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Script for audio journal Volume 1 Everybody's Story

SQ 1 Everybody’s Story

 guitar-classicalEntry 1: Everybody’s Story: Fifty years ago I wrote my first song. I was 16. I had pimples, an ambition to be a songwriter, and a cheap, acoustic guitar with old strings and a high action. That first attempt was a parody of country music, which I secretly loved, along with folk music. I was torn between these genres, and the glamour of the rock and pop music of the 1960s and it would be some decades before I finished writing that first song.

If I were an ancient Greek, my name would be Procrastis: “Procrastis is my name and procrastination’s my game.” But I’m not going to play you that particular song- at least not yet. It’ll come later- the subject of another journal entry a bit further on down the line. I wrote the song which figures as the opening track of this audio journal when I was still quite a young man- somewhere in my mid-thirties.

Greek male

 Now I’m retired and an OLD AGE PENSIONER. I’m one of those hated baby boomers- the Gen X’s and subsequent generations will be at work until their seventies cursing my generation for having the good luck to miss the horrors of the Second World War while reaping the benefits accruing while the going was good. Back then, I was thinking about absent friends and thinking about stuff like- “I’m older than Jesus when he was crucified and I’m halfway towards threescore and ten- what’s it all about?” What, indeed!

audenAs W H Auden puts it in his wonderful poem inspired by Breughel the Elder’s The Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong /The old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position: how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

The Fall of Icarus

 It seems to me that I have been just walking dully along for an awfully long time- hence the title of my Journal, The Summa Quotidian. It is the summation of an ordinary life in the form of a journal rather than a diary. Each entry will comprise a song I have written over the past half century, supported by a commentary of sorts and a few lines of poetry or prose or drama from artists with the weight of Auden.

To make this point a little clearer, I refer the listener to that play by Aristophanes, The Frogs, where the great god Dionysus, who, according to our constant online oracle, Wikipedia, is the god of the grape harvest,frogs_nathan_lane_company winemaking, ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy: he adjudicates a debate in Hades to decide which poet was the worthier candidate to return to Athens in her time of greatest need- Euripides or Aeschylus.

Dionysus

To resolve the issue, each poet throws into a pan on a pair of scales a line of poetry to determine which has more heft. In the contest, the older poet, Aeschylus, prevails. In this analogy I see myself as a sort of Euripides, the loser in the contest, whose songs lasting minutes can be counterbalanced by lines of weightier poets lasting seconds.

Euripides was mocked mercilessly during his lifetime by the more conservative among the cultural arbiters of the time. If the term had been current then, they would have reviled him as a post-modernist. His reputation in later ages has not, in my opinion, been as shining as he deserves; Erasmus, according to a dubious source, has him being torn to pieces by dogs, set upon him by enemies. Poor old Euripides had two miserably unsuccessful marriages, and, ironically, another source has him being torn apart by women; although, this seems very close to a scene from his greatest play, The Bacchae, where the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is torn apart by his wife,euripides Agave, and her sister, Ino. Lord, oh Lord: Those ancient Greek women were surely a force to be reckoned with!

Now, some among my acquaintances have hung the label post-modern around my neck. Obviously, in their evaluation, I’m just “froth and bubble” while they, of course, have the solidity of “stone”. It doesn’t really matter which way the scales tip in this matter for judgement, one has to agree with that under-rated 19th Century Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, quoted by the British Queen in her speech to the Guildhall towards the end of her annus horribilis, of 1992, that “KINDNESS in another’s trouble, COURAGE in your own” is a worthy sentiment.

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Narratives generally start at the beginning and move through a graceful arc to an inevitable but aesthetically pleasing denouement. This narrative, though, will avoid the pleasant lie that is the convention. It will start “in medias res” as the ancient Romans would have put it.

The song was written at the traditional halfway mark of life’s journey but imagines a time that is still ahead of me by a decade or two (I most sincerely hope that this is, in fact, the case). The persona in the song is of an advanced age and dwindling wit and may indeed be inhabiting his second childhood. He is speaking to his son.

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Script for audio journal Volume 1 Everybody's Story

SQ 2 Let Them Not Fade Away

Entry 2: Let Them Not Fade Away- In the previous entry, I stated that were I an ancient Greek, my name would be Procrastis but I’ve been wondering, in my usual desultory fashion, if I might not, with more accuracy, have taken the ancient Greek name of Procrustes.

And here I defer once more to the oracular Wikipedia: In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis There he had an iron bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the

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guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly, because secretly Procrustes had two beds. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed: He killed Damastes, surnamed Procrustes, by compelling him to make his own body fit his bed, as he had been wont to do with those of strangers. And he did this in imitation of Heracles. For that hero punished those who offered him violence in the manner in which they had plotted to serve him.

Procrustes and Theseus

Are not all artists Procrustes? Here am I, shaping a journalistic narrative around a series of songs by selecting and editing bits and pieces from the world of letters. I suppose this is a cautionary note: don’t get seduced by the notion that any of this represents anything other than itself. On the other hand, unlike the original Procrustes, I hope that any idea for a song that is passing by survives the smith’s hammer of my imagination as I struggle to shape it into something pleasing.

I am a baby boomer as I mentioned before, and, as a teenager during the years 1963

St Pepper's Cover

through 1969, was staggered at the brilliance and variety of music being produced in this period. The Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Who, Hendrix and Cream were among those who formed one pole of my musical life and I was reassured that my birthplace could supply artists such as Van Morrison with Them and Rory Gallagher with Taste who provided an Irish accent for the Rock/Pop pole of my life.

