Welcome to Letters From Quoitidia Episode 178, where we find our protagonist perched in his eyrie high above Manhattan and wondering what to do next as he frets and fusses with his medication which is having the effect of preventing “sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleave of care”- that quote floats through his mind and he wanders along the bookcases that line one of the walls. He replaces his volume of 20th Century poems and lifts down John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which was a book he really identified with in his twenties when he felt the constraints of the world pressing in around him as he struggled with debt, the pressures of work and family. [play Cannery Row]
One of my first discoveries in the Old World was the existence of old people. Aruba was an expatriate society with one purpose only: to refine the crude oil from Venezuela and send it off to the gas guzzlers of the American Dream. Hence, it was an artificial social construct using any indices you might select. Even the water was, in a sense, artificial. It didn’t fall from the sky or run along river courses but was piped in from a desalinisation plant and was more valuable than the crude oil. I recall where an employee of the company, actually one of the rising young executives, was summarily dismissed for tampering with his water meter. Through youthful eyes all the adults were old- but, in reality, they were mostly in their thirties or forties. Really old people, like my parents, had attained the impossible age of fifty- younger than I am now.
The houses, schools, clubs, boats, cars, clothes, toys, tools, furniture, fittings, fixtures- all new. Set down by American Capital on a small desert island only a generation before. Aruba, at that time, was owned by the Dutch but the Americans built a refinery and constructed a quasi-colonial enclave- we actually called it the Colony– on one end of the island which was walled off from the rest of the island, the gates manned by armed police to ensure its isolation. The food also was, for most part, freighted in and sold from a commissary.
Now, Ireland was different. When my father returned upon his retirement from the company- I had preceded him and my mother to start boarding school some months before- he took me up a narrow, rutted, lane in the country to visit his stepmother. It was a small one-storey Irish cottage with whitewashed walls and thatched roof. The wooden half-door was open and inside was an open fire with an iron kettle swung over it. There was an open dresser with gleaming crockery, an old wooden bench, and a dog asleep on a rug. Decades later I was to visit a theme park in the south of Ireland with an almost identical cottage, outside and in. My father knocked and we entered. A small, stooped, wizened woman with deep fissures in her face smiled faintly at us as she hobbled out of a darkened room off to one side of the main living area. This was his stepmother. After introductions, he told me to go play by the stream that ran close by, while they talked.
There I had one of those almost preternatural encounters that puzzles me to this day: across the stream was a tinker lad- one of the travelling people of Ireland. Commonly called the Gypsies, they are the subject of prejudice wherever they go. He called across the stream to me, but I could not understand what he was saying. He repeated his words- still no comprehension. The next thing I remember, we were throwing stones at one another. Then I heard my father call my name; the tinker-lad dropped the stone he was about to throw, laughed, and disappeared into the bushes lining the stream. I walked back feeling, feeling…and the feeling persists to this day…somehow cheated.
When we were settled in the car I asked my father about his real mother, but he answered only that she had died when he was a small boy. It wasn’t until much later that I was to receive a fuller account. I saw old people on the streets, at Mass, when I visited relatives, or in attendance at the funerals and wakes that were a not unusual feature of country life in the Glens of Antrim: I ought, in short, to have been inoculated by the…Methusaleh-isation of my life in a society with a more natural demographic spread than the one I had been living in but remember being shocked to the core by the evidence of rampant geriatric carnality encountered when I worked for a summer on the Isle of Man at a holiday camp a few years after my return.
I was sixteen years old and, for the first time in my life, truly on my own, away from the influence of adults who had an interest in or responsibility for me. I had completed my O- Levels and flew to that strange island in the middle of the Irish Sea with Sean Flynn, a friend from school a year older than me. He was a day boy who travelled by bus from Ballymena, and I travelled by bus from Cushendall- a day boy too, apart from a few months boarding- of which, more later. But to get back to the rampant geriatric carnality- oh I wished I possessed in greater measure the easy English approach to sexuality in the mid-sixties which was somewhat in advance of the Irish kind practised in the repressed Catholic country parish I lived in.
One night, returning to my cabin after washing the pots and pans in the cavernous kitchen which catered for the happy campers, I heard low grunts and thumps coming from the other side of my very basic sleeping quarters. Thinking it was a dog at the garbage cans placed there, I rounded the corner to confront Ernie and Madge engaged in what I was later to learn was called a knee-trembler. Ernie was a janitor, married to Edna who was head of the cleaners at the camp. Madge was one of the cooks in the kitchen. What was said to me was short but not incongruent with the activity I had so inconsiderately interrupted. Whispering my revelation to Sean, after I had prodded him awake upon my stunned return, I was puzzled by his failure to fall out of his bunk at the enormity I had just related: But Jesus, Sean, I said, they’ve both got grey hair!
After I had returned from Aruba, I was shoe-horned into a prestigious boarding college that my parents had arranged for me to attend. I was domiciled in St Marys one of the Houses of the college. It was the most recent addition to the boarding accommodation of this august institution- at least that’s what we were told- the college, in fact, was a relatively recent response of the Catholic bishops who were determined to use education as the wedge to overcome the sectarianism of the Northern Ireland statelet. And so, a faux castle overlooking the Irish Sea was bought and filled with callow Catholic boys. And it grew, and overseas students helped to fund its expansion, the latest of which was St Marys which was a three-storey honey-brick construction.
It was, unlike the more communal arrangements of the other Houses, a single-room complex. One room and one student. No dormitory living for us! And the priest who had charge of it had, on what my memory can only remember as Walpurgis Night, been called away suddenly to a family emergency. Don’t ask me how it got out. But seeping through the walls of our individual minimalist rooms- seeping through the walls was the information- we’re on our own. WE’RE ON OUR OWN! I had been caned just that day by that very same holy man, that guardian of our Catholicity, that warder in charge of St Marys.
It happened this way: we were up on the slopes overlooking the Irish Sea, up above the college, four friends and I, playing poker and smoking, and we missed curfew. So, as we trooped into St Marys, the four recalcitrants and I, Father Grinsin was waiting with his thin instrument at the door. Ten times the cane hissed and thwacked- one on each hand. With pride, I can relate that not one of us yelped in pain. We sucked it in. But, you know, I can still feel it to this day. I was sitting at my desk, reading and taking notes on the novel we were studying in English, rubbing my smarting palms between my legs. I was really getting bored by the doings of Ralph and Piggy so when the seeping seeped into me-I was ready. Knock, knock, who’s theeere!
I opened my door and was hit in the face by a wet mop. Fabulous. Was I ever waiting for this! I charged out of the room and pursued my attacker down the corridor. He dropped the mop, and I ripped the handle out and threw it at him. It sailed past his head and stuck in a prefect’s door at the end of the passageway. It was brilliant! The door opened and I screamed an obscenity and the door shut. Ha! Water bombs, pillow fights, beds upturned, it was brilliant! Although we didn’t say brilliant back then. Brill was the in-word at the time. It was Brill. The strangest thing was…there were no repercussions to speak of. We all just tidied away as best we could (mind you, the place was still a bit of a shambles!) and, when Grinsin returned the next day and conferred with his prefects and the powers-that-be, well, nothing. It was as though nothing had ever taken place.
We all agreed that it had not, really, happened! The prefects, sotto voce, were scathing over the next while as they condemned our utter disregard for the proprieties, for besmirching Grinsin’s grief, for sullying the memory of an old, old man who had lived an exemplary life and brought Father Grinsin into the world to look over us. Yeah, right- I thought then, and now… Here are lines from Roger McGough’s poem, Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death. Let me die a youngman’s death / not a clean and inbetween / the sheets holywater death / not a famous-last -words / peaceful out of breath death / When I’m 73 / and in constant good tumour / may I be mown down at dawn / by a bright red sports car / on my way home / from an allnight party… / Let me die a youngman’s death / not a free from sin tiptoe in / candle wax and waning death / not a curtains drawn by angels borne / “what a nice way to go” death/
Does anyone here among the demographic that this podcast is aimed at, admit to acting out dramas of the mind when you are on your own? Unobserved. I know today that the younger folk among us do not have any inhibitions at all. And good on them! But I noticed that our protagonist seemed to be miming throwing a spear earlier. I’m a bit concerned that he seems to be drinking more than his medicine lately, too!
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