Welcome to the 2022 Letters From Quotidia. This is episode 171. As you may already know, Quotidia is that place that space where ordinary people do ordinary things but, from time to time, encounter the extraordinary. For the next two weeks we’re going back to 2001 in New York City, where, over the course of a few hours of real time, where the dramatic unities are preserved, we will accompany a man who is dying: however, he is doing so in the lap of luxury in an elevated apartment located within a venerable building in midtown Manhattan. It is from an unperformed play I wrote twenty years ago. Listeners who have tapped into the Letters From Quotidia from 2021 may suffer multiple occasions of déjà vu. This is not a sign of anything other than the witnessing of serial cannibalisation- which is par for the course for artistic types like me who have no shame whatsoever and recycle wherever possible! Now, back to the scene. It is a few hours before dawn and the narrator is up and about, restless, ruminative, and wandering around his opulent digs. Shall we join him? [Coda sting] [sonic ambience changes]I have lived in harbour cities in that global abstraction that we call the West: on both sides of the Atlantic- Belfast on the Eastern edge; New York on the other- and also that Emerald City of the Antipodes- Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Alas, although I would have loved to complete the trans-oceanic set, adding San Francisco or L.A: these were never to be locales in which I have lived…and now-not to be? Ah, well! As a child I met a courteous merchant marine captain named Schnell who knew and revered Hitler. This was in 1959; he had, no doubt, dined out on this for years. As, indeed, have I … That’s done: the introductory dance, that is. I suppose you wonder why you should stay to listen to this. I know of those men and women, artists all, who put their all into whatever genre they are presenting- the laundry lists, the diaristic agonies, the close-up of tears, the unendurably sad sobbing of violins. I will not do this. I am much too cold a fish for that. I have been told this. I have been told this. My wife, in fact, compared me to a fish as she left for JFK 28 days ago. Today, she’s flying back from Sydney where she spent some time with our daughter and her family. “Don’t drink like a fish when I’m gone- and don’t forget-you have the infusion at the clinic on the 10th of next month”. But she did leave me with this.Ha! The panic button! Not so long ago, I thought it was just a saying. Strange. The sound is horrific- the point, I guess, and it also sends a wireless signal to the doorman and to the medical centre who will come running if ever I should press it. Also, it does double duty- to scare off any mugger who may wish to redistribute some of my wealth- in his direction, of course. The memory of the sound is etched in my mind [we hear the sound] Where was I? The violins…the violins. Yes! Now, I will not emulate those monsters of ego who tell you nothing but can show everything: who surround themselves with great paintings, priceless first editions, antique furniture and all the uncountable, unimaginable accoutrements of culture in their landmark chateaux, schlosses, castles and penthouses. The sort of people you love to know about even though you may hate everything they have achieved and everything they stand for. You know, I’m just like you, so, it may be a kindness of fate that a recent windfall has come late enough to save me from myself. For I think, I think, that if such great good fortune had come my way earlier in my life when I could have fully indulged any monstrousness within- Oh, I would have been a monster too. Like the abominable duke in Robert Browning’s, My Last Duchess. But more of that later. We are only at the beginning of our journey, after all. I think therefore I am. Descartes. Yes? Don’t flinch; I will not bombard you with Wittgensteinian profundities and obfuscatory perambulations around abstruse philosophical topologies only negotiable by a Poindexter with the agility of a mountain-goat harbouring a penchant for semiotics. No! I inhabit a much more moderate tract of intellectual real-estate. I am what you may call- a middle-brow sort of person. No threat, no threat at all. That which I have is, for most part, borrowed rather than grown or owned. But to get back to the courteous captain. As a child of about…oh, I was nine or ten, I listened with only the vaguest comprehension to the table-talk. Ah yes, The table talk. The good Captain Schnell emulated his hero in pontificating from his place at the head of the table. We were on an oil-tanker, in mid-Atlantic, on our way to a vacation that the oil-company insisted the families of its employees took every two years. My father had many contacts among the merchant marine, and he had arranged passage from Aruba to Southampton for his family on this occasion during our sojourn in the tropics. As guests of the captain, we were at his table. There was, as well as my sisters and mother, another guest; a young man of mixed race who showed to me on deck one day a miniature camera that was one of his proudest possessions. As I say, I have only the vaguest recollections of the content and import of the captain’s conversation. What registered then, and has never left me, is the icy contempt with which he treated that young man whose name, I regret to say, I do not remember. Captain Schnell would lavish old-world courtesy on my mother; he would smile at me and my sisters indulgently. But as for the young man of mixed race- and what a stupid and vacuous phrase that is- there is only one human race after all. And here, in this place, in this space, I think we can all agree on that. But in that other space, that other time, on that oil tanker in mid-Atlantic- the captain was never rude. He was always punctilious in passing the soup tureen and so on- but everybody knew, everybody knew, the young man included, that captain Schnell despised the young-not-quite-white-man who must have had connections the captain could not refuse. So why did I forget his name? Maybe, it’s been the weight of several decades: the sluice, no, no, the torrent of information that has poured in through my senses- only five, by the traditional way of counting them. All that noise and light; the odour, taste, and texture of life itself. Maybe it was that I didn’t care enough then and perhaps don’t really care enough now- or am I being too honest? Can one be too honest? And still, forgetfulness fills us with such terror. I don’t really understand- but then, I don’t have to- I’m not an explicator, explainer, philosopher. Perhaps something of an observer. And from time to time I scratch that itch that some call the need to create. An observer, then, with a need to relieve the itch. The conceit is not unusual but probably borrowed even though it fits so easily, so naturally. That’s me done with introspection- for now, anyway. I’ve always preferred stories- a good read over the worthy canonical tomes you can find under the heading: self-improvement. And, indeed, I’m always surprised to find people who think that I’m educated, even erudite. Having encountered and, in a couple of instances, been friends with people who are- I know my place, my pleasure, my role, if you want to be reductive about it. I scavenge…collect enticing bits and pieces, turn them over close to my face in wonder, then notice something glinting just over there, and either drop what I am examining or stuff it in a pocketas I clamber over, it may well be, the secret of the universe as I reach for the next shining artefact, leaving the real prize untouched. This metaphor, too, is, in all likelihood, borrowed. From now on take it as read that much of what transpires has not been voiced in the universe for the first time. Of course, I have enough vanity left to tell you that I will feel disconsolate, for however short a time, if you conclude, as did a professor after reading his student’s plagiarised essay: “this work is both original and good but, unfortunately for you, the good bits aren’t original and the original bits aren’t any good.” The icy captain Schnell stirred my interest in history. But have you read a history book recently; so heavy, doesn’t fit in the pocket or the mind easily? Scavengers only rarely have the time. Much better is to slip a poem or a song snugly into the memory and take it out, when leisure allows, and set it beside some other small treasure that you have found along the way. Let me demonstrate what I mean, courtesy of Edwin Brock, from his poem Five Ways to Kill a Man: There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man/you can make him carry a plank of wood/to the top of a hill and nail him to it…/Or you can take a length of steel,/shaped and chased in a traditional way,/ and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears,/…you may, if the wind allows, blow gas at him…/ …you may fly/miles above your victim and dispose of him by/pressing one small switch…/ …Simpler, direct, and much more neat/is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle/of the twentieth century, and leave him there. Strange, when I’m reading poetry, all I hear in my head is my wife’s voice. Could be these drugs I take to get by, could be I’m just missing her. [The Emperor of Ice Cream now plays] A much younger man wrote that song in the mid-seventies: sitting in a Sydney park under the antipodean sun, reading the poetry of Wallace Stevens, watching his two young children playing; a refugee from the cauldron that was Belfast- the first of the harbour cities to give a shape to his life, the place he sought out as a teen for its music and the sweet, sweet girl who was to become his partner for what has been now over thirty years. And now circumstances have forced her to be his warder- (You realise I’m talking about myself here- third-person pretension, I think it’s called?) [play Coda sting outro]In the next letter we find our man remembering times of past glory- if his miniscule role in the large events unfolding around him can ever be so described! And talking about miniscule roles, let me differentiate myself from this other guy. Time for me, as for you, is unfolding in the actual present of January, 2022, although I will try to avoid causing too much anachronistic pain as I top and tail the events narrated in these podcasts- but time is a puzzle I can’t yet solve.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (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- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition