Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, Episode 180. Last we knew our narrator was on the way to being the worse for wear, but he has stopped imbibing for the moment- he seems to have settled down and is reading from a volume of Romantic poets. He gazes at the wall next to the bedroom where there is a tasteful reproduction of what is said to be the most expensive map in all the world: it is Waldseemuller’s Universalis Cosmographia of 1507, the only surviving copy of 1000 original prints. The Library of Congress purchased it for $10,000,000 and it has been called “America’s birth certificate” because, for the first time, it showed the New World as a separate continent. He looks at the twelve panels that comprise the map-maker’s art in wonderment:
Any attempt to be a cartographer of the present is bound to fail; there are too many fracture-lines running in a crazy pattern. The hammer blow delivered to the ancien regime by the first great war was followed by others in quick succession; depression, global war, the atomic apocalypse, explosions of technology and population. But it all gets back to a solitary brain (that may or may not contain the mind) carried around in a body (that may or may not contain a soul). Watching newsreel footage of the masses recorded in their moments of revolution, despair, and jubilation distances you from the obvious truth- there, that face, just about to disappear behind the police horse’s flank- looked just like your son the last time you saw him as he waved a cheery good-bye…can it be twelve years already? Name, fame, the celebrity game is just so much blather. We are all used to yet another icon exposed on the breakfast news as venal or sad or pathetic- just like us really.
I remember when the great cynic of English poetry in this- or rather, the previous, century, Philip Larkin was taken off in one of those ships with black sails. Almost before the vessel had vanished around a misty bend of the River Styx, we were breathlessly informed that the poet had a collection of what was described as repulsive pornography, and as for the content of his diaries…well! But I will always think softly of him, not because of his life or works but an anecdote concerning him. He was, as I recall, driving back towards his home in Hull along the motorway, listening to the radio and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the windshield wipers when he had to pull onto the hard shoulder, blinded by tears, because, on the radio, someone had begun reciting a sonnet by Wordsworth.
Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind/I turned to share the transport- Oh! with whom/But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,/That spot which no vicissitudes can find?/Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind-/But how could I forget thee? Through what power,/ Even for the least division of an hour,/Have I been so beguiled as to be blind/To my most grievous loss!- That thought’s return/Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,/Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,/Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;/ That neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore. [play Surprised by Joy]
Surprised by joy…it’s been a long time… The eighties were an awful time and an awesome time, too, I suppose. Never mind the crumbling of communism, the Falklands war, the marriage of Diana and Charles and all the other headline events. The dislocations in world history meant little to me. I had hammer-blows enough in the personal sphere to absorb. Unemployment, loss of my father, then mother, serious injury of my younger son, then the loss of my firstborn son began my personal catalogue of horrors, and they filled my world during the decade of- what did the eighties mean to you? To me it was global ping-pong: living in Sydney, then Belfast then back to Sydney as the hammer-blows rained down. Not even the…windfall that came my way so recently has provided solace- the cold wind still keeps blowing through me.
The larger events were only on TV and newspapers- not real for me at all. And as I mourned my son, I remembered my brushes with death as a younger male. Note to mothers, we all think, as teenage boys, that we will live forever, no matter what we do. When I was about twelve, or maybe thirteen, I built a raft. My friends and I lived in and on and near the water. Why not? The blue, coral-fringed lagoons of Aruba were paradise for us. Swimming and snorkelling and spear fishing and catching moray eels on hand lines, yanking them out of their coral caves and spinning them round our heads and breaking their backs on the sharp coral ridges above the surface at low water… filled our days… and beach parties under the stars, and watching from the beach the fireworks display set on barges out in the lagoon on the fourth of July, punctuated our nights- such was the influence of the water fringing that small island of my early youth.
One Saturday morning we cycled to a seldom-used beach; there we built a flotilla of rafts. Flotsam and jetsam. We dragged pallets washed in to the shore and shoved driftwood and a variety of containers in through the slats. Three of us, like tropical Huck Finns, launched the unlikely craft into the water. We laughed and joked with one another as the current carried us along the coast. But we started to drift further apart under the influence of the current and waves and the differences in the seaworthiness of our individual rafts. I lagged further behind- not being much of a marine designer. My friends had rounded the point on the coastal current while I…well, I had been daydreaming, looking towards the distant coast of Venezuela wondering what life was like there, and when next I checked my bearings, discovered I was much further from the shore than I had been only, it seemed , moments before. As I vacillated, wondering whether to attempt the swim to the shore, it seemed to rush into the distance.
Desert island adventure? No, just fear. The raft bobbed and spun in the choppy offshore sea, and I clung to it feeling sick. Alone in the sun I had time enough to recall the drowned, native, fisherman brought in a few months before to the boat-slip near the Esso club. My first sight of a dead body, I had watched, as his friends tried frantically to empty his lungs and bring him back to life- but only froth and mucus for all their labour. He had dived off the boat to try to clear the anchor, but his leg had become entangled in the rope, and he was dead before they could cut him free. A matter of minutes, they said. Not for the last time, I promised God, with whom, then, I was on speaking terms…I promised Him not to be so stupid again…if only. The denouement? Well, I’m still here.
Mr Flaherty, a big noise in the company, whose son, Steve, I hung out with occasionally, had a cabin cruiser that he used to take friends, and other corporate big guns from the States, out into the Caribbean in search of game fish. Coming back from a successful morning’s hunt for aquatic game, I guess he pulled another prize from the water. Although, judging from what he said to me and repeated to my parents on the phone that night, I was valued at much less than the fish in the capacious icebox of his boat. It was an early brush with metaphysics and the larger questions, I think they are called. I do prefer the way that artists address these larger questions- professional preachers and career carers usually leave me cheering for the grim reaper. And one of the larger artists addressing these questions is Les Murray, Australia’s premier poet. Listen to this- from his poem, The Quality of Sprawl:
Sprawl is the quality/of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce/into a farm utility truck, and sprawl/is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts/to buy the vehicle back and repair its image./Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,/of driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home./It is the rococo of being your own still centre,/It is never lighting cigars with ten-dollar notes:/that’s idiot ostentation and murder of starving people./Nor can it be bought with the ash of million-dollar deeds./ Sprawl is Hank Stamper in Never Give an Inch/bisecting an obstructive official’s desk with a chainsaw./Not harming the official. Sprawl is never brutal/though it’s often intransigent…/Sprawl gets up the nose of many kinds of people/(every kind that comes in kinds) whose futures don’t include it…/ No, sprawl is full-gloss murals on a council-house wall./ Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind./Reprimanded and dismissed/it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail/of possibility. It may have to leave the earth…/Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek/and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl. [play Patrimony]
What is he doing? He’s on his feet and appears to be dancing! Has he got a second wind? No, he’s sprawled on the rug now. Lucky for him it is a thick woollen affair with colourful ethnic designs and tasteful tassels at each end. He lies there motionless. He now fumbles in his dressing gown pocket. Is it to retrieve his panic button to summon help? He certainly seems to require it. Oh, he’s sipping from his flask. He screws the cap shut and laboriously gets to his feet and resumes his seat. He gazes out the window and taps his fingers on the armrest. I think this is a safer use of appendages than his rather pathetic previous use of the lower ones! Now he is nodding off, he needs the rest, poor man, what with all that mixing of pharmaceuticals and alcohol. And nary a thing to eat, 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