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


Sunday: Visited some people at a summer cottage today and, as often happens on these occasions, arrived just as there was a lot of hard work to be done. This time it was shifting a bathing float from the beach to the water, and we did it by the method used to build the Pyramids — slave power. After an hour of heaving and straining the accursed thing was in the water and I escaped with nothing more than a cut thumb and a great deal of mud on my person; some of the other guests were in far worse condition. We had earned our tea many times over, and the obvious jubilance of our host did little to cheer us. . . A summer cottage can be a lovesome thing, God wot! but not unless it has proper plumbing. I am no lover of those old and picturesque privies which have assumed the gravity-defying obliquity of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Employing a special form of Yoga I transcend the physical side of my nature and avoid them utterly.

Monday: An extremely hot day, which I spent on the train surrounded by fractious children, prostrate old ladies and all the usual victims of a temperature of 92 degrees. Nature has endowed me with a magnificent cooling system, and if I could go naked in hot weather, I could bear anything; but convention demands that I swathe myself in layer upon layer of cloth, and as a result I feel as though I were in a cold compress which had unaccountably become lukewarm; the sensation is uncomfortable but not unbearable. . . Had a two-hour wait at a small junctional point, so I strolled about, viewing the town, and musing idly on the architectural hideousness of Ontario. This town had tried to smarten itself by hacking down most of its trees, giving an indescribable impression of ravagement, like the skull of a woman who has gone bald through a fever.

Tuesday: Even hotter today, a fact which was drawn to my attention by several boobs who asked me if it was hot enough for me? I enjoyed the heat, and took three tepid baths; sometimes I think that I might do well to move to a semi-tropical country; people who do so are said to become lackadaisical, losing their initiative; but I lose my initiative in cold weather, so perhaps it would work the other way for me, and I would become a demon of energy. . . Every man I met today was perspiring so grossly that I may risk the indelicacy of using the word “sweaty” to describe their collective condition. But I did not see a single woman who appeared to be suffering in this way. Why? Why are women dry when men are wet? Why don’t women ever sweat? It is this characteristic, more than any other, which led our ancestors to put woman on a pedestal.

Wednesday: Bruce Hutchison, I see, hotly denies the charge which someone has made that Canadians have no sense of humour. Canada, says he, invented the story about the little boy who got his head stuck in a chamber-pot and had to be taken to a tinsmith to get it off. I wonder what makes him think so. I have a book which quotes the story, at great length, from an English work published in the 1860’s and I have seen it in at least one American collection. . . But Hutchison may be right about our national sense of humour, for when once we take up a joke, we never let it go. Old, crippled jokes, worn out in the Barren Lands and the outermost stretches of the Antipodes come to Canada at last, sure that they will have a happy home here for at least a century, and will raise a laugh from affectionate familiarity, if for no other reason. “Not Original, But Faithful To Death” is our motto in matters of humour. We like a joke to go off in our faces, like an exploding cigar, and then we can laugh heartily and get back to glum platitudes again. This characteristic is particularly noticeable in Parliament.

Thursday: Did some painting this afternoon; this is one household chore which I really do well. I admit that I have no skill fixing doors which stick, or repairing the cords of electric irons, or opening choked sewers, but I can paint anything and make a better job of it than most of the greenhorns who are to be found working for professional decorators these days; “No Bubbles Marchbanks” I am called in amateur painting circles. Ability as a house-painter and a passion for musical comedy are two characteristics which I share with the late Adolf Hitler — the only two, I believe. . . What is more, I can paint without drinking milk; most professional housepainters seem to live entirely on milk; and I believe that they regard it as a potent charm against painter’s colic. I once painted a whole building (a two-storey henhouse) without consuming any liquid beyond a glass or two of water. But last time I had professional decorators in my house they left 18 milk bottles in it. They were especially fond of chocolate milk and every now and then, in hot weather, a bubble in my paintwork breaks, and emits a long-imprisoned belch of chocolate.

Friday: This evening a friend of mine, who has recently become a keen amateur of astrology, attempted to cast my horoscope. According to his calculations, I have missed my vocation; I should either have been a postman or a real-estate agent. He also told me that in order to be in tune with my astrological influence, I should dress in pinks, pale blues and yellows; he warned me against over-indulgence in food and drink and a tendency toward diseases of the digestive machinery; he told me my lucky gem and my lucky flower; he told me that if I worked hard (either as a postman or a real-estate agent) I should eventually enjoy a measure of success. I treated him with the derision he deserved. . . Although I have no use for people who try to draw up astrological charts with a little knowledge gained from popular books on the subject, I cannot see why astrology should not be given a measure of credence. To believe in it demands an act of faith, but think of all the other things, no less improbable, we believe on acts of faith! If we believe in the findings of astronomers and theologians and physicists, who are always proving each other wrong, I don’t see why we should not believe astrologers, who are quite often right.

Saturday: As I was cutting my grass today, a passer-by said, “Hullo; are you cleaning up your yard?” By this I knew him to be a Canadian of at least three generations’ standing, for no other English-speaking race uses the word “yard” to describe a lawn, surrounded by flower beds. To me a yard is a small enclosed area, perhaps paved, in which clothes are lined. I looked the word up in my dictionary, and found that the use of yard to describe a garden was labelled as dialect. Presumably it came to Canada many years ago, and took root here. The true Canadian would describe the gardens of Versailles as “Louis XIV’s front yard,” without any sense of insufficiency. . . The exact opposite of our national habit may be observed in England, where any grassless, desolate, junk-filled bit of vacant ground is called “the garden”. . . Another word which persists in Canada and the U.S. is “stoep” for a sitting-out place, although most of us now use the elegant Portuguese word “verandah.” Thus a Canadian of the uncompromising old stock sits on his stoep and looks at his yard, whereas his more cosmopolitan children sit on the verandah and look at the garden. If the verandah roof leaks, it may also be called a “loggia.”

– XXXV –

Sunday: Attended a small gathering this evening where one of the guests went frankly and unashamedly to sleep and put in a good two hours on a sofa; I hasten to add that this was not alcoholic stupor, but fatigue, caused by giving aid and comfort at a children’s party earlier in the day. The incident reminded me of a shameful evening in my own life when I went sound asleep while Prof. Ralph Flenley was explaining some obscure aspects of the Napoleonic wars. To contradict a professor is enough to make him hate you, but to go to sleep while he is talking curdles the milk of human kindness in his breast.

Monday: Since the war the mortality among animals, domestic and wild, has surely doubled. Last Friday and Saturday I passed a dead hen, two dead cats, a groundhog which had been called home, and a spaniel which was noisily engaged in making its way toward Abraham’s bosom. Today I spied a brown shape on the road which I could not identify, and I asked the lady who was driving me to stop; she did so, and I found that it was a porcupine. I pointed out to her that the animal showed no sign of having died a violent death, and might have had heart-disease; she replied that it looked somewhat run-down to her. I ignored this cheap raillery, and examined the corpse; the porcupine is not a lovely object, and lacks dignity in death.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson