When the War Came

I’ve decided to publish in this blog the full narration and lyrics of the song cycle we are in the process of writing for the Schools project at Bath Abbey, as a serial. It is a half-hour piece, performed on June 12th at Bath Abbey, sung by the children of 6 schools, I think, and accompanied by members of the Bristol Ensemble. The narrator – hoorah! – is Jon Monie. This will be its only performance. All are welcome if you are around.

I took this momentous decision which affects the lives of so many people – at least six, as far as I know – because I like this piece and I am proud of it as a lyricist. And a dear friend of mine told me off yesterday for always seeing what I do as second in importance to the music.

The poems are of course transformed by the music into something much more moving and beautiful than they are alone; but they do have merit in themselves.. and after all, they are the story.

Sometimes when you are working with a composer, lyrics combust into music almost immediately; sometimes he grumbles a lot, tries to make you throw it out, says he will try and do something with it – as if he knows all too well the nature of that which he is polishing – and then eventually, capitulates, and it works. Two of the best songs in this – the Trenches song in Dispatches, and the last song – only exist because I fought for them. I’m glad I did. It feels important to stand up for my own vision of a piece.

This was a difficult commission; to write a song cycle for small children about WW1.

We have been immersed in this subject – first for The Cool Web, then for Demon Lover, (which has a long flashback to WW1) and now for this – since 2013. It’s been a long war. However, I am reliably informed that it will be over by Christmas.

Two things which became gradually clear to me led me to this treatment.

First, the understanding that what matters to me in war is love. The love and grief of Graves for his lost friend David became the core of the Web; Demon lover became – for me- about the betrayal of love. The horror of the vast mincing machine of war is in itself  important only by virtue of the importance of that which it destroys. How it does it is not what engages me.

Second: children. Children will be singing this. I wanted it to be about them. I did not want it to be more than they could bear; but I wanted it to be honest. Some of these children who are singing may have themselves experienced war; but most of them will not.

And when that thought connected to what became clear to me in reading endless first hand descriptions of how wounded soldiers call not for their sweethearts but for their mothers.. I knew how to do it.

So I have told the story of six children from a small village in England who go to war.

When we played it through to our choirmaster and our narrator , with Jools singing it at the piano, and I saw them so close to tears, I realised that it works. Its heart is in the right place, which is what matters.

So: Here is the first Movement:








There were six of us in our village. Joe and Fred and Billy, and their sisters, Dot and Phoebe. And Joe’s girl, Mary. Mary was always Joe’s girl, right from when we could walk. He would be running, and she would be tottering along behind him, trying to catch up. 

We all lived in our street, and played together in the back alley. Or out on the hills. I don’t think our parents knew where we were half the time.

 Joe was the leader of the gang, always out ahead, urging the others on.



I can remember how it was..

So long ago


I can remember how it was..

So long ago


How days were fun and long and busy

How the bath at home was grimy

How I always was so hungry

Long ago.




Fred was more of a dreamer, a quiet lad.. A good friend though. You needed him, he was there.




I can remember how it was

So long ago..


I can remember how it was..

So long ago


We six were all there together

Walking happy on a Sunday

Kicking feet on the church railing

Long ago





Billy was a go-getter. Even at that age, he had an eye for the girls.. And they for him.




I can remember how it was

So long ago


I can remember how it was..

So long ago


We were cheeky, young and easy;

Mad, impatient to be living..

And the girls all pink and giggly..

Long ago.




The girls were just ‘the girls’ to us. We spent most of the time trying to get away from them.





I can remember how it was

So long ago.


I can remember how it was..

So long ago


The boys were all so naughty

Calling names and pulling pigtails,

Throwing stones and chasing, teasing..

Long ago.

Long ago

Long ago




We all had a bit of schooling, when the harvest didn’t need us. Learned about Kings and Queens, and Famous Battles, and Cowboys and Indians, and the Knights of the Round Table, and the Fall of Troy. All very romantic and exciting, and good for games on the hills, but just in old books; not real..




I can remember how it was

So long ago.


I can remember how it was..

So long ago..


We thought it would last forever

Thought that change would never shake us

Never come and take and break us

Long ago.





But then we turned fourteen; school was over, freedom was over; we were grown-ups and we had to work for our families; life began in earnest. It was the mill for the lads, and farm work for the girls.. none of us fancied service – we didn’t want to go away to a big house where no-one knew us …




I can remember how it was

So long ago.


I can remember how it was..

So long ago..


All those days out in the sunshine

Turned to work and dirt and growing

Turned us into men and women..

Long ago..

Long ago

Long ago

Long ago

Long ago …





N is for No

No is not a nice word.

I don’t like it at all.

I much prefer yes.


As in, Yes, you can watch a bit more Netflix

or , Yes, you can have some sweets

or , Yes, you can go and explore the Amazon this afternoon –

but it does have its good points.


As in, No, there isn’t anything under the bed,

or, No, you don’t have to stay at the table

or, No, you don’t have school this morning.


I guess it’s what you make it, really.

M is for Money Spider


I found a tiny little spider the other day,

when I was making my usual tour of the skirting board.

It was really, really tiny; and it got very excited

running all over my hand.


My nana said it is called a money-spider,

because to see it brings you good luck.

I think she’s wrong.


I think that it is called a money spider because

somewhere in the dusty hidden spaces under the house

where we don’t go,

it has spun a huge web stretching from wall to wall,

and hanging from the web are hundreds of bright gold coins

shining in the dark like dewdrops.


One of these days,

if I can find the time,

I might go and have a look.

Just in case.

L is for Love

People talk about love all the time.

Love you!

says my mum when she kisses me.

Love you!

says my sister when she tucks me into bed.

Love you!

says my Dad when he picks me up after I’ve crashed my bike.

They say it to each other, too.

Lots of people do.

I don’t know what it is, though.

I can’t see it, or bite it, or smell it.

Perhaps it’s just there.

Like air.


I is for me.

I don’t know who me is yet.

Sometimes I seem to do things which aren’t me at all.

Things I don’t like

But which seemed good to me at the time.


Sometimes I get so angry about things

even though they aren’t really what is upsetting me at all.


Sometimes I am really naughty

even when I know it would be much better for me to be good.


Other people don’t seem to know who I am either.

One day my friends are really nice to me and happy to see me and I feel really cheerful and funny and proud.

And then the next day, I’m still me but they don’t want to know.

And I feel sad.


It will be a great relief to be grown-up and have everything sorted.









H is for Hammock

It’s interesting being in a hammock.

Because most of the time you’re not.

In it, I mean.


There’s the bit where you are trying to get into it;

And you pull the side down

and nearly  get your leg over it

but can’t quite bring yourself to lift the other leg and

roll in

in case it turns right over and lands you on the grass again.


Then there’s the bit when you are trying to get out of it:

And you push the side down

And nearly get your leg over it

But can’t quite bring yourself to lift the other leg and

roll off

in case it turns right over and lands you on the grass again.


But the bit in the middle when you are in it

And rocking

And eating an ice cream

And the leaves in the tree above you are all shifty and shining

And the sun glints through them

And your toes are warm..

That’s cool.


F is for Fury

There’s nothing like a good tantrum.

When you are really, really furious

and you don’t want to stop, so you don’t.

You go on yelling and you go on drumming your feet

on the floor

and you roar

and you shriek

and you throw things

and then you throw some more things

and then you hit that really high note


that sends all the dogs whimpering

It’s great.

Especially if you can manage to do it somewhere really embarrassing.

Like a supermarket

or a church.

Where there are lots of people to stare at your parents and mutter to each other.

It’s really satisfying.

I don’t know why they keep trying to find ways to stop you doing it.



C is for Cool




I think that I’m cool.

I try very hard.

I wear the right trainers.

I think.


I’ve got the right clothes

I’ve got the right hair

It’s just that I’m short

and I’m pink.


My friends are all longer

and stronger than me

They fold into elegant lines.

Their pants are all baggy

Their t-shirts are grim

Some of them make their own vines.


My Mum says don’t worry.

She says that

I’ve just got to wait.

She says that we all just get through it.

It’ll all be alright

when I’m eight.


World War 3: Earth 2016

When my grandchildren have a dispute

over something –

they both want the same pen;

Inigo wants to sit on Tilly’s head

and she would prefer it if he didn’t –

it is easy to resolve.


Find another red pen;

Take Tilly’s head away from Inigo

have another game of bug bingo ..


But when they get restive – being shut in too long..

watching too much television..

just bored with playing nicely..


As my grandmother used to say,

spoiling for a fight….

that’s different.


Whatever you do,

you know

it’s going to blow…









Jools and I are starting to write a song cycle on Space for the children’s choir at the Abbey. I wrote this while I was thinking about the project, and although I don’t think it will become lyrics, as we are going in a slightly different direction, I like it, so I thought it could become a poem. It makes me think irresistibly of my daughter’s partner, Luke, and their little son, Inigo, and the kind of relationship they share.

My Dad stands by me in the dark

And puts an arm around my back

To keep me warm.

To hug me warm.


Look up, he says;

Above your head..

In that black sky

Can you see light?

Small points of light

Up in the sky?

Filling the sky?


And as I look

And look and look

I see that darkness is

Not dark at all

But full of light

All full of light.


I hold his hand

His warm kind hand

I feel so dizzy standing there

As if the earth itself is air


Under my feet


Under my feet..


We’re not alone

We’re not alone

My dad says all those lights are worlds

Comets and stars and suns and moons

All sailing round us in the night..

And in the day

When we can’t see..

Who knows what’s there?

It’s all out there.


Perhaps one day

Perhaps one day..

I’ll fly right up and touch the stars

I’ll run along the milky way

And watch the Pleiades at play..

But for tonight

I’m safe on earth

My feet on earth

And with my Dad.

Close to my Dad…


Look up, he says;

Above your head..

In that black sky

Can you see light?

Small points of light

Up in the sky?

Filling the sky?

I can, say I.