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.
The years 1971 and 1972 loom large in my recollection: I got married; travelled overseas on my first independent holiday (our honeymoon in Yugoslavia as it was at that time and Venice); moved into our first home; fathered my first child; got my first degree (I never bothered completing another); and moved to Australia to start my first job. A lot of firsts. In these years, too, I first started to write songs about what was going on around me rather than anodyne love ditties. Some of these early songs have been lost forever in the chaos of living. Others, such as this one, survived long enough to be transferred to cassette tape and, later, to zeros and ones in the digital domain.
The transience and randomness of life and death swirled around us: I missed, by moments, being blown up in a pub near the city centre, an acquaintance was shot and killed by gunmen unknown. After the honeymoon we found part of a house for rent in West Belfast off the Whiterock Road in Beechview Park which looked across a cinder pitch to the walls of the city cemetery on which was sprayed, in white paint, the graffito, Is there a life before death? We lived there from late July 1971 until late August 1972. On the 9th of August, 1971, gunfire erupted in the area as British Army Saracens whined through the streets lifting republican suspects for internment. I watched later from our bedroom window as two men placed barrels of petrol on the Whiterock Road, detonating them as a patrol passed shortly afterwards.
My pregnant wife, clambering over barricades to get to work at the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department and then back trying to get up the Falls Road, was in the grocery store at the corner of the lane leading to our street when she was unceremoniously pushed to the floor by a woman next to her: before she could remonstrate a couple of rubber bullets came through the door and ricocheted around the shop, smashing displays and causing panic and anger. Over 55,000 of these were fired by British forces before they were phased out with the introduction of plastic bullets in 1975. One of the rubber bullets from the shop was given to my wife as a souvenir and was displayed for a time in our various homes over the years, but it disappeared, too, along with a lot of other stuff, in the chaos of living.
I, protective husband that I was-remonstrated with the local women that night, that I would not let her go out on bin-lid duty- this was the early warning technology of the savvy citizens to warn the local IRA brigade of British Army patrols, and she, returning to the corner shop the next day, met with a wall of silence as she was motioned silently to the counter to buy her bread and milk and sugar. Clearly, pregnancy was not a sufficient excuse in that area at that time. The conflict deepened as bombings and shootings took their toll- in lives and quality of life.
The dirty war kicked into gear in earnest as Brigadier Frank Kitson’s counter-insurgency tactics honed against the Mau Mau in Kenya was introduced to streets of the United Kingdom (although not on the island of Britain, itself). Fifteen civilians, including four women, were killed in McGurk’s Pub in North Queen Street by loyalist bombers whose path before and after was facilitated by members of the shadowy Military Reaction Force of the British Army. Eight weeks later, British Paratroopers shot dead 13 civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday prompting a rush on IRA recruiters. Republicans hit back by burning the British embassy in Dublin three days later, bombing Aldershot Barracks in Britain which killed seven and exploding a bomb in Lower Donegall Street, Belfast, killing seven, also.
As violence spiralled out of control, Edward Heath, British Prime Minister, and widely rumoured in republican Belfast to have interrupted sailing on his yacht, Morning Cloud, pulled the pin, prorogued the parliament at Stormont and introduced direct rule, ending all hope of any semblance of democracy in Northern Ireland for over a generation. There were false dawns with truces and secret talks but the killing went on, regardless. One day, while I was returning records to the Belfast Central Library, 22 bombs went off in the space of an hour and a quarter killing nine outright and seriously injuring 130 more. That summer the UDA in ranked and hooded thousands marched along Royal Avenue through the centre of Belfast as I watched in trepidation.
I rang my father in Cushendall and arranged to spend a few days in Cushendall before leaving for Heathrow airport for a flight to Sydney. He came and collected my wife, my three-month old daughter and me from Beechview Park on Saturday, August 26, as gunfire rang out in the distance. I can see the headlines now, I thought sardonically, young family tragically killed a week before they were to start their new life in Australia. Don’t even joke about! I immediately admonished myself. As Yeats so truly put it, Out of Ireland have we come./Great hatred, little room,/Maimed us at the start.
I wrote the song featured here at the time of the events outlined. Like the song from the previous post, it is much longer than the three-to-four-minute items that I usually write but I have resisted the urge to edit it in the years since arguing to myself that it is an artefact from those times, like that rubber bullet that ricocheted around the shop my wife was in. And, in the decades since, confronted by the reality of innocents routinely brutalised in the name of one ideology or another, I can only echo the tag line of the song:I wonder how they got so far at all…[insert song]
The next letter is about progress. We meet again Ron Cobb, cartoonist, then Hans Rosling demonstrates that chinpanzees out-perform Swedish students in current affairs. We learn that the glass is half-full and, finally, Oscar Wilde offers wise words about the nature of progress.
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.