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

Wednesday: Thought a good deal today about games for a Christmas party. There are plenty of dull games of course, in which one is given a piece of paper and put off in a corner to write the names of all the rivers one can think of beginning with “G,” and there are embarrassing games in which one is tied back to back with a total stranger of the opposite sex and instructed to get free without breaking the strings. But between boredom and ribald lunacy there are some excellent games; the kind I particularly like are those in which one runs all over the house, hiding in the bathtubs and the coalpile, and jumping at people in the dark; the nearer a game approximates to the plot of a Boris Karloff film, the better I like it. There are also games in which the whole company passes judgment on the intelligence, charm and youth of each player in turn; the delight of such amusements is the narrow path they tread between good humour and malignance; many a beautiful friendship has been ruptured by such shenanigans.

Thursday: At last it seems that I have a Christmas gift for everybody who has a right to expect one from me, and for a few who have none. I see no signs whatever that anyone has a gift for me, but I am used to that; I have always found it more pleasant to give than to receive. (Advt.). . . A man was complaining to me today about the agonies he goes through with Athlete’s Foot; apparently his wife and his daughter suffer from this ailment also. He seemed to think that there was something rather distinguished about having Athlete’s Foot as badly as he had it; he ranked it with such noble maladies as Coronary Thrombosis and Paralysis Agitans. I was not impressed. At one time in my life I mixed a good deal with shepherds and sheep-breeders, and a lot of their sheep suffered from Athlete’s Foot, only they called it foot-rot, pronounced “fut-rot.” The sheep got it by standing around in damp grass, staring at one another. Futrot was treated with a nasty substance called Stockholm Tar; if it brought no relief, the sheep was knocked over the head with a club. I think I shall suggest to my friend that he and his wife and daughter try Stockholm Tar for a few weeks, and if they do not improve, the next step is obvious.

Friday and Parcelmas: Frantic wrapping of parcels. Through some idiosyncrasy of character, I always seem to give people things which are hard to wrap. The adze for my nephew Gobemouche, for instance, keeps bursting through the gold paper which I bought to wrap it, paying an exorbitant fifteen cents a sheet. And Fairchild’s spokeshave keeps spokeshaving its way through thickness after thickness of tissue; it was a mistake to take it out of the burlap in which it came. I refuse to put my gifts under the Christmas tree unwrapped, for part of the pleasure of Christmas is watching the faces of the recipients of one’s gifts as they tear off the concealing folds. Sometimes the objects of my benevolence have been moved to tears; often they are so thunderstruck that they cannot speak. The time I gave my Aunt Lettice the turtle nicely wrapped and in a jeweller’s box, she fainted dead away; if I had just hung the turtle on the tree unwrapped it wouldn’t have been the same thing at all.

Saturday and Christmas Eve: A great deal of scurrying hither and yon, and lending one’s forefinger to people who want to use it in tying knots. Having wrapped my gifts in the attic, I have to carry them down to the foot of the Christmas tree. This is no easy task, and a couple of adzes and some axe-helves slipped out of my arms and tumbled down the stairs with deafening crashes at every step: tried to cover the noise by singing Silent Night, Holy Night lustily. . . Later joined my relatives for an impromptu Christmas concert, and was moved to tears when my little nephew Gobemouche recited ‘Twas Christmas Eve in The Workhouse; later he offered to recite a piece called Eskimo Nell, but was not allowed to do so for some reason which was not made clear to me. . . When the others had gone to bed, crept down to the Christmas tree and read all the tags on the parcels, by the light of a candle-end; very few for me. Heard a thumping in the fireplace and thought for a wild moment that it was Santa Claus, but it was my brother Fairchild, covered with soot; he too had been peeping and had taken refuge up the chimney when he heard me coming. We retired to the kitchen, and ate pieces of cold plum pudding.

– LII –

Sunday and Christmas: Hurry-scurry, hamper-scamper, tohu-bohu and brouhaha. The happy excited voices of children sounding like the laughter of angels at 8 a.m. and sounding rather more like the squeaking of slate pencils or the filing of a tin can at 5 p.m. Conversations conducted in yells and the incessant rustling of tissue paper. Everyone lays claim to a Dickensian appetite, but shows signs of latter-day squeamishness when faced with a third helping of plum pudding. In some cases, torpor and somnolence have their way; in others, excitement rises to the point of acute Anxiety Neurosis. But it is all very happy, with occasional surface irritations. . . Christmas is best for children, and for those who are growing old; in middle life one’s capacity for enjoyment is under the constraint of a thousand responsibilities.

Monday and Postmortemas: Boxing Day. The joy of Christmas has been rather heavily overlaid by the necessity to cope with immense meals, spend a lot of money giving people things they don’t really want, and subdue children who have been driven to the uttermost pitch of neurasthenia by the excitement and over-indulgence of it all. Perhaps this is merely the result of the gastro-intestinal megrim from which I am recovering.

Tuesday: Was reading the funnies today (just to keep in touch with what the common people are thinking) and was struck by the change which has taken place in what may be called the dynamics of humour. When I first began to read the funnies this subject was simple; the great professor of humorous dynamics was Bud Fisher, the creator of Mutt and Jeff. When Mutt hit Jeff with a spittoon, the noise which came out of Jeff’s head was “Pow,” which was clearly printed at the appropriate spot; if Mutt threw Jeff out of a window, the trajectory of his flight was labelled “Zowie.” Jiggs never made these noises; nothing ever came out of his head except stars and comets. But nowadays this dynamic field is vastly expanded. When a boxer is given a knockout blow his chin emits the word “BLAM” in big letters; when a man is kicked by a horse or a mule his afflicted part says “Zok!” Two of the dynamic sounds greatly used in Barney Google have vanished from my ken; they were “Plop” (for falling on the floor) and “Wham” for being struck with a broom. There’s no doubt about it, science is on the march in every sphere.

Wednesday: This morning was compelled to listen to a long distance call. The telephone company was, as usual, quick and polite in getting my office, but then I became involved in a sparring match with the caller’s secretary, who was determined not to let me speak to him until his full impressiveness and executive splendour had been paraded before me. This involved many repetitions of “Are you ready to speak to Mr. Squealy?” “Just a moment, please,” “Are you ready at your end, Mr. Marchbanks?” “Hold the line, please, Mr. Squealy isn’t quite ready yet.” This went on for quite a time and was punctuated with sounds like “Bzzzzt” which I think the secretary caused by blowing a raspberry into the phone. All this nonsense begot a somewhat morose attitude in my mind, and when at last Mr. Squealy burst upon me in all his glory, I was surly with him. Secretaries who seek to build up their bosses by such means merely make their Mr. Squealies detested by all honest men.

Thursday: A bus driver was telling me today about how he had been robbed of his underwear and a package of pork chops while driving his bus. Unfortunately a traffic snarl cut him off in the middle of the story, and I did not find out whether he was wearing the underwear at the time or whether it was in the parcel. I have seen a conjuror take off his shirt without removing his coat, and I suppose a clever thief might strip a man in the same way. I brooded on this problem for some time, and was reminded of my cousin Manfred Marchbanks, the organist, who once shocked the daylights out of a lady pupil by telling her that he was going to show her how to change her combinations without taking her feet off the pedals. . . Later was in a hardware store when a man knocked over several dollars worth of window glass; he showed the most admirable self-possession, though I thought he breathed rather more powerfully through his nose than a man would do who was utterly unmoved. When I do something like that I shriek and moan like one of the tragedians with the Habimah Players, and have to have feathers burned under my nose before I am fit for anything.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson