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

Thursday: These are the days when lukewarm gardeners like myself debate earnestly whether they should cut the grass just once more, or not. There is a school of thought which maintains that it is bad for a lawn to be too closely cropped when the first frost comes; there is an opposing school which says that a lawn which is left shaggy in the autumn will be slow and spotty next spring. . . Frankly, I have exhausted any pleasure that mowing lawns ever held for me, and I wish I could get a boy to take over the job for a reasonable price. . . When I was a lad I mowed an enormous lawn every week for years on end, and was thankful for a dry crust and a glass of polluted water when the job was done. I attribute my present rock-like character to this stern early training.

Friday: The world was scheduled to end today, but something must have gone wrong. The Rev. Charles Long of Pasadena, California, said it, and I made a note of it on my memorandum pad. Deciding that Oblivion might as well overtake me when I was busy, I went about my accustomed tasks all day, keeping an eye peeled for any untoward happenings. At about 11:35 a.m. I heard a shrill sound which I thought might be the Trump of Doom, but it proved to be a child outside in the street, who had swallowed his gum and was bewailing the loss. As night drew on I wondered if it were worth while making a fire, but again I reflected that I might as well die warm, and it was well that I did so, for the world did not end at all. . . This makes the eighth prediction of general doom that I have survived without harm, and every single one has been made by the shaman, fakir or medicine man of some sect in the U.S.A. I am beginning to question the Divine Inspiration of these creatures.

Saturday: Painting this afternoon. Whenever I tackle a job of this kind I am obsessed by a piece of verse I had to commit to memory when a schoolchild, to this effect:

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the gods see everywhere.

I forget who wrote it. I think it was John Greenleaf Whittier, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or Cabot Tealeaf Stringfellow, or Beecher Coffinail Lowell, or some other pestilent New England hypocrite who never tried to beat the building shortage by painting a room himself. Whenever I am tempted to scamp some niggling bit of work, such as painting the top of a door, or the underside of a hinge, or the pulleys of a window-sash, that accursed verse pops up in my head, goading me to impossible lengths of completeness. The notion of the gods as celestial building-inspectors and overseers has cost me many an hour of painful, useless effort.


Sunday: In bed, and feel very low; no Calvinist ever approached the Sabbath with a heavier heart or a greater contempt for the flesh than I do today. A neglected cold is wreaking its revenge upon me. I pick up a novel to beguile the leaden-footed hours: in the first chapter is an account of how a man died through neglecting a cold. Oh!. . . Have just devoured the bread and milk which is my dinner. My entrails are now a prehistoric swamp where reptiles and horned monsters romp.

Monday: Thought a good deal about death today, and particularly about my own Last Words if I should expire of this grievous malady. The fashion for Last Words has declined since the past century. The most interesting case of Disputed Last Words that I know of concerns William Pitt, the Great Commoner; there are those who say he died exclaiming, “Oh my country! How I leave my country!” though an opposed school of historians claims that what he really said was, “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies.”. . . However, I was unable to concoct a satisfactory dying speech for myself; I am too ill for the strenuous intellectual labour involved. And this gives me a clue to the genesis of many famous Last Words: they are carefully composed, polished and memorized years before death, and then, when the Grim Reaper seems near, they can be spoken with full effect. . . But in these degenerate days too many people die in hospitals, and as it is a well-known fact that no nurse ever lets a patient get a word in edgewise, Last Words are an impossibility.

Tuesday: Visited the doctor today at his office; he has a machine there which he wants to use on me. While waiting for him took close cognizance of the picture on his wall. Most doctors content themselves with Sir Luke Fildes’ touching masterwork The Doctor, in which a bearded physician leans over the bed of a sick child, trying to look as though he knew what ailed it…. But this picture showed a young soldier lying on a rough bed, covered with his jacket; his eyes are closed and it is plain that he has gone to that land where “nor physician troubleth nor enema grieveth,” as the Good Book says. At a table by his side sits his superior officer, his eyes moist, looking at the contents of the young man’s wallet; another officer, gazing out of the window, has succumbed to manly tears…. Of course, it may be that I interpret this picture wrongly; maybe the young fellow on the bed is drunk, and his two superior officers are crying because he hasn’t enough money on him to be worth robbing. I don’t know, and, by the time the doctor had finished with me, I didn’t care.

Wednesday: My physician has given me a sedative, swearing by Aesculapius, Panacea and Pharmacopoeia that it will do me good. I read The Great Gatsby until the drug renders me insensible, after which I am a victim of evil dreams, in which I am continually being shot at by ill-disposed persons. I struggle to escape; I try to call for help, but I am powerless. At last I am able to arouse myself, and wonder whether the cure is not worse than the disease. The only perceptible effect of the sedative on me was to parade the disjecta membera of my scrambled ego before my mind’s eye.

Thursday: Felt better today, and made a mighty effort to get out of bed; could only endure this for half an hour. Retired ungracefully, and passed the time by reading a book about famous murders. I suppose there are dozens of murders done every year which are never discovered; so far as I can judge, the types of murderers who are captured are two: (a) ignoramuses who kill in hot blood, with plenty of witnesses and a profusion of bloody axes, initialed handkerchiefs and whatnot as clues; (b) people who try to be too clever, and who invent subtle schemes of murder, and alibis for themselves. But the woman who pushes her aged husband downstairs, or the man who feeds his wife lobsters and whiskey, is rarely charged with murder, because the method is direct and simple. The best murder, of course, is achieved by driving our victim to murder himself, and this is by no means as difficult as it might seem; indeed, it was done often during the market crash of 1929, when the rain of stockbrokers jumping from upstairs windows made a walk down St. Catherine’s Street quite dangerous.

Friday: Got up this afternoon with great success, and this has altered my whole attitude toward life. No wonder invalids are crochety, crabby people. There are, in fact, two approaches to invalidism: (a) You can be a Sickbed Hitler, and insist on running everything and everybody from your Bedroom Chancellery; (b) You can be an Uncomplaining Sufferer, which means that you must tell everybody you had a bad night when you really slept like a horse, and you must do all you can to indicate that you are in continual pain, which you endure with nobility. Both these plans are great fun, but I think the Uncomplaining Sufferer has the best racket of all. He can make his relatives sacrifice to him for years, and feel cheap as they do it. If I ever become chronically ill I shall see what can be done to combine the two methods, producing a monster of valetudinarianism to be known to science as the Tyrannosaurus Marchbankensis, or Nurses’ Nightmare.

Saturday: During my stay in bed I have done my best to keep up with my work as a book-reviewer, and have waded through a mountain of muck. Every day in every way I agree more and more with the anonymous reviewer who wrote:

And much though each new book keeps lit my light,

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Categories: Davies, Robertson