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

Tuesday: Passed a bank this evening which was being re-modelled. Workmen were taking down the iron cages in which the tellers used to be kept. If anything marks the decline of belief in private property, it is this. Not so long ago, putting a teller into his cage was a solemn ceremony; the manager locked him in, and there he stayed until the manager let him out; while he was in the cage he spoke in a hushed voice, like a man who had swallowed a bomb, and he handled money with a kind of religious awe. In some English banks he did not even touch the money: he pushed it around with a brass scoop. Whenever he was handed a cheque, he held it up to the light, crackled it at his left ear, and sniffed at it before he cashed it. And when he was let out of the cage he had to strip before the manager, and prove that he had not secreted any doubloons about his person. But the modern teller is a carefree soul, able to run all over the bank if he likes, and ready to hobnob with Tom, Dick and Harry. It is all part of the breakdown of the monetary system.

Wednesday: Two different manifestations of the same attitude toward women forced themselves on my notice this afternoon. On the street I passed a young couple just as the boy wrenched the girl toward him by the shoulder. “Aw, yuh little nincompoop, yuh!” he said, as he gave her a shake; she replied with a spirited, but uncultured, reflection on his legitimacy. Five minutes later I opened a magazine at a luridly coloured advertisement for perfume. In it another young man, in evening dress, was gazing at the shoulder of his female companion with glowing eyes, like a vegetarian about to bite into an onion; his hands hovered in the air behind her, as though he might suddenly snatch her, just as the boy in the street had snatched. The caption of the picture was “Potent Essence of Desire to Touch”. . . I shall never understand life, but I suppose the lesson of this is that if young men do not grab you and call you a little nincompoop, you need a perfume which will force them to do so. The girl in the advertisement was cool, exquisite and beautiful; the girl in the street was tousled, and had been barking her shins on rocking-chairs for weeks, I should judge. But both of them, apparently, were able to rouse men to wild flights of shoulder-madness.

Thursday: Heard a lady greeting her physician this afternoon. . . “Well, doctor,” she said, breezily, “I hope you’ve been keeping well?” He gulped a couple of times and staggered a little, but his presence of mind did not desert him, for he immediately turned the conversation to a less ticklish subject. Of course it is terribly bad form to ask a doctor how he feels; it is almost the same thing as giving him a dig with a surgical scalpel, or telling him that he would not puff so much if he got more exercise. Doctors like to give the impression that they have no fluctuations of health, and are always in the absolute pink of condition. Nevertheless, in spite of the bad manners it would show, I should love to put a doctor on the spot about his health. “Let me see your tongue,” I should like to say; “Oh, dear me, doctor, how did you ever let your tongue get in that frightful condition? Have you been licking the carpet with it? How’s the pulse? Good heavens, it feels like a boogie-woogie bass! Take off all your clothes and lie down on this cold leather couch while I hit you all over with this little hammer. Aha! makes you jump, does it? That’s bad! Let me tickle the soles of your feet. Don’t giggle! This is serious! You’re on the skids, doc; better give up eating, drinking, smoking and anything else you happen to like.”. . . But this is idle daydreaming.

Friday: Did some more odds and ends of Christmas shopping today. Bought fifteen dozen handkerchiefs for female relatives. I don’t know what women do with their handkerchiefs; every year I give away a car-load of them, but I have never known a woman who had a handkerchief on her person at any time when she needed one. Older women always keep their handkerchiefs upstairs so that they can send their younger relatives after them. Young women never have handkerchiefs, and when they cry (which they do very frequently during courtship and usually for no good reason) they always borrow a handkerchief from the man in the case. When they marry, they appoint their husbands Handkerchief Bearer in Chief for the rest of his life. Sometimes they carry boxes of paper handkerchiefs, when they have colds, but never the cloth variety. And why are women’s handkerchiefs so small? What a woman really needs is a handkerchief as big as a table-cloth, pinned to her bosom with a blanket-pin.

Saturday: The pest who was nagging me last week about deep-breathing was at me this evening on the subject of water-drinking. “How much water do you drink a day?” he asked, finishing a glass of my beer. “About half a paper cupful,” I replied, knowing that it was not a satisfactory answer. He made a great show of disgust. “Four gallons a day is the minimum — the bare minimum,” he said, when he could speak. “That would be about two pails,” I said mildly; “I don’t think I could drink that much in a day — not if I expected to do anything else, that is.” “It would flush your system,” he persisted; “you’re probably a mass of crystallization inside. Try it tomorrow.”. . . Later he phoned me. “By the way,” he said, trying to be casual, “I made a slight mistake. Should have said four quarts — not four gallons.” Poor boob! he really means four pints, which is too much anyway. He is reading a health book, and giving all his acquaintances the benefit. It is one of the mistakes of democracy that it teaches such people to read.

– LI –

Sunday: Rummaging in some of my personal debris today I found two Christmas cards which I bought in 1939 and forgot to send out. They will be very handy this year if I can find envelopes to fit them. . . I was really searching for pen nibs, of which I have a large but unsatisfactory store. In these days when people write with ballbearings and solid ink, and at the bottom of the lake while swimming, and otherwise miraculously, I am an embittered reactionary scraping away with a wooden pen which I dip after every eighth word. I do this because I like a particular sort of flexible nib which cannot be obtained in any fountain pen that I have ever owned or tried. But alas! such nibs are now very hard to find, and in despair I buy every nib I see, hoping to find a substitute for my unobtainable favourites. Consequently I have enough nibs to open a stationery store, none of which really pleases me. I know that I am at anchor in the stream of progress, but I don’t care. It has pleased God to make me a dipper man, and who am I to struggle against the Divine Will? (This is the same line of argument which sustained my late uncle, the Rt. Rev. Hengist Marchbanks, Bishop of Baffinland, in his lifelong struggle against the heathen abomination of blotting-paper; he always sprinkled sand on what he had written, to dry it.)

Monday: I get the strangest stuff in the mail. A letter turned up this morning which began “Dear God –“, but what followed was so confused that I could not make out whether this was a cry from the writer’s heart, or a somewhat elaborate compliment to myself. The same post brought an invitation from the Book-of-the-Month Club, asking me to bestow the benediction of my presence upon its membership. The pamphlet by which this invitation was conveyed was beautifully printed and ornamented with finely reproduced illustrations from Alice In Wonderland. The richness of the printing, however, was not balanced by the literary quality of the matter printed, which was, for a book club, rather poorly expressed. This added to my conviction that Americans are especially susceptible to things which appeal to their eyes, like pictures, rather than things which appeal to their ears, like pieces of prose. In the same way they like fruit which looks delicious, rather than less impressive fruit which really tastes delicious. No book clubs for me today, thank you.

Tuesday: Somehow or other the rumour has spread among some children I know that I am a conjuror and they are always teasing me to do magic. My skill is not great, but their standards are very low, and usually I manage to satisfy them. This afternoon a little girl demanded that I should do something miraculous, so I swallowed a fork, and, after feigning indigestion very laughably, I produced it from the sole of my boot. She was impressed, but not completely satisfied. “There’s no blood on it,” said she. . . Children have disgustingly literal minds, and hearts of stone.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson