Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 14– a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! in the Letters, Postcards and Postscripts from Quotidia published since the beginning of 2021. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Since there’s going to be quite a bit of poetry recited in this Postscript, let me ease you into it with the shortest poem written in the Victorian era. It has the title The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs and was written by George McDonald, who was descended from the Clan MacDonald of Glen Coe and, therefore, a direct descendant of one of the families that suffered in the massacre there of 1692. He is regarded as the father of modern fantasy- writing, among many other stories, The Princess and the Goblin.
Additionally, he was mentor to Lewis Carroll and instrumental in getting Alice published. He also was influential in the writings of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. But back to that shortest of poems: I mean, the title, The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs, is three times the length of the poem itself! Ready? The first line is Come/And the last line is Home// Come Home. In Postscript 13 we heard from Thomas Hardy’s fine poem, Afterwards. If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,/When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,/One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,/But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’//
Philip Larkin, has given us another view of the hedgehog in one of his later, and greater, poems, The Mower written in 1979: The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found/A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,/Killed. It had been in the long grass.//I had seen it before, and even fed it, once./Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world/Unmendably. Burial was no help://Next morning I got up and it did not./The first day after a death, the new absence/Is always the same; we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time.//
Oh dear, that leap forward in time was a bit grim. So, let’s tumble back to the 17th Century and an encounter between a mower (the bucolic, human ones that carry a scythe) and some tiny insects. The Metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell, who lived between 1621 and 1678, takes up the account in his 4-stanza poem, The Mower to the Glow-Worms Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light/The Nightingale does sit so late,/And studying all the Summer-night,/Her matchless Songs does meditate;//Ye Country Comets, that portend/No War, nor Princes funeral,/ Shining unto no higher end/Then to presage the Grasses fall;//Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame/To wandring Mowers shows the way,/That in the Night have lost their aim,/And after foolish Fires do stray;//Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,/Since Juliana here is come,/For She my Mind hath so displaced/ That I shall never find my home.//
Ah, that reference to home again creates a tidal attraction back to the 20th Century and Philip Larkin’s Take One Home for the Kiddies. On shallow straw, in shadeless glass,/Huddled by empty bowls, they sleep:/No dark, no dam, no earth, no grass -/Mam, get us one of them to keep.//Living toys are something novel,/But it soon wears off somehow./Fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel -/Mam, we’re playing funerals now.//
Yeah, the whole of humankind will be playing funerals soon unless we can arrest the wholesale poisoning of the planet and halt the headlong race towards oblivion courtesy of nuclear or biological warfare. Of course, advances in Artificial Intelligence may, instead, arrange another, unimaginable, method of ridding the earth of its pesky humans. But until then…time for the first song of this post- it’s something borrowed from Joni Mitchell: [insert song]
She wrote and recorded Big Yellow Taxi in 1970 and I first heard it at about this time. She was in Honolulu looking out at lush green hills in the distance and I was in a one-room bedsit near Carlisle Circus, Belfast looking out at a dingy brick wall. But we did share one thing- a concern for the environment. That’s what this post is about- it’s the environment, stupid! Or, more prosaically- Home. Those bloviating billionaires, and star-struck scientists have worked themselves into a lather imagining new societies on the moon, among the asteroids or on Mars as they refuse to do anything about the despoilation of the only home we have-Earth.
Poets, like artists of every stripe, have always been alert to the state of the world around them and in 1879 Gerrard Manley Hopkins wrote a well-known poem, about a stand of trees that were chopped down, Binsey Poplars My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,/Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,/All felled, felled, are all felled;/Of a fresh and following folded rank/ Not spared, not one/That dandled a sandalled/Shadow that swam or sank/On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.//O if we but knew what we do/When we delve or hew –/Hack and rack the growing green!/Since country is so tender/To touch, her being so slender,/That, like this sleek and seeing ball/But a prick will make no eye at all,//Where we, even where we mean/To mend her we end her,/When we hew or delve:/After-comers cannot guess the beauty been./Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve strokes of havoc unselve/The sweet especial scene/…
Shortly afterwards, the poplars were replanted. In 2004 they were felled again, only to be replanted. As the Bodleian website notes, The poem formed part of the successful campaign to replant the trees. Who said poetry has no power? Ah, we can hope, can’t we? On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was relaxing in my backyard with a beer in my hand and my guitar by my side. My family were all in residence and the sun was shining. The heat of the Australian summer was tempered by a cool breeze. I realised that, for the first time in over thirty years, I was in a place that I could call home without demur. Usually, I wouldn’t have registered the thought but, that day, I wandered inside, collected a pen and notebook and, calling for another beer, I wrote this song, it is the something old taken from the 29th Letter From Quotidia published on 1st March 2021 and, of course, it’s called Home: [insert song]
But anger rather than whimsy or domesticity is sometimes called for. Is it any wonder our kids are moving against us as the garbage we created piles up around them? Alas, I haven’t the creative energy or time to create the necessary original response. And then I realised, I already had done so in a song accompanying my 85th Letter From Quotidia published on 7th June 2021. It’s called Spray. Not the water droplets which refract the light in prismed colours as you stroll hand in hand along a beach, but rather a condemnatory diatribe where the spray is a spittle-flecked shout in the face of complacency. The meaning of spray, in this context, is familiar to Australians. I wrote it a while back when I had the energy to be angry.
And so, we arrive at the heart of darkness. We are upriver, could be the Congo; could be the Mekong; could be any river on this planet, because there is always someone hunched in the gloom, face spectrally lit by a fire or a flatscreen plotting nothing at all good for us . Now let TS Eliot be our guide as the first stanza of his great poem, The Hollow Men, is recited, We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!/Our dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless/ As wind in dry grass/ Or rats’ feet over broken glass/ In our dry cellar//Shape without form, shade without colour,/ Paralysed force, gesture without motion;//Those who have crossed/ With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom/ Remember us-if at all-not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men.// [insert song]
If you feel at home, as I do, relish the experience and, should you be so moved, sing hosannas of praise that you are among the fortunate few. We need to do more to keep our homes safe and secure for our children’s sake, don’t we?
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.