Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes! Regular listeners to the posts know that the letters just refuse to lie down and die but rather, taking their cue from the coronavirus, continue to mutate first they were plain old letters, then postcards, then postscripts, to footnotes now!
The first four footnotes have the common title of Demos for Damocles. Shall we interrogate the title? Yes, let’s! Demo as a singular noun may represent the trial of, say, a cooking technique, which doesn’t apply here; a protest in Britain- that’s strike two; or a section of the population as an abbreviation of demographic- you’re out! cries the umpire. No. In the context of this Letter from Quotidia, it is- a preliminary recording. Pluralised it can be mistaken for the populace- or the common people of an ancient Greek state or colony: Demos. Which brings us to the title: Demos for Damocles.
According to Wikipedia, Damocles was an obsequious courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a 4th-century BC ruler of Syracuse, Sicily. Lavishing praise upon his Lord’s magnificence and puissance, Damocles was offered the chance to change places with Dionysius for a day- which he accepted with alacrity, only to discover a sword held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail hanging above his head as he sat on the throne. He rapidly vacated the seat of power, eager to resume the less threatening role of lackey. Rather than a sword, I’ll offer three songs for you to consider in each of the next four episodes as we ponder the possible meanings of the Sword of Damocles anecdote.
Is the moral- careful what you wish for? Or live a simple, uncomplicated life? Or as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes would tell you, vanity of vanities, all is vanity? Maybe just, eat drink and be merry for tomorrow…yeah, tomorrow! For at some tomorrow in the near or farther future- the hair breaks. So now, I want to preface the first song by reading from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The tide rises, the tide falls,/ The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;/ Along the sea-sands damp and brown/ The traveller hastens toward the town./ And the tide rises, the tide falls// Darkness settles on roofs and walls,/ But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;/ The little waves, with their soft, white hands,/ Efface the footprints in the sands,/ And the tide rises, the tide falls.// The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls/ Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;/ The day returns, but nevermore/ Returns the traveller to the shore,/To set up the series, here is the song Take This Frame Away [insert song]
— I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying/To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small/And listen to an old man not at all,/They want the young men’s whispering and sighing./But see the roses on your trellis dying/And hear the spectral singing of the moon;/For I must have my lovely lady soon,/I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.//– I am a lady young in beauty waiting/Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss./But what grey man among the vines is this/Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?/Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream !/I am a lady young in beauty waiting.
That is John Crowe Ransom’s masterful sonnet about love and death, Piazza Piece, and represents the second sword of Damocles in this footnote. He well knew the topic: in his moving lament for the death of a child in Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter, he shows us the stark contrast between the flurry of activity that was a little girl chasing the geese from orchard to pond as her febrile energy echoed across the cosmos, until it comes to a shuddering halt. Then, we are in the dark room where her lifeless body lies: But now go the bells, and we are ready, /In one house we are sternly stopped/To say that we are vexed at her brown study/Lying so primly propped//
The bells here remind us of John Donne’s famous admonition: never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. Ransom shows us another lively girl in Janet Waking. Again, the subject is death (isn’t it obvious from the title?) But here death does not claim the girl, but rather her beloved pet hen, Chucky. Waking after a long sleep, we are told in line two of the poem that it was deeply morning: m.o.r.n.i.n.g. You don’t need too large a portion of perspicacity with your porridge to realise that it doesn’t bode well for her dainty-feathered hen.
Poor Chucky is no more because It was a transmogrifying bee/Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head/And sat and put the poison/ The crying girl appeals to all of us “Wake her from her sleep!” And would not be instructed in how deep/ Was the forgetful kingdom of death.// T. S. Eliot, in Whispers of Immortality tells us: Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin;/ And breastless creatures underground/ Leaned backward with a lipless grin// .)
I first read Piazza Piece as a student at Trench House in early 1971. Half a century later, I returned to the poem to see if I could craft a song from its materials. You may judge how close I come to encompassing the world of the sonnet, in this waltz-time composition. [insert song]
I think the first logo was actually daubed on the entrance to a cave-dwelling and the prehistoric tribe got to know that this was the doorway to desire. What the mechanism of exchange was, I don’t know for sure, nor whether the desire advertised was carnal or spiritual, or, perhaps, both. But fast forward to 1389, where King Richard II of England passed a law requiring establishments that brewed beer to hang a sign indicating what they did (or risk having their ale confiscated). This led to businesses differentiating themselves by adding heraldic images to their signs. One pub would become The Green Dragon, another the Two Cocks.
And talking of ale, when I was last in Auckland, New Zealand, before the pandemic made trans-Tasman jaunts a thing of the past, I visited The Shakespeare Hotel in Alfred Street and bought a Tee-shirt featuring a quote from Henry V Act 3 scene 2, I would trade all my fame for a pot of ale. We incautious consumers are invited to imagine that this is the Bard himself speaking, or some other illustrious personage. The truth is less uplifting: shall I enlighten you? We find three wastrels, about whom I have written in earlier posts. Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, who, in their usual cowardly fashion, are hanging back from the siege of Harfluer- this was a real event which took place between 18 August – 22 September 1415. They are with a boy with no name- and it is he, who utters the well-known saying. His full utterance was: Would I were in an alehouse in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.
Somewhat anachronistically, I imagine that the sign swinging outside the alehouse referred to by the boy and counting among its patrons the scoundrelly trio Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, I imagine that the swinging sign features a white feather. So, be careful what you buy into! How does that old Latin admonition go? Caveat emptor! Buyer beware. By the time Frank Mason Robinson designed the Coca Cola logo in 1885 the gentle lapping waves of logos from earlier times became a tsunami which is still washing over the globe today. Which one of us, amidst the churning surf of brands we are caught up in, is not wearing something that corporations have spent billions persuading us to consume.
Listen now to, Logoland, as I inform you that, for the first time since the end of 2019, I am taking my wife and daughter on a cruise to New Zealand where I hope to revisit The Shakespeare Hotel in Alfred Street, Auckland. I will, yet again, (GOD willing) trade all my fame for a pot of ale! [insert song]
The footnotes continue next week with an examination of circumstances with which I have only a fleeting experience from my years in Belfast during The Troubles between 1968 and 1972. There was civil conflict, explosions and multiple casualties, no doubt. But nothing that could compare to the horrors we watch daily on our newsfeeds from Ukraine since the Russian President, Vladimir Putin decided to invade a sovereign country on February 24th, 2022. Let us pray for peace in our world.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (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
Music accompaniment and composition software: Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2022