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

Wednesday: A lecturer on health was somewhat embarrassed recently when a member of his audience rose and said: “What will become of the health of Canada with the coming generation of mothers drinking and smoking as they do?” Dipping into my intense knowledge of social history, I cannot recall any generation of mothers which has not had its own deleterious indulgences. The mothers of yester-year did not smoke and drink rye, but they consumed dangerous quantities of strong tea, and sought oblivion by imbibing freely of Peruna, a nerve tonic which contained about as much alcohol as a bottle of imported Scotch. And their mothers smoked clay pipes and drank the liquor from the bottoms of silos, just to keep off germs. In spite of these things, they lived to ripe ages, and were often very merry and entertaining old parties. We can overdo the health business. Remember the old song — “A little of what you fancy does you good.” A very sound philosophy, clearly expressed.

Thursday: On the Late Movie saw a highly coloured piece about some people caled Frédéric Chopin and George Sand, though any resemblance between them and the historical characters so named was coincidental, and had been avoided pretty carefully. The voluptuous Lady Korda played George Sand, and when she appeared in masculine dress she looked far more like the historical Chopin than the young bruiser who had been given that part. The historical George Sand was so lacking in attraction of the physical kind that Alfred de Musset once described her as a cow, quite dispassionately. . . The film had been constructed along the approved lines of Hollywood history: Chopin was insulted and oppressed by the rich (whereas in actual fact he was fawned upon by the nobility and gentry almost from birth); he was a revolutionary, and a great whooper-up for the Common Man (though in fact he never met any common men except occasional piano movers and preferred the company of the most brilliant group of his time); he let George Sand bamboozle him (though in fact they nagged each other tirelessly, and he could not stand the racket made by her swarm of children); he dearly loved his native Poland (though he was actually half-French and took care never to go near Poland once he got away from it). A strange film, sweet and gassy, like a fruit salad.

Friday: I am getting a cold. At present it is in what we medical men call “the period of incubation.” This means that there is nothing specifically wrong with me, but I am conscious of uneasiness in my throat, and my head feels as though somebody had pumped soda water (with pinpoint carbonation, of course) into my brains, causing them to go bubble-bubble-bubble in a ticklish way every now and again. My ears, too, have not their accustomed sharpness, and everybody who talks to me seems to have a mouthful of mashed potatoes. . . To me the annoying thing about the cold germ is that it has such a poor sense of timing; when I am in perfect health, but would welcome a chance to stay in bed for two or three days, I could not catch a cold if I slept in a freezing locker; but when I am too busy to fuss over trifles I catch colds with the greatest ease, and have to go on working in spite of them. I know that physicians advise against this, but I have yet to see a physician take a few days in bed because of a cold. They generally keep going as long as they can be carried from patient to patient.

Saturday: In the night my cold passed from the stage of incubation to the stage of exasperation, and I woke with weeping eyes, a streaming nose, no sense of taste, and very little sense of hearing. Went to work, kicking dogs, swearing at children, and pushing old women under buses. There is a misanthrope in every man, and the cold germ usually brings him well to the fore. . . In the afternoon visited some people, all of whom had colds, and we passed an agreeable hour or so exchanging symptoms. . . Later at an informal birthday party, and had a slice of cake with real icing on it, a rarity in these times of mixes and “just-add-water” messes. I haven’t any sympathy with people who do not celebrate their birthdays; I like to see the utmost done in the way of cakes, gifts, and jollifications. To a philosopher the passing of another year is not a melancholy incident; he may be a year older, but if he is worth his salt he is also a year wiser.


Sunday: Took some photographs today. Amateur photography bears the same relation to the real thing that amateur theatricals bear to the productions of London or Broadway. When I take a photograph I usually manage to get at least one object into the picture which taste and delicacy would exclude from it; if I take a baby there is certain to be a puddle under it; if I take dewy damsel in a winsome pose, she is sure to have a bottle of hair restorer or eradicator protruding from her pocket; let me train my camera upon a fragrant old lady in her lavender gown, and an ill-timed eructation will cause her to come out on the film looking like a bar-fly; nobody ever seems to be properly tucked in, buttoned up, or combed and washed when I take them. There are people who believe that Nature always provides a reverse, or opposite, of everything she creates. I am obviously the opposite of Yousuf Karsh; if I had photographed Churchill it would certainly have been just after a bottle had broken in his pocket.

Monday: A letter today from a reader who is in hospital with a broken leg; he tells me that he has at last discovered who I am. I would not be too sure of that; there are at least two men, I know, who pretend that they are Samuel Marchbanks, and as they are my employers I dare not expose them. I have actually seen one of these scoundrels address a meeting at which I was present, pretending to be me! I have also heard the suggestion that Samuel Marchbanks is really a woman. . . This gentleman wants to know if I have many readers of his own age (28). I don’t know, to be truthful, though I understand that I am widely read in Old Folks’ Homes, orphanages, asylums for alcoholics, and Refuges for Gentlewomen in Reduced Circumstances; in poorhouses, too, I am a general favourite. This is because I am always compassionate toward the weak and lowly, and scornful toward the rich, the book-learned and the privileged. Years ago, when I was a mere lad, I discovered that the way to win the hearts of the lowly was to tell them that they were the salt of the earth; this is a lie, but they love it.

Tuesday: It is not easy to talk to women. They lack depth of understanding. Today, for instance, a party of ladies persuaded me to show them over the newspaper office in which I work, and in the course of time we arrived at the room where the big press is kept. “What’s that?” asked a Young Person. “That,” said I, with a gesture, “is the Archimedean Lever which moves the world!” “I don’t get that,” she said, frowning. “The great Father of Physics,” said I, smiling in a superior way, “once said that, given a place to stand, he could devise a lever which would move the world. Had he beheld this machine, he would undoubtedly have cried ‘Eureka’ for the second time in his life, for that is what he sought.” “Yebbut what does it do?” persisted the tiresome girl. “It disseminates ideas,” said I; “it sends the birds of thought — the hawks, the doves, the eagles — winging to the ends of the earth.” “You mean it prints your stuff?” said she. “In a single word, Yes,” I replied, for I was tiring of the conversation. “Then why didn’t you say so?” said she. “I did say so,” said I, “but you didn’t understand me.” “You said something about a lever,” said she. I had to buy her an ice-cream cone to shut her up.

Wednesday: There are times when I wonder, calmly and dispassionately, whether life is really worth living. Every Autumn there comes a period during which it is impossible to keep warm, though the lighting of the furnace would be rash folly. I have just enough black jellybeans in my cellar to feed my Monster from October 15 until May 5. Light up now, and I shall freeze in the Spring. But if things go on as they are, I shall be far gone in consumption before October 15; I have a Harry Lauder cough, and when I laugh (which is not often with things the way they are) it sounds like somebody sifting ashes. I should heap my fireplace with wood, and squat upon the flames like a Hindu widow in suttee, but the woodman has not brought my wood yet, and after he does I shall have to rope and tie a buzz-saw entrepreneur before I can burn it. True, I have some stuff which purports to be fireplace coal, but it gives no heat. Indeed, all it does is throw fragments of itself on my carpet, burning large and shameful holes. . . I see that somebody is advertising for a “Boy’s Commode.” In my young days those things were Great Levellers, making no distinction of sex.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson