Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 199– 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.
The penultimate Letters From Quotidia is being sent out on May Day. This ancient traditional greeting of the resurgence of life in the northern hemisphere has been celebrated for thousands of years: in Rome, Floralia, held from 27 April through 3 May venerated the goddess of flowers, Flora. In Germanic cultures, Walpurgis Nacht was celebrated on the night of April 30 into the first of May and commemorates the canonisation of the abbess Walpurga, and the movement of her relics on 1 May 870 AD to Eichstatt, in present day Bavaria. Wikipedia informs me that she could ward off rabies and witches who have been rumoured to cavort around cauldrons on this day.
The Celtic festival of Beltane occurs at this time and is celebrated by contemporary neopagans and wiccans- although, in the southern hemisphere, their counterparts celebrate on November first. May Day was chosen, in 1889, by socialists and communists of the Second International as International Workers Day and is marked by labour activists around the world as a day to celebrate the advances made in wages and conditions from that time. Mayday is also the international distress signal used primarily by aircraft and shipping to alert others of their peril. So, all in all, a day that is laden with meaning, both auspicious and dire.
The song I have chosen to open this letter is also set in the month of May and also laden with meaning. It’s called As I Roved Out and I first heard it sung back in the 1970s by Andy Irvine when he was with Planxty– one of my revered, ah, influencers I guess you have to say nowadays. The title is shared by other songs, but I like this one for its melancholy and, also, its frankly puzzling final verse- which I don’t really mind, being increasingly OK with not quite understanding what I sing, view, read or consume. If you want to explore the topic further- go for it, but I find, at my age, I have to be more judicious with my use of time.
Potted summary, a man goes out for a wander and meets the young woman he previously gave a ring to as a token of his love and promise of marriage. But, he admits, in a moment of weakness, he went and married the lass with the land. And he regrets it. This bring us to the final verse which I will leave to you to puzzle out. [insert song]
Ah, the trials and tribulations of love. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there have been many examples of love in all its guises. Three examples gleaned from YouTube recently: we see a young woman planting carrot seeds in Eastern Ukraine as the hollow boom of artillery sounds in the near distance- she explains that her mother refuses to leave their home and so she will stay too. That’s love.
A commander of forces in the besieged Azovstal complex in Mariupol pleading for help from any source to evacuate civilians, especially children ranging from four months to seventeen years as they face annihilation at the hands of an implacable foe- that’s love.
Desperate family members of Russian soldiers they have lost contact with, phone into a Ukrainian site set up for just that purpose: I listened as they pleaded for any news, good or otherwise, of the fate of their sons, their husbands, their brothers, not too proud to speak to the enemy, to plead with their foe for information- that’s love.
Earlier in this letter, I mentioned the 1889 conference that instituted International Workers Day: those were heady days of optimistic yearning for solidarity that would transcend petty nationalistic divisions. In the twenty-odd years that followed, as the world grew more and more interconnected through burgeoning innovations in transport, communications and media, the intelligentsia declared that wars were a relic of the barbaric past.
Michael Portillo in his travels by train through Europe for his popular BBC series, brandishes his Bradshaw’s tourist guide of 1913 as he criss-crosses the continent. In that traveller’s guide, you can hear the sincere belief in progress and fellowship as we sample the delights to be found in all corners of the continent.
Of course, it all came crashing down in 1914 with that bullet in Sarajevo that ushered in the First World War, the war to end all wars, they said. Yet some of the soldiers of that bloody conflict found themselves enlisting for the Second (and bloodier) World War a little over twenty years later. And that war was ended by two devices that, according to some, have ushered in the Anthropocene, which some say should be more properly termed the Apocalypse.
Up until now, using nuclear weapons again had been unthinkable: an unspeakable obscenity. Madness- which found an acronym in MAD- mutually assured destruction during the Cold War. But bland sociopaths have recently given voice to their use if they do not get their way. On the 16th of July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer watched the Trinity test near Alamogordo in New Mexico where the detonation of the first atomic bomb took place and it brought to his mind words from Hindu sacred scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It’s sad to reflect that profound minds such as Robert Oppenheimer, or Richard Feynmann, who also assisted in the development of atomic weapons during World War Two, or Albert Einstein, who wrote to the American president, Franklin D Roosevelt urging research into nuclear weapons because the Nazis were making progress in this area and whose famous equation, E=mc squared underpinned the tremendous power available with atomic fission; yes, it’s sad to reflect that these men of intellect and conscience seem to have been superseded by stumblebums and incompetent buffoons for whom the tying of shoelaces is a problem too complex for their feeble comprehension.
You know, I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek where a seemingly malign superior entity causes havoc for Captain Kirk and the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise. But the problem turns out to be an alien toddler with poor impulse control from a super species. And stability is restored when its mother intervenes to stop her child’s destructive tantrums. Dear Lord, if only the predicament we find ourselves in had such a solution!
But, just as the 19th Century intelligentsia thought war was a thing of the past, succeeding generations have expressed astonishment that war was carving its horrific path through their time and their place. It’s certainly what I thought when the Balkans exploded in the first half of the 1990s. I wrote a song then which I will reprise here. It’s from episode 42 of the Letters, published just over a year ago. It’s called Oblivion Mountain and I present it now. [insert song]
That prolific poet, Anonymous has left us a poem with the title, The Humours of May Day and I present it penultimately to lift the gloom: What Frolicks are here/So droll and so queer/ How joyful appeareth the day/ E’en Bunter and Bawd/ Unite to applaud/And celebrate first of the May// We need poetry and prayer more than ever now, so, I present a poem by a favourite of mine, the American Sara Teasdale. Here is her poem, May Day which, with its gossamer film of sadness is an appropriate poem to end this letter:
A delicate fabric of bird song/Floats in the air,/The smell of wet wild earth/Is everywhere.// Red small leaves of the maple/Are clenched like a hand,/Like girls at their first communion/The pear trees stand.//Oh I must pass nothing by/Without loving it much,/The raindrop try with my lips,/The grass with my touch;//For how can I be sure/I shall see again/The world on the first of May/Shining after the rain? So, I wonder, which May Day will prevail in the times which lie ahead of us all, the resurgence of life and hope marked by the poetry just heard. Or will that universal signal of distress, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, echo around the only world we possess.
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.