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Onions Post by :senthu Category :Essays Author :Frank Boreham Date :October 2011 Read :2804

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Just along the old rut-riddled road that winds through the bush on its way to Bulman's Gully there lives a poor old man who fancies that he is of no use in the world. I am going to send him an onion. I am convinced that it will cure him of his most distressing malady. I shall wrap it up in tissue paper, pack it in a dainty box, tie it with silk ribbons, and post it without delay. No gift could be more appropriate. The good man's argument is very plausible, but an onion will draw out all its defects. He thinks, because he never hears any voice trumpeting his fame or chanting his praise, that he is therefore without any real worth or value to his fellow men. Could anything be more preposterous? Who ever heard a panegyric in praise of onions? At what concert was the song of the onion sung? Roses and violets, daisies and daffodils, are the theme of every warbler; but when does the onion come in for adulation? Run through your great poets and show me the epic, or even the sonnet, addressed to the onion! Are we, therefore, to assume that onions have no value in a world like this? What a wealth of appetizing piquancy would vanish from our tables if the onion were to come no more! As a relish, as a food, and as a medicine, the onion is simply invaluable; yet no orator ever loses himself in rhetorical transports in honour of onions! It is clearly not safe to assume that because we are not much praised, we are therefore of not much profit. And so I repeat my suggestion that if any man is known to be depressed over his apparent uselessness, it would be a service to humanity in general, and to that member of the race in particular, to post him an onion.

'I always bless God for making anything so strong as an onion!' exclaimed William Morris, in a fine and characteristic burst of fervour. That is the point: an onion is so strong. The very strength of a thing often militates against applause. If a strong man lifted a bag of potatoes we should think no more about it; but if a schoolboy picked it up and ran off with it we should be speechless with amazement. We take the strength of the strong for granted; it is the strength of the weak that we applaud. If a man is known to be good or useful or great, we treat his goodness or usefulness or greatness as one of the given factors of life's intricate problem, and straightway dismiss it from our minds. It is when goodness or usefulness or greatness breaks out in unexpected places or in unexpected people that we vociferously shout our praise. We applaud the singers at a concert because it appeals to us as such an amazing and delightful incongruity that so practical and prosaic a creature as Man should suddenly burst into melody; but when the angels sang at Bethlehem the shepherds never thought of clapping. The onion is therefore in company with the angels. I am not surprised that the Egyptians accorded the onion divine honours and carved its image on their monuments. I am prepared to admit that onions do not move in the atmosphere of sentiment and of poetry. Tears have been shed over onions, as every housewife knows. Shakespeare speaks of the tears that live in an onion. But, as Shakespeare implies, they are crocodile tears--without tenderness and without emotion. Old John Wolcott, the satirist, tells how

. . . . . . Master Broadbrim
Pored o'er his father's will and dropped the onioned tear.

And Bernard Shaw writes of 'the undertaker's handkerchief, duly onioned with some pathetic phrase.' No, onions do not lend themselves to passion or to pathos. You would scarcely decorate the church with onions for your sister's wedding, or plant a row of onions on a hero's grave. And yet I scarcely know why. For, in a suitable setting, a touch of warm romance may light up even so apparently prosaic a theme. The coming of the swallows in the spring is scarcely a more delightful event in Cornwall than the annual arrival of the onion-sellers from Brittany. What a picturesque world we invade when we get among those dreamy old fishing-villages that dot the Cornish coast!

Gold mists upon the sea and sky,
The hills are wrapped in silver veils,
The fishing-boats at anchor lie,
Nor flap their idle orange sails.

The wild and rugged sea-front is itself suggestive of rich romance and reminiscent of bold adventure. The smugglers, the pirates, the wreckers, and the Spanish mariners knew every bluff and headland perfectly. And, however the world beyond may have changed, these tiny hamlets have triumphantly defied the teeth of time. They know no alteration. The brogue of the people is strange but rhythmic, and, though pleasant to hear, very hard for ordinary mortals to understand. The fisherfolk, with their strapping and stalwart forms, their bronzed and weather-beaten features, their dark, idyllic eyes, their tanned and swarthy skins, their odd and old-world garb, together with their general air of being the daughters of the ocean and the sons of the storm, seem to be a race by themselves. And he who tarries long enough among them to become infected by the charm of their secluded and well-ordered lives knows that one of the events of their uneventful year is the coming of the onion-sellers from over the sea. The historic connexion between Cornwall and Brittany is very ancient, and is a romance in itself. The English and French coasts, as they face each other there, are very much alike--broken, precipitous, and grand. The peoples live pretty much the same kind of lives on either side of the Channel. And when the onion-sellers come from France they are greeted with enthusiasm by the Cornish people, and although they speak their own tongue, they are perfectly understood. See! there is one of the Breton onion-sellers lounging among a knot of fishermen near the door of yonder picturesque old Cornish cottage, whilst the wife stands in the open doorway, arms a-kimbo, listening as the foreigner tells of the things that he has seen across the Channel since last he visited this coast. And up the hill there, on the rickety old settle, beneath the creaking signboard of the village inn, is another such group. As I gaze upon these masculine but kindly faces I am half inclined to withdraw my too hasty admission that onions have nothing about them of sentiment, poetry, or romance.

It always strikes me as a funny thing about onions that, however fond a man may be of the onions themselves, he detests things that are oniony. Give him onions, and he will devour them with magnificent relish. But, through some slip in the kitchen, let his porridge or his tea taste of onions, and his wry face is a sight worth seeing! A friend of mine keeps a large apiary. One summer he was in great glee at the immense stores of honey that his bees were collecting. Then, one dreadful day, he tasted it. The dainty little square of comb, oozing with the exuding fluid, was passed round the table. Horror sat upon every face! It turned out that the bees had discovered a large onion plantation some distance away, and had gathered their heavy stores from that odorous and tainted source! What could be more abominable, even to a lover of onions, than oniony honey? We remember Thackeray and his oniony sandwiches. Now why is it possible for me to love onions and to hate all things oniony? The fact is that the world has a few vigorous, decided, elementary things that absolutely decline to be modified or watered down. 'Onions is onions!' as a well-known character in fiction remarked on a memorable occasion, and there is a world of significance in the bald assertion. There are some things that are as old as the world, and as universal as man, and that are too vivid and pronounced to humble their pride or compromise their own distinctive glory. The exquisite shock of the bather as his naked body plunges into the flowing tide; the instinctive recoil on seeing for the first time a dead human body; the delicious thrill with which the lover presses for the first time his lady's lips; the terrifying roar of a lion, the flaunting scarlet of a poppy, and the inimitable flavour of an onion--these are among the world's most familiar quantities, the things that decline to be modified or changed. You might as well ask for an ice-cream with the chill off as ask for a diluted edition of any of these vivid and primitive things. Onions may be regarded by a man as simply delicious, but oniony honey or oniony tea! The bather's plunge is a rapture to every stinging and startled nerve in his body, but to stand ankle-deep in the surf, shivering with folded arms in the breeze that scatters the spray! Life is full of delightful things that are a transport to the soul if we take them as they are, but that become a torment and an abomination if we water them down. And it is just because Christianity itself is so distinctive, so outstanding, so boldly pronounced a thing, that we insist on its being unadulterated. Even a worldling feels that a Christian, to be tolerable, must be out and out. The man who waters down his religion is like the shivering bather who, feeling the cold, cold waters tickling his toes, cannot muster up the courage to plunge; he is like the man who wants an ice-cream with the chill off; he is like oniony honey or oniony tea!

A man cannot, of course, live upon onions. Onions have their place and their purpose, and, as I have said, are simply invaluable. But they must be kept to that place and to that purpose. The modern tendency is to eat nothing but onions. We are fast becoming the victims of a perfect passion for piquancy. Time was when we expected our newspapers to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We don't care a rap about the truth now, so long as they'll give us a thrill. We must have onions. We used to demand of the novelist a love-story; now he must be morbidly sexual and grimly sensational. Our grandfathers went to a magic lantern entertainment and thought it a furious frolic. And on Sundays they prayed. 'From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us!' Their grandchildren pray, 'From all churches and chapels, Good Lord, deliver us!' And, during the week, they like to see all the blood-curdling horrors of lightning and tempest; of plague, pestilence, and famine; of battle, murder, and of sudden death, enacted before their starting eyes with never a flicker to remind them that the film is only a film. The dramas, the dances, and the dresses of the period fortify my contention. The cry is for onions, and the stronger the better. It is not a healthy sign. Mr. H. G. Wells, in his graphic description of the changes that overcame Bromstead, and turned it from green fields into filthy slums, says that he noticed that 'there seemed to be more boards by the railway every time I passed, advertising pills and pickles, tonics and condiments, and such-like solicitudes of a people with no natural health or appetite left in them.' The pills, that is to say, kept pace with the pickles. The more pickles Bromstead ate, the more pills Bromstead wanted. That is the worst of the passion for piquancy. The soul grows sick if fed on sensations. Onions are splendid things, but you cannot live upon onions. Pickles inevitably lead to pills.

But that is not all. For the trouble is that, if I develop an inordinate appetite for onions, I lose all relish for more delicately flavoured foods. The most impressive instance of such a dietary tragedy is recorded in my Bible. 'The children of Israel wept and said, "We remember the onions, but now there is nothing except this manna before our eyes!"' Onions seem to have a special connexion with Egypt. Herodotus tells us that the men who built the Pyramids fed upon onions, although the priests were forbidden to touch them. 'We remember the onions!' cried the children of Israel, looking wistfully back at Egypt, 'but now we have nothing but this manna!' The onions actually destroyed their appetite for angels' food! That, I repeat, is the most mournful aspect of our modern and insatiable passion for piquancy. If I let my soul absorb itself in the sensational novel, the hair-raising drama, and the blood-curdling film, I find myself losing appreciation for the finer and gentler things in life. I no longer glory, as I used to do, in the sweetness of the morning air and the glitter of the dew-drenched grass; in the purling stream and the fern-draped hills; in the curling waves and the twinkling stars. The bound of the hare and the flight of the sea-bird lose their charm for me. The world is robbed of its wonder and its witchery when my eyes grow accustomed to the gaudy blinding glare. Jenny Lind was asked why she renounced the stage. She was sitting at the moment on the sands by the seaside, with her Bible on her knee. She pointed her questioner to the setting sun, transforming the ocean into a sea of glory. 'I found,' she said, 'that I was losing my taste for that, and'--holding up her Bible--'my taste for this; so I gave it up!' She was a wise woman. Onions are fine things in their own way. God has undoubtedly left a place in His world for the strong, vivid, elemental things. But they must be kept to that place. God has strewn the ground around me with the food that angels eat, and I must allow nothing on earth to destroy my taste for such sublime and wondrous fare.

(The end)
Frank Boreham's essay: Onions

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