Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, Episode 176. When last we left our hero, he was wandering around in his apartment sitting room with a splendid view of Manhattan after dark out of the large, picture windows. Why would you have miserly portholes with such a vista, after all? And, as the globe spins eastwards summoning the sun on what will be a glorious fall morning, a jetliner followed the earth’s rotation carrying the wife of our protagonist and, as a surprise for him, long planned with his daughter, it carried, too, his precious grandson on a farewell visit: you know the sort of thing, Vale, grandad.
But let us re-join the perambulating plutocrat. Perambulating plutocrat! My role is not to mislead you as would an unreliable narrator, so let me quote the Bard from Henry IV. Part I: Hotspur: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil/By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil./If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither/,And I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence./O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil! This was in 1597 but the preacher Hugh Latimer used it in 1555 and it was in common use then. So, being schooled by that valiant English knight, Henry Percy, nicknamed, Hotspur let me admit that our protagonist is not really a plutocrat, just a recently wealthy, middle-aged dying man who has nothing but time on his hands- for a little while anyway. [Coda sting][sonic ambience changes]
I have an addictive personality, I am told, and I have to be watched for my own good. And because she isn’t here to watch- she has left this device for me to use if I go over the edge. It’s called a panic button- it’s a real thing! Apparently, it will summon help: the ever-dependable Eddie downstairs or some paramedical service. Ha! Help! Help… Australia, then, was the land of the long weekend, bland but safe. Oh, I know that horrors lurked. But not for us anymore – or rather, the beast was safely out of sight for another ten years or so. It was strange to reflect that less than ten years before, I had been part of that sixties’ optimism- all the entrenched bigotries were being swept away by the scornful laughter of rejection as youthful shock-troops kitted out by Carnaby Street and waving the incoherent manifestos of various pop philosophers stormed the tired ramparts of- what else- The Establishment. And 1968 was the annus mirabilis- a time when, throughout most of the western world, change seemed not only possible and desirable but inevitable and imminent.
But, in Belfast, other, less fashionably dressed, players were in the game. They, too, had the establishment in their sights. But with them that expression was not figurative. It all went sour very quickly. Anyone who has lived through the experience of a civil society collapsing can attest to this. One day, it seems, all is well, nothing but mundane concerns clouding the horizon. The next day the sun doesn’t rise because, in Yeats’ memorable lines, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. And what was I during the cataclysm? Neither best nor worst. Was I lukewarm, perhaps? To be spewed out of destiny’s mouth! Excuse me a moment….oh, that’s better. This liquid I’m drinking from this rather fancy flask, is a concoction compounded by my medicos and which I need to swirl around my mouth before swallowing- is itDestiny’s mouthwash perhaps? Once upon a time I would have riffed on that conceit- turned it into a song-lyric, short story or, more likely, barroom bluster. Now I find it a chore merely to recount. [Harlequin’s Poles plays]
I had a friend, once upon a time, who lived in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney. From a new house with bloodwood timber floors and views across a wilderness of eucalypts, he only had to step outside to walk for hours in any direction through one of the most glorious landscapes the world can offer. But he was bored; dissatisfied with his lot. You see, entering into his fifth decade, he had never experienced history. I reminded him of the ancient Chinese curse that wishes the enemy a life in interesting times. Drink your steaming, gourmet coffee as the sun burns the early morning mist off the mountains, I said, and read about it from the comfort of your hillside retreat. You teach in a multicultural school in the city. Do you wonder why that seventeen-year-old Croatian girl’s eyes are full of pain? Remember the expulsion of the Afghani youth whose behaviour was seriously alarming? It’s safer to read about the Taliban’s treatment of dissidents than experience it.
Too young to have seen service in Vietnam, he had at least one student in each of his classes as a consequence of Australia’s involvement. A good person, he had helped repair the damage done to some of those who, in fact, had the misfortune to be living in places undergoing interesting times. And he had worked and scrimped and saved with his beautiful wife to build the beautiful house of their dreams to share with their two beautiful children. But he was bored; dissatisfied with his lot. So, he set out to experience history. We threw them a going-away party and our kids played together in the backyard as we drank a wonderful red wine around an open fire, yellow-box wood was burning in the brazier, and I can smell it still.
He was killed by separatists outside a model school… somewhere in the Himalayas as I recall, burned to death in his car with his wife and two pre-teen daughters as they were arriving to start the new school year. As I watched our kids playing in that Sydney backyard, I was reminded of playing on the patios of Aruba- the adults would drink and talk and never think our little ears were listening. But they were. For a few years, it was evident that a change was coming. My dad would talk about the new crew he was training up; my mum would ask “But when will they…?” “Shhh, Big ears is just over there…”
In 1964 we returned to Northern Ireland, for the last time from the sunny sojourn that was my childhood; from the Lotus Land that was the small Caribbean island of Aruba where my father had worked for twenty-five years as a tug-master for the oil company founded by old man Rockefeller, one of the icons of Capitalism. From time to time, to break the monotony, I would rummage about in the attic of a rainy day- and the small coastal village of Cushendall had more than its share of these that year, as I remember it. There was, in an old, green steamer trunk, brass-bound with an ornate hasp and decaying leather handles, piles of newspapers, copies of The Irish News from the years of the Second World War. And I began to read: there in black and white was the frisson of living in exciting times. A newspaper that doesn’t know if it will publish the next day, courtesy of a German bomb, has rather more focus than the indulged rags of peaceful epochs. A bit like a man facing execution- as Doctor Johnston said- it concentrates the mind wonderfully.
At any rate, this was history. My father and mother were in its pages, in very, very, small print- he hadn’t been a general at Stalingrad but has watched a U-Boat blow a friend out of the water, literally. Strange how glibly that phrase “blown out of the water” falls from the mouths of those who have never been closer to conflict than raised voices, a shove or a drunken slap. Dad and his pal were on the Maracaibo run bringing crude oil from Venezuela to the oil-refinery in Aruba. He never spoke about it to me- it was part of the family legend and some things you knew better than to broach. My mother, meanwhile, an ocean away, helped console the shattered survivors of the Luftwaffe’s attacks on Belfast. They made monsters in those days, and even the ordinary people seemed larger-than-life.
But I was born into the next age, the Age of Anxiety. In the early sixties, Castro was a renegade on the rampage not too far to the north- but somehow comic with his beard and cigar, a Latin Groucho Marx rather than the more imposing German Karl. However, the missile crisis sparked nervous cocktail conversations in the patios of expatriate Americans: You can bet the refinery will be hit! The periodicals were full of details of how to build bomb shelters. The commies would, of course, be utterly destroyed. MAD was more than a magazine title, in those days. That magazine, by the way, provoked in me spasms of hysterical laughter one day in 1961- I don’t remember what, in particular, set me off but I remember my mother regarding me oddly as I pointed gasping and shrieking at the source of my merriment.
In memory it seems to be in vivid colour even though I know the magazine didn’t abandon the black and white form for decades after that. The other magazine I remember from the time was US News and World Report which, unlike MAD, featured prominently on the periodicals display in the High School library. And, from that sober source I learned about an invisible, mysterious killer- Radiation delivered in its hellish sacramental form- Fallout.
My learning was from the printed page. In 1945 on a clear August day the people of a Japanese harbour city learned about it much more directly. The Japanese poet, Toge Sankichi puts it this way, from his poem, The Shadow: That morning/a flash tens of thousands of degrees hot/burned it all of a sudden onto the thick slab of granite:/someone’s trunk./Burned onto the step, cracked and watery red,/the mark of the blood that flowed as intestines melted to mush:/ a shadow./Ah! if you are from Hiroshima/and on that morning,/amid indescribable flash and heat and smoke,/were buffeted in the whirlpool of the glare of the flames, the shadow of the cloud,/crawled about dragging skin that was peeling off,/so transformed that even your wife and children/would not have known you,/this shadow/is etched in tragic memory/and will never fade.
[play Airman] [Coda sting] As we leave the clouds of hell boiling above the hapless city of Hiroshima, let us fast-forward into the future which is American. The economy of the US towers above that of the rest of the globe and in a small enclave on a small desert island a group of juvenile delinquent wannabees are about to make an entrance to a dance that is being conducted under the auspices of the Seroe Colorado High School staff at the Esso Club in Aruba in the year 1962. As far as the eye can see, there are no clouds on the horizon- what could possibly go wrong for the towering global superpower or for those held closely and, in some cases, uncomfortably, to the bony bosom of Uncle Sam?
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