaps she has wandered off with the Toms; two of our kittens did,” said they. This alarmed me greatly. Wandered off with the Toms! What an appalling thought! What a revelation of feline delinquency! Do the Toms engage in a hideous traffic in young cats — White Slavery in the cat world? At night, when all is still and the human world lies wrapped in sleep, do raffish crews of roistering Toms rush through the streets, curling their silky moustaches and luring innocent little pussies to a Fate Worse Than Death? Is Tiger at this very moment living in Guilty Splendour in some underground Haunt? Surrounded by every luxury — fish-skeletons galore, Jersey cream in kegs, catnip unlimited — does she ever think of her simple home and the toads she used to play with in the back garden? I shall advertise for her.

Thursday: Answer to my advertisement for Tiger. “Did youse lose a cat?” said a voice over the phone. “What kind of cat have you got?” I countered. “Kind of a yalla cat,” said the voice. “My cat was not yellow,” I replied indignantly, and hung up. . . I see by the paper that an American gentleman called Mr. Walter Littlefield does not like the expression “the common man” and suggests that we adopt the word made famous by the sixteenth century morality play, and speak of “Everyman.” This is a good idea, but it won’t work. It would be vulgarized out of all recognition in six months. Not merely Everyman, but “Jake Q. Everyman” would appear in print, and on the very first Mother’s Day we would be asked to send carnations to “Everymom.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson