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

You think you’re a Masher, and all hearts do please,

But you might as well know you’re a Big Hunk of Cheese.

It may be argued, of course, that this type of Valentine compromised the sender’s dignity, though not half as badly as it compromised that of the receiver. . . I see no mention of a Valentine suitable for a dyspeptic diarist whose emotions have been cauterized by a rebellious and evilly-disposed furnace.

Thursday: Another note from the Income Tax people this morning. A while ago they presented me with a bill for the whole of last year’s tax, insisting that I had not paid it. By great good luck and contrary to my usual unbusinesslike procedure, I had my receipts, which I brandished angrily in their faces. Gradually the whole sordid story leaked out: they had taxed me both as Samuel Marchbanks and as Fortunatus S. Marchbanks, in spite of the fact that nobody has called me Fortunatus since 1897; having billed Sam they were out to skin Fortunatus, but I am not quite such a dual personality as that. When their error was pointed out to them, they did not even apologize for their threat to take proceedings against me, but managed to dig up an item of a few dollars which they said I ought to pay, plus interest. . . The churlishness of tax-gatherers is phenomenal. I wonder if there is a case on record in which a private citizen has extracted an apology from a tax-gatherer? I wonder if their work makes them curmudgeons, or if curmudgeonliness is a qualification for the job? I have received a stack of letters about this affair, all written from the standpoint of a government official addressing a hardened and evasive criminal. The insolence of these herdsmen of The Golden Calf is past all bearing.

Friday: The papers tell me that the sports world has been shaken by a horrible basketball scandal, which surprises me more than I can express. I have for years been under the impression that basketball is a gentle game played by fat little girls who trundle up and down a gymnasium floor with jellying thighs and bobbing bosoms, trying to toss an old soccer ball into a hoop, squealing and giggling the while. But apparently the real basketball players are big hairy fellows who chew tobacco and occasionally accept bribes. . . Not long ago I discovered that I was similarly out-of-date on the subject of lacrosse. My idea of lacrosse is genuine Indian baggataway, with 24 of the most murderous ruffians in town clashing and hacking at each other with hickory clubs and pieces of fish-net. An old lacrosse player once pulled up his trousers and showed me his shins, and they looked like raw hamburger even after 25 years. But now it seems that lacrosse really is a girl’s game, refereed by prim females who cry, “Ah, ah there, Lucy,” and “Tut, Tut Marjorie” and “Now girls, remember your Guide honour” when hair-pulling seems imminent.

Saturday: I often think that censors and would-be censors would achieve more in the world if they were not such ignoramuses. They set up a great outcry about comic books in which crimes are described, about magazines in which girls show considerably less bosom than may be observed by a visitor to a maternity ward, and about cheap books in which some dirty words which everybody knows are set down in print. But today I was in a cigar store, and almost swooned away when I saw a really dangerous book exposed for sale at a mere thirty-five cents: It was The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett. Here is a book which openly advocates fascism, makes clever fun of democracy, embodies at least twenty dangerous heresies and presents sexual deviation in an attractive guise, and it was offered in a pretty cover at a price which any teen-ager can get by nagging his parents for five minutes. Half the tyrants in history, and three-quarters of the revolutionaries, have justified their actions by referring to Plato, but the censors don’t care; they keep right on fussing about sex, which they would like to see under government control, like booze.

– VII –

Sunday: What causes words to go out of fashion, I wonder? Today I was chatting with an aged, but sporty, character who employed many an old-fashioned term in his ordinary speech, and even resurrected such palsied slang as “Yessirree bob!” from time to time. But when he left me he said that he was going to the station to catch a train, and I was jarred by the falsity of this remark; such a man should not have said “station” but “depot” — of course pronounced “deepo,” or perhaps “deppo”. When I was a lad, and this man in his saucy youth, nobody with any pretension to smartness ever called a station anything but a “deepo,” and I think that to most of them it implied something fancier than a station. A station was a frame building, painted the colour of dried blood and heated with a pot-bellied stove, where rubes and jays waited for the train. The deepo served such dudes as themselves, and usually had a marble floor, a drinking fountain (out of order) and an echo. In a deepo there was a Ladies’ Waiting Room, to protect unaccompanied females from the vile attention of lubricious males. In a mere station women had to take their chance, and were usually heavily armed with hatpins.

Monday: Quite a number of people, I notice, have taken to calling me by my first name: I was hailed as “Sam” this morning by a young fellow whose name I do not even know. This does not distress me; if he thinks that he makes the world a cheerier place by calling everyone by a first name or a nickname, I am content that he should do so. But I wonder if people do not attach too much importance to the first-name habit? Every man and woman is a mystery, built like those Chinese puzzles which consist of one box inside another, so that ten or twelve boxes have to be opened before the final solution is found. Not more than two or three people have ever penetrated beyond my outside box, and there are not many people whom I have explored further; if anyone imagines that being on first-name terms with somebody magically strips away all the boxes and reveals the inner treasure, he still has a great deal to learn about human nature. There are people, of course, who consist only of one box, and that a cardboard carton, containing nothing at all.

Tuesday and St. Valentine’s Day: It was warmer today than it has been for many weeks. The snow sagged, and I sagged with it. My overcoat, which has seemed like a wisp of cheesecloth in bitter weather, felt like the coat of a shepherd dog. . . Nobody sent me any Valentines today, which seems a little shabby, considering that I sent out more than a dozen, including a few anonymous insulting ones to the leaders of the principal political parties and high-ranking churchmen. . . Re-reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son. What an easy life children have nowadays! A century ago a child expected to be beaten, pinched, shaken, cuffed, locked in dark cupboards, bastinadoed and told it would go to Hell all day and every day, even in the happiest homes. And with what result? They grew up to be the Gladstones, Huxleys, Darwins, Tennysons, and other Great Victorians whom we all admire. Nowadays, with our weak-kneed kindness, we are raising a generation of nincompoops and clodhoppers. The revulsion against progressive education may be expected any time now. Eminent child psychologists are already beginning to advocate cruelty as a theory of training. Is your child disobedient, saucy and self-willed? Shove red-hot gramophone needles under its nails, and be a pioneer in the new movement!

Wednesday: When I was young, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was regarded as the wickedest book that it was possible to read, and I recall reading it with a keen sense of the occasion. Copies printed in France had to be sneaked into Canada at immense risk, and sold for very high prices, but somebody left me one in his will. Cleaning out my bookcases today I came upon it and sat down to re-read it, and was forced to conclude that my soul has become calloused by the passing years, for I found myself laughing aloud at the more passionate passages. The tale is one of a lady whose husband is an invalid, and she tucks up snugly with a gamekeeper who likes to use four-letter words in what D. H. Lawrence believed was a poetic manner. But the solemnity with which this romance is invested is too rich for my taste. Lawrence plainly believed that Love and the Human Body were Very, Very Sacred, which is probably true, but they are also very, very funny, and the more long-faced we become about the sacredness, the more the fun keeps rearing its giggling head. I see the day coming when the love scenes from Lady Chatterley will be as hilariously regarded as the death of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson