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

Tuesday: Was talking to a man tonight who had seen service with the R.A.F. in Africa, in Sierra Leone. He tells me that in that part of the world a young woman’s dowry is likely to be reckoned in sewing-machines, which she buys with the pay which she received in return for special services rendered to the white troops. A girl with six or seven sewing-machines can afford to pick and choose among the eligible young men of her own race. The custom of the dowry has virtually died out among all except the most wealthy, in our Anglo-American civilization. A young man who takes a wife must choose her for her beauty of character, or of figure, alone. He stands to get nothing else with her except the expenses inseparable from housekeeping and raising a family. The average Canadian bridegroom cannot even count on six sewing-machines. It’s the man who pays, and pays, and pays.

Wednesday: A hullabaloo has arisen because a Cabinet Minister told some union representatives to get the hell out of his club, where they were pestering him as he tried to eat a sandwich. The heart of many an industrialist has warmed to this man as they have longed to say the same thing themselves on many occasions, but feeling in labour circles is intense. . . As a politician myself (leader, secretary and permanent executive of Marchbanks’ Humanist Party) I understand the Minister’s action perfectly. There comes a time in every man’s life when he wants to tell somebody who is pestering him to go to hell, and if he does not indulge the whim he is likely to get psychic strabismus, which, in its turn, leads to spiritual impotence. And spiritual impotence is the curse of our country as it is.

Thursday: A devout fellow of my acquaintance confided to me this morning that he had foolishly left a holy medal, which he always carries, in the pocket of a shirt which he had sent to the laundry, and had traced it just in time to prevent his talisman from getting into the machinery. What, I wonder, would happen to a man whose carelessness condemned St. Anthony of Padua, or St. Theresa of Lisieux, or St. Christopher, to a rough half-hour of whirling, swilling, and flapping in the bowels of a Bendix? The charity of the saints is extensive, but there must be insults which even a saint is not called upon to endure in the line of duty. . . Pondered that the Middle Ages found a saint for virtually every trade and profession, but none for the way in which I earn my livelihood. I have never heard of a patron saint of writers. Doctors are under the protection of St. Luke, and lawyers are taken care of by St. Benedict or St. Jerome — I can’t remember which — but writers are without friends in the courts of Heaven. The Press Club in Hell must have a remarkably distinguished enrollment.

Friday: This is the time of year when households are shaken to their foundations by the annual Pickle War. There was a time when the only limit on the amount of pickles “done down” each year was that imposed by the physical endurance of the sweating squaws. When women began to faint and fall into the seething cauldrons of Chili Sauce, the time had come to call a halt (unless you happened to like Chile Con Carne, and hired girls happened to be cheap). But with sugar so expensive, the problem is now how much of each pickle is to be made? Personally, I favour Marchbanks’ Peach Pickle, which is made thus: put half a fine peach in the bottom of a brandy glass, add two fingers of brandy, two teaspoonfuls of sugar, and fill up with cream; drink at once. A simpler version is this: sugar a peach lightly, put it in a brandy glass, add two fingers of cream, and fill up with brandy; drink at once. Or here is a quick recipe for lazy cooks: eat a peach, and immediately drink a tumblerful of brandy. The last has the advantage of cutting out the sugar which decays the teeth. Marchbanks’ Peach Pickle is guaranteed to add zest to the simplest meal; it is also the quickest pickle you ever had.

Saturday: To the movies tonight, and was given a seat next to a woman who brought a baby, which was certainly not more than eight months old. It was suffering with gas on its stomach, so she had laid it upside down over her knees, and was rolling it to and fro as she watched the picture. The occasional high-pitched belches and moans of the suffering moppet worked upon my sympathies until I could no longer concentrate on the screen, and as long experience has taught me that it is dangerous to come between a mother and her child — even when she is treating it cruelly — I moved. The child had been upside down for half an hour, and I began to fear that it might die; it smelled rather dead, though it still wriggled slightly. . . Found that I had taken a seat next to an elderly woman who was enjoying the film in her bare feet; she had a pair of shoes, but she held them in her lap — to save them, I suppose. These incidents made me thankful for the film heroine, who was young, beautiful, clothed, right side up, and apparently in excellent health.


Sunday: Passed a large part of the day eating grapes. There are people who say that our Canadian blue grapes are harsh and prick the mouth with tiny barbs. To me, they seem matchless in flavour and colour, and I consume them by the basket, picking, chomping and spitting in a golden autumnal dream. . . Once, years ago, I watched a chimpanzee in the London Zoo; the Latin name over his cage was Simia Satyrus, and truly he seemed like some bawdy, happy old satyr from the Golden Age when the world was young, and Rights, and Duties, and Social Problems were still maggots in the womb of time. He lay on his back with his arms folded under his head, and bit great mouthfuls of grapes from a bunch which he held in his toes. Every now and then he looked out at me, spat seeds, and shook with silent laughter, as though to say, “If you had any sense, old boy, you’d join me; this is the life.” I have often regretted that I did not accept his invitation. A nice private cage and plenty of grapes — what more can life offer?

Monday: I see an advertisement in the papers for “Pre-Arranged Funerals.” If you want to, you can arrange your own funeral, and pay for it before you die. This scheme combines forethought with a special form of insurance, and I think I shall make arrangements for my own funeral this afternoon. Death has no terrors for me, but sometimes I break out in a cold sweat when I think what a preacher might say about me when I was no longer able to contradict him and check his facts. I shall write my own funeral oration, and I shall also decide what music shall lull my mourners. If strains of Maunder or Stainer were played at my defunctive orgies I should certainly rise from the dead and strangle those responsible…. If I can raise the money to cover expenses I think I shall arrange to have a sin-eater at my funeral, in the manner of my Celtic ancestors, and also a feast for the mourners, with cold meats, Stilton cheese, fruitcake, and plenty of sherry and port. I feel that nothing would make up for my absence so well as a sufficient quantity of good dry sherry.

Tuesday: After many years of amateur photography I have decided that henceforth I shall keep my art to myself; it is fatal to show people pictures that one has taken of them, for the aim of the photographer and the aim of the sitter cannot be reconciled. The photographer yearns for a striking picture. “Look at the skin texture in that one!” I burble, showing a prized print. “You’ve made me look like an elephant with enlarged pores,” says the subject, crossly. “How’s that for stopped action?” I shriek, dancing with delight. “I’m all bottom,” says the subject, who has been snapped while scrambling over a fence. Men are worse than women. Women simply want to look beautiful in pictures; men want to look strong and noble, and when you catch them in a characteristic pose (mouth open, bald spot well lighted, and one hand scratching meditatively) they are cross, and become bellicose if you say that they held that pose for more than two hours without a variation. I am not a candid camera fiend; I do not try to make people look worse than they are. But I am not a wizard, and I cannot make a man in a dirty shirt look like one of the Ten Best Dressed. Henceforth I shall take pictures for no eye but my own.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson