Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 190 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Ash is the theme of this post. I am recording and scheduling it with some urgency on the evening of Ash Wednesday here in Australia. Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the mid-1960s famously said, A week is a long time in politics. Well, it’s true also for geopolitics. Only a couple of days ago, I was preparing a Ralph McTell song for the current podcast with its accompanying text, but things have changed dramatically in that short space of time.
Now, we have a guy who seems to like being photographed sitting at a very, very long table somewhere in Moscow, who has threatened the West three times (so far) with nuclear war. The last time this unthinkable catastrophe was massively in the global mind was during the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. Sanity prevailed then, thanks to level heads on both sides. JFK was one of the protagonists. He said something that is particularly fitting for where we are now: It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal…or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
This seems to describe what is happening as ordinary people in Ukraine and throughout the world- including Russia, it must be said- declare that it is not all right to invade a sovereign state. As country after country lines up to funnel, belatedly, military aid to Ukraine I am conscious of the words of the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, Malala Yousafzai, If you want to end the war then Instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of sending tanks, send pens. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers. Malala was the victim of misogyny and hatred as Taliban gunmen shot her in the head in 2012, leaving her for dead. Her crime in the eyes of those who ordered and carried out her shooting: taking the bus to school. That she survived is a triumph for the forces of good in the world.
Seventy years before Malala, another talented teenage girl, faced the evil of her circumstances with the following words: I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness – I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. And much as we may wish that the outcome for her had been otherwise, history records that Anne Frank perished in the death camp of Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, at age 15.
The world seems to me… topsy-turvy. This compound word is both an adjective and a noun meaning, upside down and a state of utter confusion, respectively. I’m going to put the original song first- not because it is better than the cover but because it is more urgent. Its title, Peace is the Path, is from a saying of Mahatma Gandhi which in full goes: There is no path to peace. Peace is the path. The verses comprise the Beatitudes of Jesus and two voices arguing about(what else?) peace. I use a Celtic air setting- without drums- enough drums beating in the world as it is, eh? [insert song]
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. This quotation is from Pericles, the fifth century BC Athenian statesman- he too endured the horrors of war and knew what was of value. How often have you heard these words, It was a different world back then, usually spoken by someone of my vintage, pointing out the superiority of their era while, with no awareness of contradiction, pointing out how much tougher it was back in the day and how the mollycoddled mooks of today wouldn’t survive for a minute in the testing times of the past.
Of course, it was the same old world- just with a lot fewer people. I thought about this during the past week as Putin calculated that the West was not as united or coherent as it once was. But I remain hopeful that the 20% of the world’s population living in the freedoms guaranteed by the rule of law within liberal democracies will ultimately prevail against the malevolence of the autocratic players who are presently taking centre stage in the dramatic events preoccupying the world today.
For some reason, The International Geophysical Year, popped into my head: it was an international scientific project that lasted from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. It marked the end of a long period during the Cold War when scientific interchange between East and West had been seriously interrupted. Sixty-seven countries participated in IGY projects, although one notable exception was the mainland People’s Republic of China, which was protesting against the participation of Taiwan.
I told you it was the same old world- even back then. And back then, I was an 8-year-old voracious reader at Lago Elementary School in Aruba captivated by, as I remember, National Geographic Magazine’s account of this global event. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched artificial satellites for this event; the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, launched on October 4, 1957, was the first successful artificial satellite. This epochal event spurred the establishment of NASA. Other significant achievements of the IGY included the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts by Explorer 1 and the defining of mid-ocean submarine ridges, an important confirmation of plate-tectonic theory. The establishment of the Antarctic Treaty was another triumph of this event.
Sixty-five years later, here I am listening to Donald Fagen’s coolly cynical 1982 hit, I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World). Fagen’s lyrics sarcastically discuss the widespread optimistic vision of the future at that time, including futuristic concepts such as solar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations and spandex jackets. The song criticises this vision and offers a humorous critique on the naïveté of post-war optimism in America and the Western world. Me? I’m still that optimistic 8-year-old child- eyes wide in wonder at the possibilities of scientific cooperation and progress.
Now to the second song of the post, From Clare to Here. This song demonstrates that, in some ways, the late fifties and early sixties were a different world. Folk singer-songwriter Ralph McTell worked on building sites in London with Irish labourers who befriended him. Then, the distance from the rural west coast of Ireland to the English metropolis was alienating in more than one way. The once pious and amenable young men with a faithful sweetheart waiting at home, now fuelled by booze, fighting and the crack at the pub which siphons most of their money will never go back.
Today the young men may still be leaving the rural west coast of Clare- but they aren’t pious, and they are taking their girlfriends with them equipped with qualifications which open up more than menial labouring tasks as they set course for their future lives. In the last post I suggested that this song was a possibility for the indeterminate future. Of course, the future arrived more quickly than I anticipated because the only way I could get the song out of my head was to record it. The hook line of the chorus of From Clare to Here was supplied by one of Ralph’s Irish work mates who, when reflecting on the change from his home said, Yes, it’s a long way from Clare to here. [insert song] No trailer, again, but a poem about peace by Emily Dickinson: I many times thought Peace had come/When Peace was far away—/As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—/At Centre of the Sea—/And struggle slacker—but to prove/As hopelessly as I—/ How many the fictitious Shores—/Before the Harbor be—
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. The IGY stuff is from this site.
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.