Also going on, was the folk revival and The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, the Dubliners, the Chieftains, Planxty and the Fureys formed the other pole of my musical world. Linking both, I suppose was the towering figure of Bob Dylan, who remains, along with some of the artists listed, a formidable and forming influence to this day, as you will hear, no doubt as you listen to the songs at the core of each entry.

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The earth keeps some vibration going/There in your heart, and that is you./And if the people find you can fiddle,/Why fiddle you must for all of your life…

So writes Edgar Lee Masters, an American poet writing in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries. He writes about how this vibration prevents a man from doing anything with his forty-acre farm and how he, because of this vibration, missed out on the joys of everyday social interaction as a result. I, myself, don’t have a forty-acre farm, but a detached, suburban block in an outer suburb of Sydney.

I am often reminded that, rather than toiling in this 21st Century version of the smithy, which is a small box-room with its computer, printer, internet connection and assorted musical instruments, I should be outside cutting the grass, tidying the yard, painting the deck, planting a garden, clearing the gutters- and that’s just for starters!

NPG P1675; Philip Larkin by Rollie McKenna

Like most people, I was torn between what I wanted to do and what I had to do to keep the wolf from the door. For years, I felt the weight of Philip Larkin’s poem Toads: Why should I let the toad work/ Squat in my life and for well over four, long, decades I have known that something sufficiently toad-like/ Squats in me, too.

But back to the American poet, Masters: he is remembered today for a work that is an interesting amalgam of free verse, epitaphs and monologues from the dead in a cemetery in Illinois entitled Spoon River Anthology. The poem I am quoting from is called Fiddler Jones and I love the four lines with which he concludes his poem:

I ended up with forty acres; /I ended up with a broken fiddle-/and a broken laugh, and a thousand memories, /And not a single regret.

Edgar Lee Masters

In my mid-forties, I helped form a group called Banter playing folk music from Ireland, primarily; but there were lots of Australian songs and tunes in our repertoire, as well. We also featured music from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. From my mid-teens, I have felt, like Masters, that the earth keeps some vibration going there in your heart and that is you: and, despite a life lived under the toad squatting inexorably on my dreams, I wrote this song about my musical roots:

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Script for audio journal Volume 1 Everybody's Story

SQ 3 Cannery Row

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Entry 3: Cannery Row I used the phrase” elsewhere in the English-speaking world” in my last entry. The listener may deduce also, from my last entry, that I was born in Ireland- Northern Ireland to be more precise, and in the small coastal village of Cushendall in County Antrim to be exact.

The short novel by John Steinbeck provides the title and is the starting point for this song. Juxtaposed with the rich engagement shown by the characters of the Monterrey wharves is the constrained and feeble

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existence of the persona of this song who makes T.S. Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock seem a dashing, devil-may-care figure in comparison.

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I began writing this song in 1982 after catching a glimpse of myself reflected in the windows of the brand-new library in Cushendall, where the line “.…my cheek on one shoulder I walk past the shelves of the library just before dark…” came unbidden into my mind. Before that, we booklovers had waited patiently for the mobile library van to arrive at the car-park beside the old watering trough from Ballymena, twenty-odd miles up the road and well outside the world of the Glens of Antrim. Then, we eagerly mounted the steps to peruse the few shelves where, perhaps, something of interest or value might hide.

You know, I felt a pang of loss when the mobile library van disappeared. I’m not sure the proliferation of books made possible by the permanent structure, compensated for the shared camaraderie of those diverse yet grimly determined people who gathered for years in stoical anticipation for the arrival of that magical van containing- books- from the

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outer world. A twinge of nostalgia swept over me when I saw the library van scene from the film Billy Elliot and I wonder what the future holds for libraries of the sort I grew up with in our brave new world of instant information.

Pheidippides

I feel much more comfortable in antiquity, where information was hard-won and is best embodied by the legend of the Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC with the news of the Athenian victory over the Persian forces of Darius. Ten years later his son, Xerxes, attempted to avenge the defeat of Darius. His campaign gave rise to that iconic symbol of heroic resistance against overwhelming odds- the battle of Thermopylae- where, outnumbered 20 to 1, the Spartans held the Persians at bay to the last man, under the leadership of Leonidas, their king.

Leonidas

The poet Simonides has left us with a few terse lines of poetry which have been a reminder to generations ever since of the courage of men who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country: Stranger passing by, tell the Lakedaimonians/ Here we lie, having obeyed their orders. And, although the Greek forces lost the battle at Thermopylae, they defeated Xerxes fleet at the battle of Salamis and this ushered in the Classical Age on which so much of western civilisation is based. I’m pretty sure most males, like me, feel a certain loss, not to have experienced war. Is this an atavistic urge, I wonder?

But, back to the song, Cannery Row: it is inspired by the Steinbeck novel of the same name.

Canefields

The Moonglow Quintet, mentioned in the song, is based on a band, which played old standards and certainly nothing written after the year 1959. I heard them plying their trade, only once, in a small time-warped club among the cane fields of North Queensland in 1992 where, improbably, they became the inspiration for the bridge of the song which I had started writing a decade previously

Songwriting 101 tells us that you do not mix up tenses or pronouns but this song does all that- I knew it as I was writing it but I did not amend it as I felt the listener could navigate the switching points of view because we all do it all the time in the space inside the skull where past, present, future, I, you and they are swirling and churning all the time- or is it just me? In a novel, or even a short story, it would be annoying if not confusing. The miniature form that is the song can, at times, cope with shifting, lurching views.

