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

Tuesday: There is a special grubby joylessness about life these days which oppresses the spirit. As I look out of my window there is not a green leaf or a flowering plant to be seen; dust blows everywhere; a woman passes, and pulling at her arm is a little boy dressed in a snow suit, in which he is hot and fretful; a man with a paunch stalks by, looking as though all his meals in the last fifteen years had soured his stomach; a girl goes by wearing an elaborate hairdo, a pea-jacket and a pair of short slacks, from which her dirty legs emerge; she is pigeon-toed, but she holds her head proudly; an elderly woman in an ill-chosen hat waits for a bus; she breathes through her mouth and stares at the passers-by. Is there any hope in these people? Could immortal souls inhabit such frames without showing some spark through the eyes, or in a smile? November is a month to breed pessimists.

Wednesday: Was discussing wart-cures with a physician this evening. He says that in his experience the best one is this: rub the wart with a slice of bacon, then go outdoors on a night when the moon is full, throw the bacon over your left shoulder and then, as the bacon rots, the wart will vanish. “But what if a cat eats the bacon?” I asked; “The wart will vanish that much sooner,” said he. . . Naturally this led to talk of magic, and a lady present spoke of an old woman known to her grandmother, whose custom it was (when her luck was bad) to bind her churn with willow-withes, and beat it with a stick; then whoever it was that was wishing her ill would come to the door and beg forgiveness. This was in Canada, about 1850-60. Our pioneer ancestors had a lot of simple fun that we miss.

Thursday: Life, for a man of my temperament, is an endless procession of vexing domestic problems. Shall I have my storm-windows put on, or not? At present the weather is warmer than it was most of last May, and it is only by the most rigorous repression of my furnace that I keep my house livable. But I know that Winter will come upon me like a thief in the night, blowing its raw breath through every chink, ruffling the carpets on the floors and whipping the pictures off the walls. God pity all the poor souls on a night like that! And then I shall not be able to get anyone to creep up a ladder in the icy blast, bearing 15 square feet of glass in his arms. Shall I do it now or shall I wait a little longer? My indecision will be the ruin of me, I know it. But oh, the heat of storm windows in warm weather! I will. . . I won’t. . . I will.. . . I WON’T. Come then, Boreas, and be damned! It is better to tarry than to burn.

Friday: Waiting for a bus today, I listened to the conversation of two women who were waiting also; they were exchanging symptoms. Such tales of nervous breakdown, bad dreams, uncontrollable crying, pains in the legs, bladder weakness and general debility I have never heard: although they stood side by side they shouted as though they were conversing in a hurricane, and as their symptoms grew worse and worse, their voices grew louder and shriller. They talked so loudly that I had no need of my formidable powers of eavesdropping. To my unskilled eye they looked healthy, though unwholesome and glum. . . Most people like to be ill, and ask nothing more than a chance to rehearse their ailments. In some dark corner of their minds (I use the word loosely) there lurks the notion that if they ever admit that they feel quite well the gods will at once punish them with some direful malady.

Saturday: Rain all day. What can a man do on a rainy day which is also his half-holiday? I am never at a loss for an answer to that question. Immediately after lunch, I went to bed, and bade farewell to the world for a few hours. The telephone rang. “It can’t be anyone of any consequence,” I thought: “every sane man is in bed this afternoon.” After a while the ringing ceased. . . Later there was a knock at the door. “Nobody is up to any good this afternoon,” I said to myself; “that is doubtless someone wanting to sell me a ticket on a sanctified raffle, or a dozen repulsive Christmas cards, or a copy of the Christmas War Whoop, or a pillow stuffed with pine needles. — A pox upon them.” The knocker went away. . . “If everybody spent one half-day in bed,” I reflected, “there would be no need of a United Nations Organization; world peace would come as a matter of course, the divorce rate would be cut in two, and even grim-visaged labour leaders would become creatures of light and spirit.” At this point Oblivion claimed me.

– XLVI –

Sunday: Was looking through a book today which had a good deal to say about prayer as a mental exercise. Prayer it said, was not a formal thing, and could be indulged in anywhere; pray on the bus, while eating your dinner, or while taking a bath, it said; it was particularly scornful of the notion that prayer should be done on the knees; much better to say one’s prayers lying in bed. . . Now this may be all right as mental exercise, but it entirely neglects the function of prayer as physical exercise. Most people, if they don’t kneel to pray, never kneel at all, and kneeling is good for you. The Moslems understand the value of prayer as exercise, and several times a day they prostrate themselves with their heads toward Mecca; I once knew a Moslem who said that this kept the most sedentary of his sect in good physical trim. The Chinese, before the revolution, made a great point of the kotow, in which you kneel gracefully and touch your forehead to the ground when in the presence of your superiors, or in temples; this kept them admirably supple and healthy, and when the revolution put an end to the kotow the Chinese went straight to the bad. The present decline of Christianity may be traced to this habit of praying in bed, which is bad for the Christian liver.

Monday: A doctor tells me that he has observed a number of cases of poultry diseases among middle-aged women in the last few weeks; apparently the women are regular attendants at Bingo games, where they absent-mindedly consume large quantities of the corn which is used for counters; then they go home and drink several cups of tea, and the trouble begins. Sometimes he says, it is simple distension of the crop, and can be cured by purchasing a set of celluloid Bingo counters, but often the disease has gone too far for anything but severe measures. He mentioned one patient of his (whom he referred to as a White Wyandotte type) whose wattles had turned greyish and whose eyes had filmed over simply from a prolonged surfeit of Bingo corn. Another woman he mentioned (a table Plymouth Rock) showed every symptom of pip, and waddled about his office uttering pitiful squawks and occasionally falling over on her side. Still another was far gone in fowl-convulsions, and he did not think she would last for the Christmas trade. . . I tried to cheer him up by pointing out the sturdy character which the Scots built on a diet of oats; he said that he was afraid that Bingo corn would turn Canada into a nation of sick hens.

Tuesday: The Russians are acclaiming Robbie Burns as a genius — a sort of primeval, pre-Marx Communist. This proves only that the Russians are not reading Burns’s works complete. His dislike of aristocracy pleases them, no doubt, but his hatred of orthodoxy and bureaucracy cannot go down very well. Probably the Russian editions of his works are carefully expurgated, and such verses as The De’il’s Awa Wi’ The Exciseman are omitted. . . My advice to the Russians is that they should give thanks that Burns is dead, and not alive in Russia today. He would be a great bother to the commissars of literature and popular thought.

Wednesday: Was introduced to an elderly lady today who offered me two fingers to shake; they were cold, damp and blue, like uncooked sausages. Her conduct in this matter did not please me greatly, for I would much have preferred to have no hand at all, rather than half a hand. It was the custom in the last century to give a few fingers — three, two, or in extreme cases, one — to people whom one regarded as socal inferiors, or in some way undesirable. I only know one man who still does it, and as he does it to everybody I assume that he has a high regard for himself. The story is told that the late Arthur Balfour once offered a man one finger to shake, and the man vindictively shook it to such a degree that Balfour was unable to write for a week. Moderation in the handshake is highly desirable; neither the blacksmith grip, which crushes the hand into the semblance of hamburger, nor the chilly extension of two or three fingers. I think handshaking is overdone, in any case; why do we not compliment our friends by shaking hands with ourselves, like Chinamen, or boxers who have won a match?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson