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

Wednesday: Saw some posters today, adjuring hunters to make sure that their cigarette stubs were doused before they threw them away; the solemn assurance was given that one carelessly thrown match might start a forest fire. I wish that the government officials who dream up these posters would come and light my furnace for me some time with one of their carelessly thrown matches, or a cigarette stub. Tonight I laboured fifty minutes cleaning out my furnace (which had passed quietly away at 8:30 a.m.) and putting paper and kindling in its maw, preparatory to re-lighting; then I put a few carefully lighted matches inside and awaited results. There were none. Remembering the posters, I threw a lighted match carelessly into the fire-door; it went out at once. Next I tried a cigarette stub; it went out too. So at last I made a torch of twisted paper, and that worked. I can only conclude that it is easier to start a forest fire than it is to light my furnace.

Thursday: Suffered an acute attack of the humdudgeon today; the symptoms of this illness are a sense of failure, self-contempt and mental fatigue; there is no cure for it; application to the bottle merely brings on a crying-jag; a walk in the park suggests ideas of suicide; while the fit lasts all seems dross; sufferers from the humdudgeon should be left alone, though if they can be persuaded to lie down, with a pillow under the knees, it helps. . . It was during a fit of the humdudgeon, on a Sunday afternoon in London, that De Quincey made his first experiment at opium-eating, to allay the pains of toothache. He never completely abandoned the habit, and lived to the ripe old age of 75, coked to the gills quite a lot of the time.

Friday: Everything is relative, I suppose, but I wish that the law, or a Chamber of Commerce, or somebody, would define the word “lifetime” as it is used by merchants. Fourteen months ago I bought a suit which was made of a cloth which I was assured would not — could not — wear out; the tailor jabbed pencils through it to show me how tough the fabric was. I have given it good care, and the sleeves and cuffs are undeniably worn through; the lifetime fabric is just ordinary shoddy. A few years ago I was sold a Harris tweed suit, which I was assured would last my lifetime; I wore both elbows through in just over three years. And I have never had a pen with a lifetime guarantee which lasted five years. Yet the days of our years are three-score years and ten.

Saturday: Long discussion this evening with a man who wants to revise our system of funerals and burial. The Vikings, he says, lived in their ships and loved them, and when they died their bodies were laid out in their ships and sent off to sea. Ours, he points out, is an automobile civilization, and if we had any real respect for the dead, we would sit them at the wheel of the car in which they spent so much of life, and which they loved so dearly, and we would then allow the machine to dash along a special funeral speedway and eventually over a cliff. There is a poetic sweep about this notion which appeals to me strongly. For non-drivers like myself, of course, the plan might prove somewhat humiliating, but perhaps an arrangement could be made to whisk me into oblivion on castors, cunningly let into the heels of my burial boots.

– XLII –

Sunday: Was reading some of the letters of Edgar Allen Poe today, and they confirmed me in my belief that a man’s private correspondence should never be published. He does not write his letters with a horde of snoopy strangers in mind, and he says things which he would never say for publication. Poe was a great literary artist, and we have all the poems and stories which he wanted the public to see; why publish letters in which he makes a fool of himself, drooling weakly to his child wife, and tearfully addressing his mother-in-law as “Dearest Muddy”?

Monday: Was talking to a most unusual physician tonight — a man who scorns vitamins and laughs uproariously at talk of allergies. Medicine, he said, was an art and not a science, and could only be usefully practised after deep study of human nature and of each individual patient. This attitude, he said, was commonplace among the great physicians of the past, but was out of favour with the modern school of pill-peddlers, who like to do their diagnosis by machine as much as possible, and prefer not to see the patient if they can possibly manage with a piece of him. Too many doctors are deeply interested in disease, but don’t care much for people, he said. . . This all sounded like good sense to me, though I put in a word or two for the overworked physicians, whose patients always expect a bottle of medicine, and love to be treated for any disease under the sun, but hate to be accused of Original Sin, which is what is wrong with most of them.

Tuesday: To Toronto on some business, and found it noisier and dirtier than ever. Of course, visitors see Toronto at its worst. I had to fly around the business section, meeting this one here, and phoning that one there, and my impression was all of tiresome noise, stench and rush. But native Torontonians rarely encounter this; they sit in their luxurious offices, with their feet on desks, smoking big cigars and wondering how long it will be before they can send out a girl for their hourly cup of coffee. At home their wives and children live in the pastoral surroundings of Bayview, where grass grows in the streets, in Forest Hill, where the wild maztoth looms luxuriantly all the year round, or in Lawrence Park, where cows and sheep graze peacefully on the lawns. The calm, white, expressionless face of a real Torontonian is never creased with care, and his collar is never soiled with smuts from the chimneys. Those frantic, feverish, sweating wretches who run about the downtown area are all visitors from the country, rushing madly to do a week’s business in a few hours.

Wednesday: This afternoon bent to the task of carving a pumpkin face as a Hallowe’en surprise for some children I know; this is a neglected branch of art which I have made peculiarly my own. I scorn the mediocre pumpkin face with triangular eyes and nose, and a gash of a mouth: mine has a noble nose, a mouth full of teeth, eyes which search your soul when the pumpkin is illuminated, and a leer which sums up the whole spirit of Hallowe’en. The only proper way to illuminate a pumpkin head is with the stub of a candle; electric light is harsh and lacking in mystery.

Thursday and All Hallow’s Eve: Hallowe’en, and a fine windy night. There was a ring at my door, and when I opened it a frightful ghost, about three feet high, confronted me. “Who are you?” I demanded in a voice which trembled with fright. “I’m Charles,” whispered the spirit, and whisked my proffered orange into the folds of its ectoplasm. . . Not long after the ghost of Charles had disappeared, I heard a groan, and went outside just in time to see a gang of hooligans running up the street, having ripped my gate off its hinges. I cursed them with a slow, lingering, horrible curse imparted to me by my grandmother, who was a witch. They will not feel the full effect of this curse for a week or so, but then parts of them will begin to turn black, and drop off, and they will be regarded as undesirable even in the circles of society in which they now move. . . There was a good deal of writing on windows with soap, too, mostly confined to such comments as “Ha ha” and “Boo.” The world is so constituted that people who feel like writing on windows can never think of anything funny to write, while those who can think of funny things have too much brains to want to write them on windows.

Friday and All Hallowmas: The folk-spirit in poetry is not dead. Today I heard some children singing Sing a Song O’ Sixpence, the last verse of which runs:

The maid was in the garden

Lining out the clothes;

Along came a blackbird

And snapped off her nose.

But to this a youthful poet in the group had added a delightful sequel:

She went to the doctor

To get a wooden nose,

And when she came home,

She couldn’t blow her nose.

I hope to see this addition incorporated in the next edition of Mother Goose.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson