Welcome to Letters From Quotidia – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Pawn yo’ gold watch/An’ diamond ring./Git a quart o’ licker,/Let’s shake dat thing!/Skee-de-dad! De-dad!/Doo-doo-doo!/Won’t be nothin’ left/When de worms git through/An’ you’s a long time Dead/When you is/Dead, too./So beat dat drum, boy!/Shout dat song:/Shake ’em up an’ shake ’em up/All night long. This is the middle section of Langston Hughes’ poem Saturday Night. I used the opening and conclusion of the poem to close Entry 82. The exuberant shout against mortality is one response, and one I admire.
Here’s another take on the matter from the song Still Gonna Die by Shel Silverstein, Drink ginseng tonics, you’re still gonna die./Try high colonics, you’re still gonna die./You can have yourself frozen and suspended in time,/But when they do thaw you out, you’re still gonna die. For a more solemn view, you may wish to visit or re-visit the great elegy by Thomas Gray, Written in a Country Graveyard, which opens, The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,/The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me. There are so many memorable lines in this justly famous poem, but these four lines will serve to illustrate the quality of the whole, The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,/Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,/The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
John Donne, in his own inimitable way, defies the grim reaper, DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so. In the sestet of his sonnet, he scorns the power of death and affirms his own adamantine faith, Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,/And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?/ One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Ah, the power of poetry, the wonder of words. Brueghel the Elder’s contemporaneous The Triumph of Death must give one pause, though. Stand, if you will, before this panorama of desolation, painted on panel measuring 117cm x 162 cm and read it from left to right, top to bottom. Two skeletons toll the death of humanity as fires pour out palls of smoke from hills and ships burning in a bay while ashore skeletal figures ride famished horses as they hunt down peasants fleeing in despair. Bodies hang from trees and gallows while carrion birds wheel above. Skeleton armies swarm in the middle-ground, herding the masses into a false sanctuary marked with a cross as a pair of skeletons frame this section- one on a wagon filled with skulls, plays the hurdy-gurdy while the other beats triumphantly on a pair of timpani. Along the bottom of the painting a king vainly tries to prevent the looting of his treasury; in the centre a hound chews on the face of a child and a skeletal assassin cuts the throat of a supine man. The feast on the right has been interrupted by the forces of desolation: the stools upended, the cards scattered, the cup overturned. A fool tries to crawl under the table as a demon empties the flasks of wine; a skeleton grapples with a young woman in a parody of an amorous embrace as, in the lower right corner of the painting, a pair of young lovers, oblivious, sing from a musical manuscript to the accompaniment of a lute. At last! A sign of hope, you gasp…sorry, see that death’s head reading the music over her shoulder?
The dance of death is also depicted in the woodcuts of Hans Holbein and in the music of Saint-Saens whose Danse Macabre, a tone poem written in 1874 in the key of G minor, which, despite initial critical rejection, lives on in the repertoire and in adaptations such as the theme for the TV series Jonathan Creek. On a more personal level, people give and acquire memorabilia associated with death. In Shakespeare’s time it was not unusual to have memorial rings made to be given to the favoured few- a pity it is not still a widespread custom.
We, ourselves, have a score or more memorial cards of those family members and friends we have lost over the years. Over the past 27 years I have written nine songs specifically in remembrance of my son who died at age 15 years. They take different forms but are all part of an ongoing engagement on my part with him. If we can’t go to the pub or sit out on the back veranda and shoot the breeze, then, at least, I can let him know how things are going, as in this 2005 song where I bring him up to date on what has been happening within the family group.
I started writing it on 19th December of that year and finished it two days later on the summer solstice, his birthday. The letters this week offer a wide range of views and touch on quite a number of topics but what will be clear to you all is that they form a quartet in memory of my son. This was not planned but just fell out this way in the sequencing of songs for this project. [insert song]
Next week we are backing up a bit to get some perspective: one billion years, to be precise. I love the sciences and I love the arts. Does anyone remember that dull but deadly dichotomy between these fields postulated by some in academia- with science as the sister among the cinders. CP Snow, a novelist and scientist, not much remembered now, challenged this prissy snobbery in a lecture in 1959 entitled The Two Cultures which refers to the sciences on the one hand and the humanities, on the other.
Then, the humanists derided the scientists as having little knowledge of say, the works of Shakespeare. But they hadn’t a clue about the most fundamental of scientific concepts such as mass or acceleration. And, now, 60-odd years later, the shoe’s on the other foot. Try proposing a course in liberal arts to this generation’s bureaucrats and see how far you get…
On a personal note: tomorrow, 4th June, is what would have been my younger sister’s 69th birthday had cancer not claimed her on March 13th of this year. According to her wishes, her ashes are buried under a Ginkgo tree in a forest in Germany. Vale, my beloved sister, Mary.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter)
Microphone (for many of the songs) Shure SM58
For recording and mixing down 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used
Music accompaniment and composition software– Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2020 as well as- for some 20 of the songs of year 2000 vintage- I used a Blue Mountains, NSW, studio. Approximately 48 Banter folk songs and instrumentals recorded live (“in the round”) with a ThinkPad laptop using the inbuilt mic.