Some years ago, I was privileged to work for Norfolk Libraries on a brilliant project digitising thousands of old photographs. Amongst these was a collection of portrait photographs of the Norfolk Roll of Honour – those members of the armed forces who had been killed during the First World War. I have written about it before and I still find the images of those men incredibly powerful, and for a short time afterwards, I started wearing a poppy. I remember having to restrain myself on a train home from London to Norwich when an American student made a lot of pointed remarks, directed towards me, about the politics of anyone who wore a poppy, that it was somehow a demonstration of support for the Iraq war. I didn’t. It wasn’t.
Now I have stopped wearing poppies, but for the opposite reason. The current jingoistic, militarist atmosphere that seems to prevail in Britain, led by its cheerleaders in the tabloid press – almost completely owned by people who don’t live in this country for tax reasons – had politicised what was, in fact, always a fundraising effort by the British Legion. It should be comparable to the daffodils people wear when they’ve donated to a cancer charity, but some people with an unpleasant political agenda are attempting to use it as something more sinister.
I’m not a pacifist. I believe in self defence. Although I haven’t agreed with any of the reasons we’ve gone to war, or occupied other countries, during my lifetime, I’m aware that many people join the army to escape poverty, lack of opportunity, and unemployment. The British Legion look after people who have served in the forces, because as a nation, we have never done right by them, and organisations like the BL, SSAFA and Combat Stress have had to step in. From the days when injured soldiers and sailors from the Napoleonic wars had to beg in the streets upon their return to an ungrateful nation, we’ve failed those whose lives are forever blighted by physical injury or psychological trauma incurred by the experience of war.
So why won’t I wear a poppy? Because it is being twisted into a symbol of patriotism, of conformity, of all kinds of things it was never meant to represent. Last week, social networking was full of abuse by Tory supporters who were scanning the shadow cabinet, looking for someone who hadn’t pinned a poppy to his or her lapel. They thought they’d found Tom Watson out until it was clear that he was wearing a small enamel one. It’s only a matter of time until they find someone to attack on this issue. Irrespective of their own personal feelings, no politician or TV celebrity would dare appear without a poppy. The enforced poppy-wearing has now spread to sport where what might have once been a bucket collection will now involve a minute’s silence, a parade of service men and women, and the players having a special strip with a poppy on it. Is it all to raise money for a good cause, or part of the pressure to conform to nationalism, and its corollary, hostility to outsiders?
Now, of course, the fatuousness of the debate, if it can be dignified as a debate, has really come to the fore in our tabloid press. Size really does matter, apparently. When I was growing up, I don’t remember seeing anything other than the one standard, paper poppy, that British Legion volunteers sold on the streets. Now, in order to show the absolutely humongous size of your patriotism, you can buy great big, massive poppies. I expect David Cameron to be wearing one the size of the moon on Remembrance Day.
The reverse of that is the accusations made against people like the footballer James McClean (an Irishman) who has been vilified because he won’t wear a poppy. Yet I know people who have spent decades serving in our armed forces who choose not to wear one. I think they’d argue that, if we are to believe the political rhetoric that we have fought some of our wars to preserve our freedom, then everyone has the choice whether to wear one of not. I’m afraid being called “scum” by Barbara Windsor, actor of dubious ability and friend of gangsters, only served to make up my mind not to wear one.
The British Legion’s website explains the history and meaning of the poppy very clearly:
Importantly, it ends with this statement:
“The poppy is NOT
A symbol of death or a sign of support for war
A reflection of politics or religion
Red to reflect the colour of blood
Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants.”
I am not writing this to discourage anyone from wearing a poppy, or donating to the British Legion appeal, but to raise the question of how disturbing it is that we are now living in a society where conformity to an imagined political and military agenda is not only demanded of people, but that symbolic manifestations of it must be worn. That has happened before in Europe. We should not make the Flanders poppy into a broken cross.