I would like to preface the 6/8 tune you’re about to hear with a few lines from the poet

heaney

Seamus Heaney in his translation of the poem The Yellow Bittern from the Irish of the 18th Century poet with the splendidly euphonious name- Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna because, like Mack and the boys from Cannery Row, I find the prospect of life without the consolations of wine and its multifarious related potions unendurable:

 The woman I love says to give it up now/ Or else I’ll go to an early grave,/ But I say no and keep resisting/ For taking drink’s what prolongs your days./ You saw for yourself a while ago/ What happened to the bird when its throat went dry;/ So my friends and neighbours, let it flow: / You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity…

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SQ 4 Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)

Old Comedian

Entry 4: Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)- What happens when the ground shifts, when you misjudge your audience, when you fail to notice that the fashion has changed? Being a Baby Boomer and transitioning into the twilight, I feel particularly empathetic towards those old guys who wowed them at the pubs and clubs around the English-speaking world in the 60s and 70s: the old comedians.

Then things began to change: a certain correctness began to infiltrate. Is there anything more frightening or difficult than standing up in front of a crowd and trying to make them laugh? (Well, standing in front of a crowd and trying to get them to applaud your song maybe comes close). The ground has shifted under me from time to time but lately it has been happening more often than I would like.

Plato

Plato hadn’t much time for comedy: according to my trusty guide, Wikipedia- he asserted that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “‘for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.’ “The po-faced philosopher goes on to say that comedy

should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state. I can think of a few politicians who would vote for that legislation.

Obviously, tyrants everywhere and at every time have followed his strictures. The earliest recollection I have of being reduced to violent spasms of laughter was when I was about twelve or so. I was

mad

reading one of the early editions of MAD magazine and I can’t recall now, what it was that set me off, but my mother rushed into the room to see what was wrong, dropping a casserole which shattered on the wooden floor. The noises I was making, she later said, were like nothing she had ever heard from me.

Why is it that I can remember details like the casserole dish but cannot, however much I try, recall the content of the magazine which had sent me into paroxysms of laughter? But I loved the irreverent attitude the comic adopted then, and wherever I encounter this attitude in print or broadcast or in a live venue, I am still prone to lose control. But, satire

Aristophanes

goes back a long way. My old mate, Aristophanes had this to say about the political leader of Athens, Cleon, in his play, The Knights

Hit him, hit him, hit the villain, hateful to the cavalry,/Tax-collecting, all-devouring monster of a lurking thief!/Villain, villain! I repeat it, I repeat it constantly, / With good reason since this thief reiterates his villainy. Old Comedy, eh!  

Dear listener, have you ever been at a boring “do” of one sort or another and, upon leaving, uttered the words “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening” I know I have, but I’m too well-bred to imitate Groucho Marx by adding, “but this wasn’t it.” Of course, the Greeks have a word for it- paraprosdokian which means “against expectation”. We just call them “one-liners” and I can’t get enough of them. I’m probably too lazy to take the time to savour the subtleties of longer works such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the

homer-s

Lock but Homer Simpson I can cope with: “If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.”

I can cope with couplets, too. A newspaper in England ran a competition asking for a rhyme with the most romantic first line… but the least romantic second line. Try these out for size: I love your smile, your face, and your eyes / Damn, I’m good at telling lies! Or My love, you take my breath away. /What have you stepped in to smell this way?

I know, I know, don’t give up my day job…mmm, hold on, I don’t have one anymore! So, I wrote a song about an old comedian: his name? I’ll spell it: F.O.S.S. H.I.L.L. Foss Hill. Fossil. Groan-worthy, isn’t it? The song was written in 1998 after I attended a show featuring several British comedians, all of them pretty long in the tooth, at The Henry Lawson Club, Werrington, in Sydney’s outer west. Now, coincidentally, Lawson was a wonderful comedic writer. In his poem St Peter he imagines himself in Heaven and knows that he’ll get a fair hearing from a bloke used to tramping round Palestine:

Henry Lawson

 He won’t try to get a chorus/ Out of lungs that’s worn to rags, /Or to graft the wings on shoulders/That is stiff with humpin’ swags. /But I’ll rest about the station/Where the work-bell never rings, /Till they blow the final trumpet/ And the Great Judge sees to things.

I’ve a good idea that Henry Lawson would have approved of the old comedians, as laughter echoed around the smoke-filled room in the club named in his honour. Such smoke-filled rooms are no longer widely available, alas, nor are comedians of the old school found any more in the comedy venues of this city. In the song coming up now, you will hear about a comedian who knows the time has come to give it all away. And, as I felt the ground shifting under me, I knew it was time, too, for me to gracefully (or grumpily) depart:

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SQ 5 Changes

Entry 5: Changes- Don’t you love creation myths? The question, Where do we come from? is swiftly followed by Where are we going? The latter question may be addressed in a later

genesis

entry but for now I’ll talk about beginnings. Genesis was the earliest myth I encountered, with its poetry and puzzles. Later, I found other accounts to puzzle and delight me.

The Chinese creation myth is one example. According to my muse, Wikipedia, the creator,

220px-Pangu

a being named Pangu, slept on, or perhaps in, a black egg of chaos and when the principles of Ying and Yang were perfectly poised, the whole shebang kicked off. Somewhere in the mix, a bit later on I guess, were brother and sister, Fu Xi and Nü Wa who were the original humans.

One day, for reasons I couldn’t discover, they set up two separated piles of fire, and the fire eventually became one. Then, under the fire they decided to become husband and wife. Fu Xi subsequently observed the patterns of the world and created the eight trigrams, in order to become thoroughly conversant with the numinous and bright and to classify the myriad things.

This becomes the basis of Taoist and Confucian divination that we know as the I Ching, which is a canonical text among New Agers, but has a wider cultural currency. Most people know about the system for divination using the throwing of sticks to form a pattern or

taoism

generating random numbers in a computer to access the 64 hexagrams- all very abstruse and interesting in its own way, but not really what I want to talk about- I was simply struck by the fact, as I was fossicking through the website, that I Ching translates as Changes– the name of my song.

I Ching

As Chrissie Hynde sings, in her composition, Hymn to Her “some things change, some stay the same” Change and Stasis- opposed yet linked concepts have intrigued people other than Chrissie from the beginning, I would wager. But, for my money, the best explication of this duality is John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn. On the urn is depicted a scene from a Greek idyll featuring gods, perhaps, lovers and musicians trapped in time forever and the subject of future generations’ perusal and inquiry. The closing lines are among the most famous in all literature:

When old age shall this generation waste, /Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a

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friend to man, to whom thou say’st, /”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Grecian Urn 2

Well, actually, we do need to know a bit more. But I applaud the genius that wrote those words and who perished way too early: which reminds me of Stephen Spender’s poem, I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great He was only 21 and thinking about sex and Beethoven and Michelangelo when he wrote this poem containing the lines:

What is precious is never to forget/The essential delight of 
the blood drawn from ageless springs/ breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth…/Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother/with noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

This echoes the great Wordsworth sonnet:

The world is too much with us; late and soon/ Getting and spending we lay waste our powers/ Little worldwe see in nature that is ours/ We have given our hearts away: a sordid boon!

God, how I love words such as these, used by those who are truly great. So this brings me back to where this entry started- The Bible: not the Old Testament, but the New, where the Gospel of John begins…here it is in Latin– In principio erat verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum: In the English of the King James Bible it renders as, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. But the Logos-which is Greek for Word– doesn’t originate with John but can be traced back to Heraclitus-

Heraclitus

you know, the dude who said you couldn’t step in the same stream twice.

Were I asked to give my tuppence worth, which, godlike, and within the confines of this journal, I can, I’d say something like “the Word, the Logos, is not passive; a mere spoken or written construct containing, signs, signals and information. Rather, it is like an utterance of power from a Bach chorale strung out eternally, sung by a chorus of angels with attendant seraphim ringing all the changes, and surpassing, to the nth degree, the music of the spheres.”

Lord, that exercise in verbosity has given me the head-staggers and while I would wish to

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be able, like Fu Xi, to study the patterns of the world in order to become thoroughly conversant with the numinous and bright, I think I’ll have to be content to pick up my guitar, strum a few chords, look at the ceiling and try to draw down inspiration from Calliope, Erato  and Euterpe, the three sisters who are daughters of mighty Zeus and the muses of poetry and music.

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SQ 6 A Touch of Ireland

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Entry 6: A Touch of Ireland There is a small community radio station called WOW FM in St Marys, a suburb of Sydney’s outer west. It caters for a range of ethnic and community groups as well as individuals who have a yen for presenting and who can convince the board that what they have to offer is in harmony with the ethos and aims of the station.

St Marys, situated around South Creek which flows through the Cumberland plain at the foot of the Blue Mountains, was originally settled by the Commerigal-Tongarra tribe of the Dharug people about 45,000 years ago. But those vast swathes of time and all the men, women and children pouring down the generations are largely hidden to view: a not unusual consequence of European settlement and its aftermath.

We know the names of the invading overlords and their lackeys who were granted land by the English crown. The flogging parson, Samuel Marsden, for example, was given over aborigines1000 acres in the area by Governor King who also ensured that his own family got in on the land grab. Lots of details and names here, but I can’t find any of the names of the Aboriginal dispossessed.

I’ll have something to say about the dispossessed in a later entry, but for now, I want to get down from the soap-box I seem to have mounted and talk about the Irish connection.

Marsden

During the 19th Century as the Sydney basin was increasingly settled, convicts-Irish among them- provided an economic way of ensuring rapid development.

 And, no doubt confounding the shades of the likes of Samuel Marsden, the convicts, for most part, prospered and put their stamp on the region. The small settlement on the banks of South Creek continued to grow and, by the second decade of the 20th Century, a serene and prosperous township was dreaming in the Australian sun, entirely oblivious of the apocalypse hatching in the soul of a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Lines of a local poet, George Sullivan, recall those idyllic days:

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If only Victoria Park could speak/ What wondrous tales from it you’d share, /About those careless, happy days/ When it was called ‘The Square’./ It could tell of all the bullocks/That were roasted on its green;/Of the glorious games of football/By sportsmen strong and clean./ It could tell of games of cricket,/ Of how the wickets soon did fall/When demon bowlers, Royal and Tolhurst,/Did send down the ball.

The names of all too many of those sportsmen strong and clean would be inscribed in bronze on tablets marking the fallen in the Great War, and subsequent wars, on the octagonal Rotunda. The phrase, strong and clean emerges 60 years later when  Redgum sang, This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean/ And

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there’s me in me slouch hat and me SLR and greens/ God help me, I was only 19.

LEAGUE

The Irish love sport and having a flutter. They also love their culture and, in the mid-nineties, Jim Clarke and Noel O’Donohue started a radio program they called, A Touch of Ireland. For almost two decades they presented music, news and items of interest for their audience, largely, but not entirely, the Irish diaspora. From convict times to the present there have been waves of Irish migrants, among whom I would number myself, who have found in Australia a refuge from political and economic turmoil.

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I was a regular listener to the program and it struck me as a refreshing change from so much of the garbage spewing from the talkback stations by obscenely overpaid shock jocks. You know who I mean, those contemptible commentators who classify it as a missed opportunity if they can’t turn a radio listener from someone at peace with his or her world into a tightly wound xeno- or islamo- or homo-phobe, frothing at the mouth. I expect there is a special section of hell reserved for them.

I wrote the song, A Touch of Ireland, in gratitude to people like Jim and Noel that the airwaves were not the sole preserve of hate-mongers. This was shortly after the newireland millennium when planes should have been falling from the sky and energy grids collapsing- all because the computer geeks had not realised that two-digit year dates repeated every century. Weren’t we all so happy that the sky did not fall in courtesy of the millennium bug?

Of course, the sky didn’t fall in, but, from the sky, ushering in a change as profound as that caused by that bullet in Sarajevo, two planes struck the twin towers in New York City and- here we are. But life goes on, and, while Jim and Noel are no longer hosting the show they conceived all those years ago, I am happy to say that I, as one of the new presenters of the show, A Touch of Ireland, was able to dedicate the song you are about to wow-fm-logohear, to the men who brought a touch of Ireland to the people of the western plains of Sydney: well done, guys.

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SQ 7 Old Dog

Entry 7: Old Dog- How did I get this far, shamelessly dropping famous names, wherever possible, across a half-dozen entries without mentioning Shakespeare? OK- it’s time.

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Let’s not mess around, but leap to the greatest play of them all, Hamlet, and leap, also, into the grave of the fair Ophelia who, driven mad with her love for Hamlet, has drowned herself. We see the Danish prince struggling with her brother, Laertes, who has his hands around Hamlet’s throat. Laertes, is mad with grief, blaming Hamlet for her death.

Ray Charles

From a distance they seem to be engaged in a macabre dance which brings to mind other connotations of the phrase “mess around” with Ray Charles singing Ah, you can talk about the pit, barbecue/The band was jumpin’, the people too/Ah, mess around/They doin’ the mess around. But that’s neither here nor there and I can hear you saying- hey, where’s the blank verse of Shakespeare we were expecting? Fair enough, now where were we?

Ah yes, in the grave with the two men fighting. Hamlet says to Laertes, What is the reason that you use me thus? /I loved you ever. But it is no matter. /Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew and dog will have his day. Human relationships…it’ll do your head in! And talking about heads…not long before the kerfuffle with Laertes, Hamlet had been talking to a gravedigger who was holding a skull he had just dug up.

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You all know the scene, Hamlet takes the skull, which is that of the court jester of his boyhood, and declaims Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jestWhere be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?…Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. People can be unpleasant. Wasn’t it Sartre who said- Hell is other people?

Give me a dog any day! Well, at times I feel like that…and anyway, what does it mean when you say that a dog will have his day? Two interpretations are common: first, that even the most powerless among us will get revenge one day (which seems to me to be another example of the triumph of hope over experience). The other popular meaning is that we will all experience good fortune at some time in our lives. But even the relatively uncomplicated universe of dogs is a place of conundrum and contradiction:

 To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” Milan Kundera.kundera

twainOr: Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. Mark Twain.

But: Throw a stick, and the servile dog wheezes and pants and stumbles to bring it to you Do the same before a cat, and he will eye you with coolly polite and somewhat bored amusement. And just as inferior people prefer the inferior animal which scampers excitedly because someone else wants something, so do superior people respect the superior animal which lives its own life and knows that the puerile stick-throwings of alien bipeds are none of its business and beneath its notice.… H. P. Lovecraft.lovecraft

So, which side are you on?

Or, would you agree with Winston Churchill: I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. For my part, I’ve never had a pig as a pet, although, being a huge fan of the Blandings castle tales of P.G Wodehouse, I fantasise that were I ever to inherit a stately pile in Shropshire, I, too, would the-empress-of-blandings-from-bbc-comedy-blandings-136387580503410401-140214161117have a majestic pig just like the Empress to cosset, pamper and primp in preparation for the fat pig section of the county fair in hopes of taking out the coveted silver medals. Chances are though, on the pet front- I’ll remain pigless. I’ve had cats and dogs as pets over the years and have appreciated the qualities of each.

Every dog will have his day, and my last pet, a miniature fox terrier, we named Maggs afterMiniature_Fox_Terrier the Peter Carey character who, in turn, was based on the Charles Dickens’ character Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations. Lots of people go to Dickens for dog names: Barley, Browdie, Dodger, Duff, Granger, Jasper, Nubbles, Fluff- that last one I made up for the euphony. But the rest are suggested as suitable labels for our canine companions. For ten years Maggs kept the family company before succumbing to heart problems. My grief for the dog was real and on his final day, I sat on the back step listening to his laboured breathing, watching the stars come out, stroking his bony head and recalling Hopkin’s Spring and Fall:

goldengroveMargaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving/Now no matter child the name/Sorrow’s springs are the same/Ah as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder/It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.

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SQ 8 Sylvia

Entry 8: Sylvia I first read The Savage God, by A. A. Alvarez, in 1974. This book was the first time I had encountered an examination of the subject of suicide which was actually readable and I found myself gripped by the long section on Sylvia Plath, the American poet

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who had married Ted Hughes. Now, Hughes I knew, from college lectures, to be a much-admired poet dealing with themes associated with nature and, in particular, the unreflecting savagery of animals- but I knew nothing of his wife’s work.

Seeking out a copy of Ariel, published posthumously in 1965, I started reading, and re-reading, those dark and brilliant poems. I also sought out other poems and works by her, including The Bell Jar, a novel which details the female protagonist’s inexorable mental decline, several suicide attempts, institutionalisation and Electro-Convulsive Therapy. The novel is, obviously, semi-autobiographical and after a year or so I felt impelled to write a song about her, using images from her poems to help construct the lyric.

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The Greek philosopher, Socrates, argued against suicide, for most part, but ended his life by drinking a hemlock-infused potion: a penalty for having been found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety. He saw himself as a gadfly, someone who would sting the state into righteous action. Well, the state reacted as we all do when a stinging insect attacks. Kill it or shoo it away!

The Athenian jurors who voted for the death penalty probably thought that Socrates would take the opportunity to flee before the sentence was to be promulgated. Socrates, however, deeming himself to be a true citizen with a horror of life outside the city-state and obedient to the rule of law, drank the hemlock, turned to his friend, Crito, and said I owe a cock to Asclepius, see that the debt is paid.

He remains the true ideal of an Athenian citizen, reverencing the gods and punctilious about paying debts. Asclepius, is the god of healing and perhaps Socrates is intimating that death releases the soul from the body and its attendant ills, particularly as one ages. Four centuries later in Palestine, Judas flings the blood-money he has accepted for hisjudas betrayal of Jesus back at the temple priests and hangs himself in despair. They use the tainted money to buy a potter’s field and bury him there.

Dante, in The Inferno, places Judas in the deepest circle of hell where Satan chews on his

Portrait_de_Dante

head eternally. The Gnostics, on the other hand, reasoning that he set in train the salvation of the world, view him as the greatest of all the Apostles. Is there any surprise that one of the most compelling and enduring contemplations of suicide was written 400 years ago by William Shakespeare? You can count in the hundreds of millions the number of people who can complete the line: To be or not to be.

The absence of illness or adversity may not be sufficient to answer the question posed by Hamlet in the affirmative, but clearly if one is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune one might choose to end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to by taking arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. But is it the end? For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. Indeed, and in that pause do most of us not acquiesce and resign ourselves to grunt and sweat under a weary life because of the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends. Is this an invitation to martyrdom? A vindication of altruistic suicide? Itgreater-love is certainly a high bar, and one that many have cleared. The stories of soldiers throwing themselves on a grenade to save their comrades and similar tales of heroic self – sacrifice are seen as justifications for self-slaughter by most people. An example of this is

Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner who was selected to die of starvation in an underground bunker with nine others as a reprisal for an escape from Auschwitz.

The swap was agreed and Francisek Gajowniczek, who had cried out in anguish for his wife and family, lived for a further 53 years, attending the beatification and later canonisation of Kolbe where the pope at the time, John Paul II, declared him to be a Christian martyr. In 2011, Jessica Council, a 30-year-old pregnant mother, refused cancer treatment in order to give her unborn child the best chance for survival; she died, leaving behind a husband, son and a newborn child who is alive today because of her sacrifice.

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SQ 9 The Self-Unseeing

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Entry 9: The Self-Unseeing Back in the 1980s, I was teaching at a grammar school in Northern Ireland. The novels of Thomas Hardy were on the curriculum for O and A Levels as they had been when I was at school in the sixties. I was teaching the novels as opposed to learning about them from a teacher droning at the front of the room. Now I was the droner.

In a poll, taken in London at the time, Hardy emerged as the most popular author among senior students. I have a high regard for his novels but a higher regard for his poetry, which covers a wide range of forms and subjects. There can be little argument that he is among the greatest of the English poets of the 20th Century because of his adventurous and insightful exploration of what it is to be human.

Hardy

His poems about his first wife, Emma, were written after her death and an awkward estrangement of twenty long years. They are searing in their remorse and filled with regret and remembered love.

Although Hardy could, and did, write about the larger themes such as war, belief, the impact of technology, social constraints and class- it is when he examines the minutiae of family life and personal relationships that he comes into his own. His poem, The Self-Unseeing, deals with his remembrance of his mother and father and a scene from his boyhood when he was truly happy:

Here is the ancient floor, /Footworn and hollowed and thin, /Here was the former door/Where the dead feet walked in. //She sat here in her chair,/Smiling into

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the fire;/ He who played stood there, /Bowing it higher and higher.//Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; /Yet we were looking away!

It is only after the event that we can truly appreciate how happy we were. Hence the human predilection for rose-tinted glasses, sentimentality and nostalgia. But Hardy avoids the mawkish and the maudlin when he deals with these matters, and this, I suppose, is what makes him a great artist.

Aristotle explored in some detail the question of what it means to lead a fulfilled life. He

Aristotle

rejects the pursuit of a life of sensual gratification and, also, the pursuit of a life solely concerned with honour. He concludes that Eudaimonia or Happiness satisfies his criteria for the best life. But unpacking this term in prose would burst the constraints of this journal entry. I turn, instead, to Carl Sandburg, a 20th Century American poet, for his mischievous take on this question which he sets out in his poem entitled, Happiness

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness./And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men./They all shook their heads and gave me

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a smile as though I was trying to fool with them/And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river/And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

This poem strongly resonates with me because it reflects an annual gathering where our family joins family groups of friends and relations for a fish barbecue at a local park. Several generations spend the day celebrating…what? Being alive and in Australia, remembering our culture and those who are absent through geographic separation, work commitments or death.

Shortly before my father died, thirty years ago, I was living and working in Ballymena, which is a market town in the centre of Northern Ireland. It was late December, just before Christmas, and it

christmas-scene

was dark and cold. My sister Mary and her husband, John with their two children, Krista and Monika, had driven across Europe from Munich to visit. The fire was blazing and all the Yuletide decorations were on display. With Mum and Dad, there were ten of us and, at one point in the evening, a guitar was produced and we sang Christmas carols.

