Chopping an Onion

Here’s an attempt at writing a war poem, prompted by the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. The arrival of the dreaded telegram was the initial idea, combined with a taste of the efforts of the wartime housewife to grow more food during a time of shortages and rationing.


Chopping an Onion

She was chopping an onion, an onion she’d grown
In the vegetable patch she’d dug in her lawn.
She glanced out the window and then looked again
As the telegram boy turned into the lane.

She shamefully wished the young angel of death
Upon innocent neighbours, under her breath,
Then her heart split apart and a single tear fell
As he walked up the path and rang on the bell.

He stood in his navy-blue jacket and hat
And held out the envelope, eyes on the mat.
She opened it painfully. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘REGRET TO INFORM …’ was as far as she read.

Re-reading the words as she sits on the stair
With a cold cup of tea and a howl of despair,
It’s been seventeen hours and she can’t understand
How her son came to vanish in some distant land.

It’s been seventeen weeks and she wishes she knew
If he suffered, how he suffered, where he suffered, and with who,
And then comes a letter describing a grave,
Says she ought to feel proud – he was strong, he was brave.

It’s been seventeen years and she’s never known
Why her boy had to go, why he didn’t come home.
She’s still growing veg and she’s still baking pies
And when she chops onions no-one asks why she cries.

Click here for a version recorded at home, December 2013

Click here for a version with Nick Gibbs (from Folklaw) on fiddle

Click here for a version recorded at The Royal Children in Nottingham, 28th May 2016 (starts at 5:56)

Click here for a version recorded at the Sumac Centre in Nottingham, 25th April 2015

Click here for an alternative arrangement recorded in the cellar, February 2016

Click here for a version performed by Malcolm Fife, March 2016

Click here for an Acacia Radio Random Country Session version, 21st February 2016 (starts at 28:45)