Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 189 – 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.
Fergal Keane, a foreign correspondent with the BBC persuaded his west London neighbour, the folk legend Ralph McTell, to do what no one else had been able to do in the fifty-plus years since his greatest hit, The Streets of London was first recorded: namely, to write a new verse in response to a contemporary event. In 2020 as a new pandemic began to circle the globe, McTell wrote a new verse as a response to COVID-19 and its effect on homeless people. As he told Fergal Keane: “This is of biblical proportions, this catastrophe, and each day that goes by there is the realisation that this is no dress rehearsal, this is actually going on right now and there is nothing we can do about it, except try and follow the basic rules.”
I have incorporated this new verse into the first song of this post. I first heard the song from one of the folk aficionados at Trench house in late 1969: the aficionado in question had purchased McTell’s 1969 album, Spiral Staircase, and all the folkies immediately loved the song: it went, ah, viral. Remember, this was well before the internet so it’s hard to credit that within days of its release in Britain, it was being sung in Australia! But it must be true because McTell tells us so on his website. As for me- I was knocked out by the lyrics, the melody and, particularly, the chord progression of the song. At last count, there have been well over 200 commercial covers of the song- not to mention the many thousands of times it is being sung in clubs and around campfires worldwide every single year.
Banter, our wee folk group, which has been in prolonged hiatus because of the virus, has also presented this gem- with Sam the Man as the singer. But, here now, as I prepare to sing this great song, I reflect that only five years, chronologically, separate me from one of my folk heroes. He took his stage surname from the blues singer, Blind Willie McTell, whose music he admired. He was born in 1944 and raised by his mum in Croydon, a suburb of London. He has been part of the music scene since the 1960s and when I heard him sing the added verse to Streets of London courtesy of Fergal Keane of the BBC, and the internet in mid-February 2022, knew I had the song I would cover for the 189th Letter from Quotidia. Here it is: [insert song]
Fergal Keane, who is a nephew of John B Keane, a renowned Irish man of letters, asked McTell, after he had recorded the added verse, why he had done so. McTell told him that, as a singer-songwriter with an audience, he could, perhaps do something to make a difference saying, “Kindness is a word that seems to have dropped from a meaningful vocabulary. As human beings, it’s all we can do, it’s this thing we have in common.” He went on to say that he had heard just that day that Prince Charles had been affected by the virus; that it was indiscriminate, and that the infection would strike the highest to the lowest.
Remember, in March 2020, which was at the beginning of the pandemic, there were no vaccines or anti-viral drugs to ameliorate the effects of this novel pathogen emanating, apparently, from China. People witnessed fellow citizens being buried in mass graves and wondered what the future held. But the words that struck a chord with me were: “Kindness is all that we can offer to each other.” Now ain’t that the truth! Oh, yeah, one of the heroes of my young manhood remains a hero of my old age- and who knows? Perhaps I will have the chance to cover another of his songs in a future post- I do like From Clare to Here.
Regular visitors to Quotidia may be aware that I have a soft spot for the dithyramb. Wikipedia tells us that a dithyramb is an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility; the term was also used as an epithet of the god. Plato, in The Laws, while discussing various kinds of music mentions “the birth of Dionysos, called, I think, the dithyramb.” Plato also remarks in The Republic that dithyrambs are the clearest example of poetry in which the poet is the only speaker. What’s not to like! The dithyrambic context summons up three of the more enduring preoccupations of my life: wine, women and song And, of course, the Greeks have a word for it: Hendiatris (from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘one through three’) it is a figure of speech used for emphasis, in which three words are used to express one idea. The dithyramb also summons up awareness of the divine, the beatific.
Now, I ended the original Quotidia sequence with just such a composition- you can find it at Letters From Quotidia Episode 120 podcast on 5th August 2021 . You know, it takes time to write stuff that means anything much at all. This is particularly the case with song which has both music and lyrics as components. And I was going to bolster this latest of my original compositions with disparaging comparisons to, say, tissue paper- which- let’s face it- has utility. I know that as I have grown older, that I resort to these disposable items more and more to address the increasing flow of mucus, especially while I am eating! (Oh, yuck, yeah, I know) I also, initially, sought to extend the disparagement by positing the concept of, “the will o’ the wisp” as the polar opposite of what I was doing.
Oh dear, and as I started to chase this reference through the wilds of Wikipedia, I began to sympathise with those well-meaning people- and, let me be clear, I would never refer to them as deplorables– those well-meaning people, who have descended into the bewildering rabbit-holes of QAnon and who have found themselves bogged down in the assorted quagmires churned up by the troll farmers of Russia, China and all the other state and non-state malevolent entities who seek to undermine the values of the beleaguered liberal democracies of the West. Yeah, I know, I’m old-fashioned, perhaps deluded, in that I still believe in the power of ordinary people. Anyway, I found myself surrounded by multitudinous references to ghost-tale traditions from all over this wonderful earth as well as concepts such as bioluminescence or chemiluminescence caused by the oxidation of phosphine, diphosphane and methane produced by organic decay. Oh! What?! The only way out of- if there is such an escape– this quagmirish rabbit-hole is (drum roll): poetry! Which I will apply to our fevered senses after this second dithyramb of the series. It’s title? Only You. [insert song]
No trailer again for next week as I am struggling to meet my deadline for this post. But I did promise a poem and I will preface it by three quotes about kindness: first, surprisingly perhaps, Roald Dahl, who published a collection of short stories with the title, Cruelty! But anyway, this is what he has to say about kindness: I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage, or bravery, or generosity, or anything else… Kindness—that simple word. To be kind—it covers everything, to my mind. If you’re kind that’s it. Next, Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest of American presidents: Kindness is the only service that will stand the storm of life and not wash out. It will wear well and will be remembered long after the prism of politeness or the complexion of courtesy has faded away. Finally, back to the ancient Greeks and Aesop- he of the fables- No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
The poem is supplied by that enigma of 19th Century American poetry- Emily Dickinson: If I can stop one heart from breaking,/I shall not live in vain;/If I can ease one life the aching,/Or cool one pain,/Or help one fainting robin/Unto his nest again,/I shall not live in vain. It’s sad to reflect that so many lives are, ostensibly, lived in vain, according to this prescription. But, maybe, somewhere under the carapace of cruelty and lack of empathy, there beats the possibility of a kind heart- until next week, then.
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.