Then, John taught my kids the verse of Silent Night in German and we listened, entranced, as the four kids sang that sublime song using the original words. At this time, 100 years7520c7ad-f994-49ad-ac39-ca572737bde8 (1) ago on the Western Front, all went quiet when the strains of this carol drifted across no man’s land and the fighting men on both sides declared a truce and for one day, a minor miracle. This was against the wishes of the superior officers on the British side. On the German side, a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. His name: Adolph Hitler.

But on that section of those vast killing fields, peace reigned for a short while. But this being the world we live in, the fighting resumed and we can only mourn the loss of so many lives on both sides of the conflict. That night I recall clearly. In the unmistakeable diction of Hardy’s poem, The Self-Unseeing, blessings emblazoned that day. But I, too, was looking away. Until now.

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SQ 10 Easter Rises

easter-lilyEntry 10: Easter Rises – I am quite taken by that thoughtful Quaker belief, “the testimony against the keeping of times and seasons” which states that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered.

 Not that I have ever followed this practice: caught in the coils of commercialism; having been harried by the pester power of the kids over the years; having the state of my kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, laundry, study- let’s face it, every nook and cranny of my dwelling, not to mention the garden shed and garage- sneered at by renovation shows and lambasted by lifestyle mavens: in short- I have long since capitulated to capitalism’s handmaiden- commercialism.mammon

 There is scarcely a week in the year that is not marked by some “occasion” for marketing: New Year’s sales in January, Valentine’s Day in February, mad March sales, Easter eggs in April, Mother’s Day in May- the list goes on. Did I mention Father’s Day, Halloween and Christmas? I look in vain in the shopping centres for businesses that are not having a sale.

 Hang on a minute- I do believe that market forces are on the way to levelling the days and weeks of the year to the Quaker ideal of no day being marked out as more special than any other. Just one gigantic sales frenzy from January 1st through to December 31st.

 But, to tell you the truth, certain days have always been red-letter days for me, and I know, for most other people. Birthdays: one’s own and those of friends and those you love; anniversaries of one sort or another: weddings, deaths, and special events. For me, halloweenHalloween was special, not only because I got to go trick-or-treating as a child and came back with a bag stuffed full with goodies- but because it was also my birthday. Only Christmas loomed larger as a cornucopia from which myriad gifts spilled in glorious abundance before my childish, avaricious eyes. Then, later, as I watched our children’s glee on birthdays or Christmas over the years, I knew that the market-place was in no imminent danger of going out of business on my account.

 The song contrasts Easter in Northern Ireland with Easter in Sydney. The festival occurs in springtime in the northern hemisphere with the re-birth of life an annual miracle. In Sydney, it marks the change to less warm days and longer nights- nothing as dramatic as the fall of leaves which paints the eastern sea board of North America autumnal orange, red and brown.

In Sydney, the traditional four seasons most people in Europe or America, respond to just don’t cut it. Aboriginals will tell you that there are five or six distinct seasons here. Having lived, worked and enjoyed my recreation in largely air-conditioned environments, I have no expertise in this area.seasons

But even someone as desensitised as I am to the finer points of the natural world, cannot but be awestruck by the miracle of growth. The song you will hear at the end of the entry will deal, in part, with our younger, more faithful and innocent selves. Wordsworth captures this so beautifully in the majestic Immortality Ode:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light,/ The glory and the freshness of a dream……Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:/ The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, /And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness,/And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of trailingglory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy……Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/ Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/ To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

How can you better that? This, of course, is the quandary faced by anyone who presumes to enter the lists against the giants of the Arts. And yet we do, knowing that we suffer by comparison. But, wouldn’t the world be a stranger and more barren place if only the very best in every field of endeavour bothered to show up for any contest?

That not everyone hits the heights or becomes a star should not prevent one from making the attempt. Having said this, I do think it’s a fraud on the young to suggest that they can do anything at all, if only they put their mind to it.

resurrectionThere is a bit more to it than wishful thinking, even if it is supported by ceaseless endeavour. Luck and superior, innate, gifts also play an important part. The bridge of the song describes the impact of the death of my first-born son and how the birth of my younger daughter at Easter-time two years later helped to alleviate the pain and assuage the bitterness and anger I felt:

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SQ 11 The Mark of Cain

mark of cain

Entry 11: The Mark of Cain- The first crime recorded in Genesis is homicide or, more specifically, fratricide. But this is not the first sin: that preceded the crime. Milton puts it most memorably in the opening lines of the great Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, Sing Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed In the beginning how the heavens and earth rose out of Chaos.

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The mortal taste of the forbidden fruit results in the expulsion from Eden and we find Adam and Eve wandering east of Eden dressed in garments of skin. God places an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to the garden to prevent the pair, who now have knowledge of good and evil, from returning to eat from the tree of life and thus become immortal. God had cursed the deceiving serpent and also the ground so that humanity would have to struggle against weeds and blight to bring forth sustenance: as the King James version puts it:

…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also

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and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Interesting, from the point of view of a contemporary audience, is the paucity of detail surrounding the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. We are used to printed and visual texts going into minute detail about motivation and the process leading up to the act of murder itself. Basically all we are told is that God accepted Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Cain gets in a snit. Then they go out into the field where, in the words of the King James Bible, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him.

cain slays abel

That’s it. Nothing more. The aftermath is more detailed, of course. When God enquires after Abel, Cain replies with the famous line: Am I my brother’s keeper? God then condemns Cain to roam the earth as a fugitive and a vagabond, unable to till the ground as it has drunk the blood of his brother. When Cain complains that he will be a marked man (and here we need notcainjpg examine too closely where the other people who would harm Cain might have come from) God replies: Whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. 

So, originally the mark of Cain was divine protection! Fratricide has been a feature of legend, history and society from this time: In The Antigone, by Sophocles, Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other by stabbing one another through the heart; Romulus kills Remus and founds the city of Rome- setting the stage for lots of family killings down through the claudiuscenturies. In Hamlet, Claudius kills his brother, the king to grab the throne and Queen Gertrude.

At about the same time as the composition of Hamlet, it was not a recipe for long life to be the brother of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the reign of Mehmet III, upon the birth

mehmet III

of a male heir to the throne, nineteen of his brothers were strangled with silk cords and buried with their father. In contemporary popular culture, Michael Coreleone kills his brother in The Godfather, Part Two and, in Disney’s The Lion King, Scar kills his brother Mufasa.

In the mid-1980s, I had been successful in writing a TV and a radio drama for the Irish broadcaster, RTE, both of which incorporated music as part of the drama. I then started to write a TV show for Ulster TV called The Last Country Band in Ireland, and as a preparation for this I had listened to countless hours of country music from Ireland and the US. The show was to open with a showdown using the duelcliché of two gunslingers facing one another in a western setting- saloon bar, horse stables, goods store, sheriff’s office and frontier damsels with handkerchiefs raised in horror to their faces.

The song would play over the opening sequence leading to the shoot-out, when the camera would pan back and we would see the backdrop to be a contemporary Ulster setting. I had a lunchtime meeting with one of the station’s producers and everything seemed promising.

Then, the opportunity to return to Australia fell in my lap and, with only six months to avail myself of this prospect, I did not have time to complete the script and the process and make the arrangements for the move back to Australia. But I did have the time to write a few songs in the genre. I had chosen this song to open the show, which, like too many other ideas, lies stillborn in a file somewhere in the loft or garage. But here’s the song:

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SQ 12 Surprised by Joy

Elegy_Peele_Castle_in_a_Storm_by_Sir_George_Beaumont
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Entry 12: Surprised by Joy– Elegiac song and verse have long exerted a fascination over me. Even before my life was touched by personal tragedy, I was drawn to artistic works that explored eschatological themes. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word, I do not mean to be unduly obscurantist, nor should you confuse the term with scatological which deals with excremental matters; although, when I reflect upon it, there may be a connection.

Can you remember the film, Full Metal Jacket, at the very end, when Private Joker, surviving the horrors of Vietnam, says, “I’m in a world of shit”? So many traumatised people would echo his words: military men and women returned from conflict zones, paramedics, police officers, firies and emergency responders as well as those benighted individuals who do not have the excuse of having served in such capacities but who just have encountered the black dog in their lives and can’t get rid of it.

The four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell are the territory of eschatology and

last things

really only an issue for believers who profess that there is meaning in this universe. Others would simply say it’s random and there’s nothing else. This view I respect even though I do not share it. For me, I have been surprised by joy too many times to feel otherwise. A formation of clouds, a smile, a kindly word, an unexpected compliment, a breath of fresh air, a hug from a child- on and on I could go, perhaps writing the hit lyrics of a saccharine country song.

But, instead, I turn to one of my literary heroes, William Wordsworth, to give these thoughts proper context when he reflects on what it is that is important in the larger

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scheme of things. He talks about, that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love. What a dreadful proposition this would be to the players in today’s media circus. Good deeds unreported!

I cannot open a newspaper or magazine, switch on a current affairs or lifestyle show without being bombarded with a barrage of overwhelming acts of charity as homes are refurbished, holidays provided, reunions facilitated and medical miracles accomplished in the glare of publicity and attendant advertising.

Not that I begrudge, in any way, the recipients of this largesse. I do feel for the numberless and nameless who will never benefit. Name, fame, the celebrity game is just so much blather. We are all used to yet another icon exposed on the breakfast news as venal or sad or pathetic- just like us really. I remember when the great cynic of English poetry in the previous, century, Philip Larkin was taken off in one of those ships with black sails.

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Almost before the vessel had vanished around a misty bend of the River Styx we were breathlessly informed that the poet had a collection of what was described as repulsive pornography, and as for the content of his diaries…well! But I will always think softly of him, not only because of his life and works but an anecdote concerning him. He was, as I

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recall, driving back towards his home in Hull along the motorway, listening to the radio and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the windshield wipers when he had to pull onto the hard shoulder, blinded by tears, because, on the radio, someone had begun reciting a sonnet by Wordsworth:

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Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind/I turned to share the transport- Oh! With whom/ But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, / that spot which no vicissitudes can find? / Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind-/But how could I forget thee? Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour, /Have I been so beguiled as to be blind/to my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return/Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,/Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,/Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;/That neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

The song was performed only once in public, at the newly opened Penrith Gaels club in Sydney in 1997. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell my wife about this song, which had

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just been written. Indeed, the decision to sing it was spur-of-the-moment. As she listened to the lyrics, she realised the context and left the venue in tears.

When she asked me later if the dream detailed in the song, Surprised by Joy, had been a real dream, I admitted that, no, it was just an idea I had for writing a song- but true, just the same- truer, perhaps, because it was not dredged from the unconscious sludge of my mind but that I dreamed the whole thing consciously as I beat the red-hot iron in the smithy of my waking imagination, feeling with each blow, the pain of loss but persevering nonetheless to produce an elegy that would serve: