Seldom do I read a piece I agree with wholeheartedly, but Harry Leslie Smith's article about the warmongering uses of the poppy is spot-on. Therefore I'm sure it will come as no surprise to readers that I never wear a poppy. But, despite agreeing with Harry, I fail to pin one of those famous facsimiles to my coat for two reasons.
Like many readers of a certain age I know, or sadly, knew people who fought in the Second World War. Both of my granddads did. One of them was a sapper in the Eighth Army stationed near Cairo and told me, when I was very little, that he could see the smoke and noise from the second battle of El Alamein rolling in over the desert. My other granddad, unfortunately, had a much tougher time. He saw action in Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of Vichy North Africa. He then took part in Operation Shingle, the allied landings at Anzio in central Italy. There, besieged by German defenders occupying the high ground overlooking the British and American positions he was subject to the ceaseless and indiscriminate terror of the shell and the machine gun. He was captured and held as a POW where, he told me, the food was worse than pigswill. Near to the war's end the commandant released the British servicemen and they had to make their way toward allied lines across Germany, fearful of reprisals by locals and persistent rumours of fanatical Hitler Youth shooting POWs on sight. My granddad lived into his eighties, and died seven years ago. His wartime experiences were deep and profoundly disturbing, and they haunted him for the entirety of his adult life. Do I need a poppy to remember this?
The second reason is the total co-option of poppy-wearing by official society. No politician, no newsreader, no weather forecaster, no TV presenter, no one, absolutely no one is allowed on the television without a poppy pinned to blouses, jumpers, jackets. As Dan Hodges notes the ubiquity of the poppy this time every year is the occasion for a right old ding-dong. Just like The War on Christmas that's hauled out each December by a couple of knackered-looking reindeer. The thing is poppy conformity is entirely an establishment phenomenon.
I haven't worn a poppy since I was sporadically forced to at school. Even on the Labour election trail, where campaigners and canvassers are expected to stick one on, I have always resisted. And guess what? No one "normal" has ever asked me why I'm not wearing one - that is no one who hasn't been in some position of authority over me. It's because in the grand scheme of things, it's not an issue that troubles anyone apart from a handful of obsessives who want to make a statement about it. Pubs, bars, cafes, accommodation blocks ring with debates about the poppy, but they do the rest of the year about religion, sport, celebrity, the news. At best the poppy is a conversation filler, a chance for the bore to grandstand, or the rebellious to tentatively venture profane opinion. Few will fall out over it, and if they do things will be quickly patched up by gossip or the latest observations on Strictly. There is no expectant public for an invasion of the poppy wearers. No huge constituency demanding public figures so adorn their bodies.
I don't and never have had a problem with people wearing poppies. I just don't need one to commemorate the horrors of war or remember what it did to my granddad, and I certainly don't require the establishment to force one down my throat.