Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 17– 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.
Twenty-one years ago, this month, I wrote in my journal, It is now my birthday- 10:30 p.m. on the 31st of October 2001 A.D. (if such an hour-and-date nomenclature has meaning in your time). I am living in an outer-western suburb of Sydney, Australia called Werrington (if such a geographical reference means anything to you). And I have been drinking (I’m sure, however straitened your circumstances, some form of potable liquor still has a place at your tables or around the fires at your campsites.) These pessimistic ramblings were prompted by the attack on the twin towers the month before when it seemed the foundations of the world had been shaken (as indeed they were).
I had recently recorded a song written in the latter half of the 1990s with the title Diving For Pennies where I compared playing music in a barroom setting with the image of native boys- forsuch was the name given to males of any age by certain people- who were diving for pennies thrown overboard from steamers in the 19th Century or cruise ships in the 20th Century by white tourists who would memorialise the activity with happy snaps from their cameras. But even as I was writing the line, I knew it was a lie- see if you can spot the point of realisation as I recite the first line of the song- Diving for pennies or playing in a bar are not so very different- except who and where you are. The indignity of diving for pennies was not confined to saltwater locales only, for as Te Ara, the New Zealand encyclopedia shows in a photograph, Māori children sit in hot pools at Whakarewarewa [Wah-KAREH-Wa-Re-Wah] in the late 1800s, ready to dive for coins thrown into the pools by tourists. The encyclopedia goes on to say, It is now not recommended to submerge the face in thermal pools due to the risk of amoebic meningitis.
I knew that the comparison was false- the comparison between me, a middle-class product of western consumer society, and colonial or indigenous peoples scrabbling for crumbs from the groaning and inequitable table that we, in more fortunate circumstances, find a place around. So, the saying, Comparisons are odious applies here- a saying at least six centuries’ deep. The song is on surer ground when it refers to the power of popular music- or as DJs will have it- the soundtrack of our lives. Now, listen out for lyrical and musical references to Danny Boy in Diving For Pennies: [insert song]
That’s as close to Danny Boy as I’m going to get- for this post anyway. But I’m not leaving the environs of Irish folk music just yet. About 35 miles south from Cushendall, the village where I was born, will find you Carrickfergus, one of the oldest towns in Ireland dating back to the 12th Century when Anglo-Norman knight Sir John de Courcy had a castle built there. The history of the castle since that time has followed a pattern fairly common in castles throughout history- that is, repeated sieges, battles, changes in- ah- management.
At one time, the United Irishmen had a major presence in the area and one of their members, William Orr was hanged in 1797 after what some called a rigged trial at the courthouse. Another claim to infamy is the last witchcraft trial in Ireland of eight women who were sentenced to four sessions in the pillory followed by a year’s imprisonment. Had you been alive in 1711 at that place you, too, would have been invited to pelt the unfortunate women with stones or rotten fruit. My trusty muse, Wikipedia, also tells me that during the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones, in command of the American ship Ranger, attempted to capture a British Royal Navy sloop of war, HMS Drake, moored at Carrickfergus. Having failed, he returned a few days later and challenged Drake to a fight out in the North Channel which the Americans won decisively.
Here’s a topical titbit. There is a peerage of the British crown attached to this place held by William, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent. He was granted the title of Baron Carrickfergus by his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, as a personal gift, on the day of his wedding to Kate Middleton. I will not, now, enter the debate that rages over the true origins of the song. Suffice to say that, like so many other folk songs, it is contested.
But, rather, to end this section, I’ll quote from a favourite poet of mine- Louis MacNeice, who spent part of his childhood here. Carrickfergus, I was the rector’s son, born to the Anglican order,/Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;/The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept/With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.//The war came and a huge camp of soldiers/Grew from the ground in sight of our house with long/Dummies hanging from gibbets for bayonet practice/and the sentry’s challenge echoing all day long//. Carrickfergus was a military encampment in both of the World Wars- here MacNeice refers to sounds and sights from his childhood during World War I. Time now for one of the most beautiful folk songs featuring those perennial themes of love, death, and drink. [insert song]
Luke Kelly was really on form in Wollongong, NSW, in the mid-seventies. The Dubliners were playing in the town hall, and we were in a hotel bar across the road, about a dozen of us, before the concert. We watched in awe as Luke sank shot after shot of whiskey- he had at least half a dozen in front of him. Then we got chatting. He was courteous and introduced himself- asking for each of our names. Then, after about ten minutes he said he had to go and, before he left, he bade good-bye to each of us, in turn, by name. Talk about a legend! At the concert, he sang a superb version of Carrickfergus. Alas, within ten years he would be dead at the age of 44, excessive drinking contributing more than a little- but we happened upon him when he was at or near his peak. Vale, Luke.
The subjunctive mood isn’t used much now, imperatives being all the rage. But I respond to its wistfulness, its wishing, its why-are-things-not-other-than-they-are. So, I wrote a song reflective of the velleities that accompany this mood. The song has two parents: First, Wordsworth, who in his introduction to Lyrical Ballads, the collection of poems he published with Coleridge, ushering in the Romantic Era of English literature. In the introduction he defined poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity. Second, Thomas Hardy, whose reaction to the death of his wife Emma Gifford from whom he’d been estranged for years resulted in some of the most moving love poems in all of literature.
He was 72 when he began to write these. Now- deluded as I may be about a lot of things- I’m not about to compare myself to these giants! But the song I’m about to sing springs from the same sources they drew their inspiration from. I’m thinking about my mid-teens when I was caught in an emotional and hormonal maelstrom over the developing relationship with my girlfriend- who is now my wife- ineffable proof that even miserable sods like me can strike it lucky. And would I trade my contented old age for the travails of my teenage years? In a heartbeat! [insert song]
I have a sense of another winding down which I shall express here by quoting Longfellow: Such songs have power to quiet/The restless pulse of care,/And come like the benediction/That follows after prayer.//Then read from the treasured volume/The poem of thy choice,/And lend to the rhyme of the poet/The beauty of thy voice.//And the night shall be filled with music,/And the cares, that infest the day,/Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,/ And as silently steal away.// Thankfully, I have songs I listen to that have the power to quiet the restless pulse of care and poems aplenty that help to banish those cares that infest the day. I hope you do as well, so, until next week in Quotidia, be kind and do take care.
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.