Letters from Quotidia 2023 Podcast 10

Quentin Bega

Welcome to the tenth podcast of 2023 in the Letters from Quotidia series. I continue my tribute to my former student, friend, and collaborator, Mark Dougherty, who died much too young in a Belfast hospital on Christmas Day, 2020.  

Now I present a slow burning ballad from The Paper Suite, which we co-wrote back in the mid-1980s. The song, Problem, which focuses on the agony aunt section found in some newspapers, is sung here by Candy Devine, accompanied by the Desmond Harlan Quartet. This is the penultimate offering from this jazz suite and I’ll preface it with Solitude, by American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox whose work I have quoted before in my Letters from Quotidia

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;/Weep, and you weep alone;/For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,/But has trouble enough of its own./Sing, and the hills will answer;/Sigh, it is lost on the air;/The echoes bound to a joyful sound,/But shrink from voicing care.//Rejoice, and men will seek you;/Grieve, and they turn and go;/They want full measure of all your pleasure,/But they do not need your woe./Be glad, and your friends are many;/Be sad, and you lose them all,—/There are none to decline your nectared wine,/But alone you must drink life’s gall.//Feast, and your halls are crowded;/Fast, and the world goes by./Succeed and give, and it helps you live,/But no man can help you die./ There is room in the halls of pleasure/For a large and lordly train,/But one by one we must all file on/Through the narrow aisles of pain.//[insert song]

I shall not sing a May song./A May song should be gay./I’ll wait until November /And sing a song of gray.//I’ll wait until November/That is the time for me./I’ll go out in the frosty dark/And sing most terribly.//And all the little people/Will stare at me and say,/’That is the Crazy Woman/Who would not sing in May.’//

So says African-American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks; however, I will sing in May and about May as well even though here in Australia the months and seasons bear little or no relation to those obtaining in Europe and America from whence most of my allusions, literary and otherwise, originate. Aficionados of The Swan of Avon, aka Shakespeare, are going to accuse me of raiding A Midsummer Night’s Dream  and King Lear for material when they hear the lyrics of my “original” song for this post. So, sue me- but remember what happened in the Ed Sheeran court case when the jury decided he could keep using those common chords that have been used by musicians for the last century at least. Same applies to literary allusions, I would imagine. Here is my latest composition, then- The Madman in May [insert song]

You know, part of the discipline of writing a post such as this is finding a song to accompany publication that is just right in some way- and so it is for the next song which references the date in May on which the podcast is published, the fourteenth, in its opening line: It was on one Whitsun Wednesday, the fourteenth day of May. The song is Lisbon set during the Napoleonic Wars where a young man, William, declares to his lover, Nancy, that he must be off to serve the Queen in her conflicts on the European continent. Nancy, of course, will have none of it, revealing that she is pregnant with his child, and furthermore, she will cut her hair to accompany him both at sea and on the battlefield.

How this will be feasible with an ongoing gestation is not addressed in the song- but since when have folk songs ever cared about mere details! The theme of women pursuing their men through thick and thin, adopting disguises to switch gender is a common trope in folk music and serendipity in the guise of YouTube delivered me a version of the song sung by English folk singer, June Tabor, whose recordings I have dipped into for pleasure over the decades.

Slaves to presentism, we often think that our generation is the most enlightened. But consider Leigh Hunt, who was instrumental in introducing Keats, Shelley, Browning, and Tennyson to the British public. He suffered two years’ imprisonment for daring to attack such worthies as the Prince Regent George, describing him as corpulent! He was visited in prison by notable figures of the time such as Lord Byron, Charles Lamb, and Jeremy Bentham. I will quote an excerpt of a poem he published in The Examiner in 1810 concerning the deaths of 4000 men in the swamps of Walcheren, an island at the mouth of the River Scheldt in the Netherlands as a way of introducing the song, Lisbon

Ye brave, enduring Englishmen,/ Who dash through fire and flood,/ And spend with equal thoughtlessness/ Your money and your blood,/ I sing of that black season,/ Which all true hearts deplore,/ When ye lay,/Night and day,/ Upon Walcheren’s swampy shore.//… In vain your dauntless mariners/ Mourn’d ev’ry moment lost,/ In vain your soldiers threw their eyes/ In flame to the hostile coast;/ The fire of gallant aspects/ Was doom’d to be no more,/And your fame / Sunk with shame/In the dark and the swampy shore.// Ye died not in the triumphing/ Of the battle-shaken flood,/ Ye died not on the charging field/  In the mingle of brave blood;/ But ’twas in wasting fevers/ Full three months and more,/ Britons born,/ Pierc’d with scorn,/ Lay at rot on the swampy shore. [insert song] T

That song should have completed my usual complement of songs for the post. But the death earlier this month of Gordon Lightfoot impels me to offer one more. When I first heard If You Could Read My Mind playing on the jukebox in Hamill’s Café in Cushendall in 1971 it stopped me in my tracks: its obvious musical and lyrical qualities aside, its devastating analysis of the breakdown of a relationship stunned me.

I was getting ready to enter the optimistic state of matrimony myself that very year- indeed, in fewer than six weeks! My Bucks’ Night was looming and the enormity of what I was undertaking was bearing down on me more and more. I should have obtained my teaching qualification by then had I not transferred to the degree course which entailed an extra year of study. But we (really, I) argued that we need not postpone the wedding. No biggie then: no job in prospect, no means to speak off and only a fuzzy appreciation of what life as an impecunious married student might entail. All this, of course, during the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland- and we would be returning to Belfast after a brief honeymoon to look for a rental somewhere on or near the Falls Road.

As I prepare this script, I question once again my sanity and, indeed, the mental acuity of my fiancé, who acquiesced in my Pollyanna-like belief that all would be well. And more through good luck than good management- so it has turned out- touch wood! The opening lines of John Keats great ode to love- Endymion- seem appropriate here:  

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing./Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing/A flowery band to bind us to the earth,/Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth/Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,/Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways/Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,/Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,/Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon/For simple sheep; and such are daffodils/With the green world-they-live-in;-and-clear-rills/That for themselves a cooling covert make/’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,/Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:/And such too is the grandeur of the dooms/We have imagined for the mighty dead;/All lovely tales that we have heard or read/:An endless fountain of immortal drink,/ Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink/

John Keats joined the mighty dead much too young from TB before he could spend much time with the love of his life- Fanny Brawn. Here’s Lightfoot’s great song. [insert song]

Once more I shall return to the fastness of Quotidia to plot and plan yet another essay in music, verse, and blather- to entertain you, I hope!

 Problem (music Mark Dougherty words Quentin Bega)

I’ve never felt the slightest need to write to you before

But here in my cold dark room I can’t pretend any more

Broken hearts fixed while you wait you really take them in

And now my defences down I wonder how to begin

If you can help me I won’t mind

Paying the price but now I find

It isn’t so easy putting the pieces on show

I used to smile at your advice to all those lonely souls

But here in my cold dark room I don’t smile anymore

If you can help me I won’t mind

Paying the price but now I find

It isn’t so easy putting the pieces on show-

Putting all the pieces on show

The Madman in May (words and music Quentin Bega)

Let me start my morning routine

By smearing mud across me face

It’s something we crazy people do for fun

For breakfast I’ll fry an aubergine

Spread marmalade on my piece of plaice

Climb out the window for my daily run

Around the maypole decked with flowers

Bells on my fingers bells on my toes

Dancing and singing under the midday sun

Dancing and trancing here for hours

With maidens dressed in buttons and bows

Thus the afternoon wanes and then it’s done

Before you condemn me in your head

Before you set your damnation down

Look at yourself in the mirror now

As you join the throng of the living dead

The insects crowd around at dusk

They whirr and they buzz as dark descends

Accompany me as to the moon I sing

Night flowers spread their sultry musk

As the queen of the fairies she upends

Day’s order as to the woodland she will bring

Her elves and goblins marching there

With drums and fifes and banners bright

They dance around her throne in a swaying ring

Their laughter fills the magic air

They praise their queen into the night

Fireflies surround her with a glowing string

Before you condemn me in your head

Before you set your damnation down

Look at yourself in the mirror now

As you join the throng of the living dead

Of the living dead- poor Tom’s afeard

Lisbon (trad)

And it was on one Whitsun Wednesday, the fourteenth day of May

That we untied our anchor, and so we sailed away

Where the sun do shine most glorious, to Lisbon we were bound

Where the hills and fields are daintied with pretty maidens around

I wrote a letter to Nancy, that she might understand
That I was going to leave her unto some foreign land
She said: “My dearest William, these words will break my heart
Oh, let us married be tonight before that you do start

“For ten long weeks and better, love, I’ve been with child by thee
So stay at home, dear William, be kind and marry me.”
“Our captain has commanded us and I shall have to go
For the Queen’s in want of men, my love, I cannot not answer, No.”

“Oh, I’ll cut off my yellow hair, men’s clothing I’ll put on
And I will go along with you and be your waiting man
And when it is your watch on deck, your duty I will do
I’ll brave the field of battle, love, so I could go with you.”

“Your pretty little fingers they are both long and small
Your waist it is too slender, love, to face the cannon-ball
For the cannons they do rattle and the blazing bullets fly
And the silver trumpets they do sound to drown the mournful cry.”

“Pray do not talk of danger, for love is my desire
And I will go along with you and with you spend my time
And I will travel through France and Spain all for to be your bride
And it’s on the field of battle I will lay down by your side.”

And it was on one Whitsun Wednesday, the fourteenth day of May
That we untied our anchor, and so we sailed away
Where the sun do shine most glorious, to Lisbon we were bound
Where the hills and fields are daintied with pretty maidens around

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND  (Words and Lyrics Gordon Lightfoot)

[G]If you could read my mind, love

[F]What a tale my thoughts could tell

[G]Just like an old- time movie

[F]’bout a ghost from a wishing-well

[G]In a castle dark or a [C]fortress strong

[D]With chains upon my [Em]feet

 You [C]know that ghost is [G]me

  And [C]I will never [Em]be set free

 As [Am7]long as I’m a [D]ghost you can’t [G]see

[G]If I could read your mind, love

[F]What a tale your thoughts could tell

[G]Just like a paperback novel

[F]The kind that drugstores sell

[G]When you reach the part where the [C]heartaches come

 The [D]hero would be [Em]me

 [C]And heroes often [G]fail

[C]And you won’t read that [Em]book again

[Am7]Because the ending’s [D]just too hard to [G]take

[G]I’d walk away like a [C]movie star

Who gets [D]burned in a three way [Em]script

[C]And enter number[G] two

 A [C]movie queen to [Em]play the scene

Of [Am7]bringing all the [D]good things out in [Em]me

  But for [C]now, love, let’s be[G] real

  I [C]never thought I could [Em]act this way

And I’ve [Am7]got to say that I [D]just don’t get it

 [C]I don’t know where [Em]we went wrong

But the [Am7]feeling’s gone

And I [D]just can’t get it [G]back

[G]If you could read my mind, love,

[F]What a tale my thoughts could tell

[G]Just like an old-time movie

[F]’bout a ghost from a wishing-well

[G]In a castle dark or a [C]fortress strong

With [D]chains upon my [Em]feet

The [C]story always [G]ends

And [C]if you read be[Em]tween the lines

You’ll [Am7]know that I’m just [D]trying to under[Em]stand

The [C]feeling that you [G]lack

I [C]never thought I could [Em]feel this way

And I’ve [C]got to say that I [D]just don’t get it

[C]I don’t know where [Em]we went wrong  

But the [Am7]feeling’s gone

And I [D]just can’t get it [G]back      G  F  G F end on C

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 2023 combo for music composition.

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