Friday 8 November 2013

Poppy Conformity

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.


Robert said...

What about white poppies?

Steve Funnell said...

My mother's father was killed at Amiens in 1940 so I wear one out of respect to my mother. A subjective gesture I suppose but while my mother is alive I will continue to do so. But it is not something I get uptight about.

Anonymous said...

Wearing the poppy is not just an act of remembrance, but a practical act of providing financial support for the work done by the Royal British Legion. The Royal British Legion provides practical support and emotional care for Service and ex-Service men and women and their families. You don't need to wear a poppy, but you might like to consider giving a donation in order that this, sadly, still very necessary support is provided.

Alex Ross said...

One of my Grandfathers (now deceased) was one of the most right-wing "Monday club" types you could ever come across. He was very insistent that all those that refused to wear a poppy were traitors to their country. On doing a bit of genealogy, I discovered that he never fought in WW2, and made a living selling dodgy carpets instead.

My other grandfather was in the Luftwaffe (so lets not talk about that one...)

On the other hand, my maternal grandmother worked in a munitions factory throughout WW2 in conditions that few people in our generation could ever comprehend (witnessing the deaths and injuries of many of her fellow workers).

It's for that reason that I *choose* to wear the poppy, as a recognition of a whole generation of people who made extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf in defeating fascism.

It's not a decision I've been hectored into by the right...but I'm also not giving into the equally hectoring tones of some on the left who see poppy wearing a cause for snide tut-tuttery.

asquith said...

Are you going to a ceremony tomorrow? I am going to the one in Leek.

(One of my grandfathers was Polish and had quite a war and peace. The other was too young).

Speedy said...

It's not all about you though, is it? I read the same article and the gentleman is welcome to his opinion, but just because he is a veteran doesn't give him any more wisdom - i think you'll find the majority of veterans do indeed wear their poppy with pride. As it happens, although not strictly speaking a veteran, i've been under fire with the boys from the mersey and the thames and the tyne for a cause i suspect you'd love, but i don't suppose my opinion is worth any more than anyone elses...

Plenty of people did sacrifice their lives for "a greater cause" - be it against fascism, for their family or just their mates. It's not warmongering to wear one, but it is about acknowledging the sacrifice they made - that actually does go beyond canvassing on dodgy housing estates or sitting on your arse in front of a computer being a keyboard warrior. It's not about being pro-establishment, just because they all wear it. Maybe if the prevailing culture (right on, blah) is agin it, maybe it even takes balls.

Phil said...

Robert - I've never done white poppies. Each to their own, but I bristle at lefty identity politics - and I see the white poppy being a component of that.

Phil said...

No Speedy, it's not about being pro-establishment. I merely made the observation that poppy conformity is expected by the establishment, and that normal people are not particularly interested in so-called poppy wars.

Gary Elsby said...

You do know that without me telling you, that you are completely wrong regarding this issue.
Those bright young things that came through the Blair early years gestured, as they've never gestured before (or since),about white poppies being more moral than a red one.
Whatever you say my dear.
originally introduced to find work for severely disabled veterans of WW1, it now serves to fund many activities for service personnel currently disadvantaged.
This is a none argument Phil and best dropped.
A mark of respect to remember some of the worst acts of man's inhumanity to man is best remembered in a positive light without a personal battle.