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

Tuesday: While looking for some other information in a book this afternoon, I stumbled upon an account of the early history of coffee, which apparently first invaded Europe in the guise of a valuable medicine. In 1652 it was advertised as being a certain cure for “consumption, dropsy, gout, scurvy, the King’s Evil and Hypochondriac Winds.” Furthermore, it was said that “It so incloseth the orifice of the stomach and fortifies the heat within, that it is very good to help digestion. . . it much quickens the spirits and makes the heart lightsome.” I can only conclude that they made better coffee in England in 1652 than they make today, for the present English brew is a certain provoker of hypochondriac winds and makes the heart heavy. I do not suppose that anyone will ever discover why the English cannot make coffee, while the Americans cannot make tea. It is one of those mysteries of racial constitution, like the fact that a Frenchman kissing a woman’s hand looks like a gentleman, and a Canadian doing so looks like a jackass.

Wednesday: The faces of several politicians appeared prominently in the paper this morning, as they are important men in UN and probably saviours of society. A depressing blank lot of mugs they had, too. In Victorian times a statesman might look like anything at all except an ordinary man; strange collars, fantastic heads of hair, whiskers of extravagant growth and cut, monstrous noses — all marked them as creatures of a vaster world than that of the ordinary citizen. But the characteristic UN face of today is a large, fleshy surface, like a watermelon, with peepy, withdrawn eyes and a mouth like a post-operative scar. It is to these that the fate of the world is confided. They look like men engaged in some difficult, shady branch of accountancy. Which, of course, is precisely what they are.

Thursday: Had to write a letter in a great hurry today, and as I was far from any supply of the paper I am accustomed to I had to borrow some from a very young woman who was nearby. My senses reeled when she brought me a box of tiny sheets folded in the middle and decorated with highly coloured pictures of dogs and cats playing with balls of wool. I suppose I move in a very restricted circle, and am not abreast of modern fashions in these matters, but I very rarely write anything which looks right on such paper. My whole mode of living and thinking is Anti-Cute. However, I gritted my teeth and wrote my note, but when I sealed the envelope my restraint was completely broken down; the glue on the flap had been impregnated with an extremely sweet flavour which my benefactress told me was Cherry; she assured me that envelope glue now comes in several delicious flavours. If this is really true, it is clear that the country needs a special stamp to put on such letters; something bearing a picture of the Postmaster General, got up as Cupid, and surrounded by jolly doggies and romping pussies would be just the thing. The glue on the stamps would necessarily be maple sugar, and this would begin a whole new field in philately.

Friday: My ignorance often appals me. It appears that since 1934 there has been a science called Sociometry, of which I have not heard until today. Sociometry is the study of how you get along with people. It decides your Sociometric Status, which is “the extent to which you are accepted by the group” (What group? Oh, any group of mutts among whom you may find yourself at the time you have your status taken) and also your Sociometric Relationships, meaning whom-you-like and who-likes-you. Usually Sociometry is practised on children, as adults do not readily put up with such nonsense. For myself, I could cheerfully endure the news that my Sociometric Status was a low one, for I do not consider popularity to be important, and the base trade at which I earn my bread makes popularity a hopeless goal for me, anyway. As for my Sociometric Relationships, I generally like people who like me, and do the rest all the harm I can without getting caught. Life is a matter of running warfare to a greater degree than the practitioners of Sociometrics care to admit, and that is what gives it salt.

Saturday: Took part in a sing-song, and in the middle was struck by the thought that the less meaning the words of a song have, the more popular it is likely to be. This is especially the case with Spirituals; I sang about the Big Wheel going by faith, and the Little Wheel going by the Grace of God, and I sang about Bones, Dry Bones, and I sang endlessly that I wasn’t goin’ to grieve my Lord no more, no more, and as I sang I reflected that in all of this hokum there was none of the sinewy theology on which I was brought up, and which has been the mainspring of my life. But I can see that a Spiritual which attempted to deal adequately with Original Sin, the Fall of Man, or Predestinate Grace, would probably not be very catchy.


Sunday: Not long ago a friend of mine opened the door of the garage at her summer cottage, and found a man inside who had hanged himself about two months before; what is more he had been cut down. She is deeply anxious to know (a) why he hanged himself; (b) if he hanged himself or was hanged; (c) who cut him down; (d) what it was about her garage that appealed to his morbid fancy. She will probably never know any of these things. It is thus that life falls short of the movies; in a film she would have immediately have been accepted by the detective in the case as a full partner and would have shared his risks of life and limb until the criminal was in the hoosegow, and the full story was in the newspapers. But the real-life detective never even asked her to sit all night in the haunted garage and shoot on sight anyone who came down the ladder from the loft. We deplore this lack of imagination on the part of detectives, who never seem to catch anybody, anyway.

Monday: Visited some people today who had just moved into a new house. They were leading a circumscribed life, not walking where the varnish was tacky, not leaning where the paint was wet, and not falling too often into buckets of decorators’ paste. They had moved in, driven by necessity, before the workmen had finished, and the workmen resented it, as they always do. There is nothing a party of painters and decorators likes better than a large house all to themselves, in which they can lead an ample and gracious life, occasionally doing a little work. The only way to oust them is to move in on top of them, and let the children play with all their more valuable tools after they have gone home at night. . . This unhappy couple had only two points at which they could light; one was bed and the other was the verandah. All things concurring, they should have the workmen out before the snow flies.

Tuesday: For nearly twelve years the Towers has been visited once a week by a man who has a cunning way with hens, and who brings me eggs. During all that time I can only recall receiving one egg which was not a beauty; it was a freak egg which any hen might lay if her mind was disturbed, or if she were suffering from cold roosts, or felt the pip coming on. But I find that I am very much a junior among his customers; he has supplied eggs to some lucky families for nearly a quarter of a century. I find such relationships comforting and even inspiring; they supply a stability to life which it sadly needs. I know that, short of the falling of an atomic bomb (which a hen would certainly resent), the eggs will arrive, and they will be good. This is no trifling matter, for eggs are basic; no eggs, no cooking. Nobody has ever found a way to fake an egg, or do without eggs, or produce something by machinery which is better than what the hen produces by trudging patiently around the fowl-yard, pecking short-sightedly at the ground. It was no accident that in the early history of mankind the egg was chosen as a symbol of resurrection and immortality.

Wednesday: Found myself among a group of painters, all of whom were keenly interested in what they called Abstracts. An Abstract, I was surprised to find, is simply a picture of something which does not represent it as it appears to be in Nature, but presents certain forms and colours which are inherent in it but which are not apparent to the casual glance. The reason for my surprise is that I have been drawing pictures of this sort for many years, but I have always called them Abjects, because they look so miserable. I am not one of your la-di-dah sketchers, who fusses about catching a likeness; I am content to capture the soul of my subject in the fewest lines possible. When the sketch is finished I know what it means, if no one else does. I draw Abjects all day, but particularly during telephone conversations; I like to dash off an impression of the person on the other end of the line. I never exhibit my stuff; my Abjects are a purely personal form of art.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson