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

Thursday: To Toronto on business. The Royal York was the scene of a Better Roads corroboree, and in the Gentleman’s Powder Room I was accosted by a young rustic who had apparently been attending a committee-meeting in a beverage room. He was wandering about, trying to find the exit, but the multiplicity of doors confused him. When I met him, he had just finished an unsuccessful tour of a row of doors which, as they did not come to the floor, may have looked to him like the entrances to further saloons. He was hanging on to the soiled towel bin, lost in admiration of the wonders of the great city. Perhaps I reminded him of someone from home, for he hailed me. “Say, this here’s certainly one swell toilet,” he cried. I nodded. I did not want him to think that I was fully accustomed — indeed indifferent — to such splendours. . . Toronto is a depressing place. Riding up Yonge Street in the trolley, past all those postage stamp stores, dress-suit renters, used car bazaars, pants-pressing ateliers, bathtub entrepreneurs and antique shops specializing in leering china dogs, my heart was heavy. This, I thought, is Canada’s answer to Bond St., to 5th Avenue, to the Rue de la Paix.

Friday: Home tonight on a local train. Was interested in its electrical apparatus: when the train stopped the light was so poor that the filaments in the bulbs could be clearly seen, but when we worked up a good speed it was reasonably bright. How was it produced? By the friction of the wheels on the axles? Or more romantically, by the beautiful wife of the engineer, standing in the tender, brushing her thick auburn locks, the electricity so generated supplying our light? At each station she stopped brushing (to lean down and whisper some delicious secret into the hairy ear of the station agent, her teeth flashing the while like pearls imbedded in a pomegranate) and our light failed. . . Whatever the cause, the light was too poor to read by, and I shall write and tell the president of the line that the axles must grind harder, or the engineer’s wife must brush more vigorously, or I shall see that ugly questions are asked at the next session of Parliament.

Saturday: Have received many letters relating to my recent fearless attack on the Salted Nut Traffic — that spawning-ground of juvenile delinquency and broken homes. A typical missive today from an apologist for the nut-growers: “Surely you are intolerant in your desire to take salted nuts from us all; the moderate nut-eaters far out-number the nut abusers.” This is merely specious. Another writes: “My father, as good a man as ever lived, always kept nuts on the sideboard, and we children saw him eat them, though I never saw him debauch. When I was 21, he took me into the dining room, and said, ‘Jasper, you’re a man now; there they are — cashews, brazils, filberts, everything; use nuts, but don’t abuse them; the nut is a good servant, but a bad master’. I consider your nut-prohibition plans fanatical.” But I am not to be deterred in my war on salted nuts by such letters as these, or the insidious propaganda of the nut-gorged press. I shall not sheathe my sword until we have a nut-free Canada.

– VIII –

Mothering Sunday: It is at this time of year that I begin to think seriously about suicide. My interest in the matter is not practical; I never reach for the bread-knife or the poison bottle. But I begin to understand what it is that people see in suicide, and why they do it. They have seen too many Februaries; they have lugged too many cans of ashes; they have shivered on too many bus stops. Rather than face the remaining two months of official winter, and the likelihood of a bitter May, they commit the Happy Despatch. The rest of us, the cowards, live on and see the summer come once more. . . Snow and ice have backed up somewhere on my roof and water has begun to leak down an inside wall, to the serious detriment of the wallpaper. Shall I send a man up there, and pay his widow $50 a week for life if he falls and breaks his neck, shall I risk my own neck, or shall I pretend that it is not happening until the strain becomes too great and I go crazy? Canada’s high rate of insanity is caused by just such problems. Meanwhile water comes down my stairs like the rapids of the Saguenay, and I shall not be surprised to see a salmon leaping upward from step to step.

Smothering Monday: Yesterday’s suicidal mood persists. Contemplated throwing myself from my office window, as so many despairing men did during the Great Depression. But it is only one storey above ground, and at worst I would break a leg, and look foolish. Anyway there are storm windows, and I can’t be bothered to remove one of them. What Canadians need in February is a painless, simple, and definitely retractable method of suicide. . . At one time I used to see a man every day who had tried to cut his throat several years before; it had left him with a wry neck and a livid, weeping scar. After making such a mess of himself it was clearly his aesthetic duty to finish himself off, and get himself out of the way, for he was a public eyesore. Failure to succeed in suicide is the ultimate ignominy, but criminologists tell us that hundreds of people try to shoot themselves every year, and miss; inability to concentrate their energies, which brings them to the verge of death, inadvertently yanks them away from it.

Tuesday: Passing a second-hand store today I saw a curious object in the window which called up a forgotten chapter of my past life. It was a stove, made of iron which had been unconvincingly painted to simulate mahogany, and it was shaped like an old-fashioned Victrola. Across its front, in bold letters, was the name “Furniola.” Years ago I used to visit a house which contained one of these monstrosities; the owners were convinced that nobody would ever guess its secret, and they used to explain delightedly that although it looked like a gramophone, and gave an air of cultured ease to their living-room, it was in fact a stove. As the creature was usually white-hot, and blistering, this rarely came as a complete surprise, and I never saw any deceived visitor try to put a Victor Red Seal record of Caruso singing “Santa Lucia” on it. But those were the days when the essence of successful interior decoration was that everything should look like something else, and all sorts of mysterious booby-traps were to be found in the best-appointed dwellings. Even telephones were hidden under dolls with long skirts, and nobody who was not in the secret was able to make a call.

Wednesday: To the movies this evening, and saw yet another of those films in which a young married couple, for no reason which would impress anyone outside Hollywood, see fit to behave as though they were an unmarried couple. By this feeble device it is possible to slip scenes past the Censors’ Office — scenes in bedrooms, bathrooms and hotel rooms — which would otherwise be deemed salacious. Why the spectacle of a young unmarried woman brushing her teeth should be considered inflammatory and lewd, whereas the same scene is merely cosy and chummy when she is married, I cannot understand, but such is the power of the wedding ring to anaesthetize and insulate the passions according to the Censors. . . The mess concerned a young couple who met, married and laid the foundation for a posterity in four days, after which the husband went to war and faced the foe for a year and a half. He returned to find his wife a stranger, with a baby which looked, and talked, like Peter Ustinov. This dreary incident, which was unfolded at a turtle’s pace, failed to grip my attention, and my right knee got a cramp; my right knee is an infallible critic.

Thursday: Travelling again today, but not toward the fleshpots of Toronto this time. Instead I travelled upon a line which, if it does not already hold the title, I nominate for the worst in Ontario. Ancient and smelly rolling-stock, a roadbed laid out by a drunken manufacturer of roller-coasters, an engine with the disposition of a love-crossed billy-goat — it has all these and lesser iniquities which I shall not enumerate. Worse, there was a train-sick child aboard for whom I was very sorry, for she was plainly in great distress. But her mother, like many other mothers, had got hold of a wrong idea and would not use her common sense, if she had any. “There’s only one thing to do,” she kept on saying, “and that’s to keep washing her stomach out.” So she poured the child full of water, orange juice, and soft drinks at five-minute intervals, and the child promptly threw it up again, noisily and agonizingly. I wondered how long it would be before I followed suit, but they got out somewhere in the wilderness, and the trainman threw a few old copies of the Globe and Mail over the rinsings.

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