The poppies get bigger and earlier every year.
- Lapel louts
The wearing of plastic red poppies in late autumn to commemorate those fallen in the world wars used only to be contentious for Irish nationalists and British pacifists. In Ulster, it has always proved a divisive issue.
To Unionists, poppies are a symbol of pride, evocative of the 36th Ulster Division’s sacrifice on the fields of the Somme in the First World War, and the Province’s steadfast loyalty in the Second – in contrast to the Free State’s silent sulking. In the eyes of many nationalists, poppies are considered too British a symbol – and at worst an apologia for imperialism and warmongering. On the British mainland, pacifists who want to commemorate the needlessly slaughtered dead have traditionally borne a white poppy instead.
Yet in recent years, even red poppy aficionados have become confused and antagonised. This is because the protocol system seems to have broken down. Wearing a plain, red poppy in the first two weeks of November no longer suffices. Some have taken to wearing gigantic cotton poppies with an imposing black centre. Others have been seen sporting an elaborate montage of plastic poppies in a kind of floral arrangement motif. Worse, like Christmas, Remembrance Sunday is anticipated ever earlier. Our prime minister Tony Blair has had a poppy on his lapel since the middle of last week. Every year now there is an unspoken competition over who can be seen wearing their poppy first.
That the prime minister did so is no surprise. Unfortunately, plastic red poppies are rather suited to this post-Diana, New Labour age of conspicuous emoting and ostentatious empathising. Characters who sport enormous poppies in October seem no different from other lapel louts, the types who sport ribbons ‘raising awareness’ for a whole gamut of victims and afflictions. This is not to belittle the efforts of people who do invest a whole lot of time and money into seeking to rid the world of diseases, not to mention ensuring old soldiers are cared for in their autumn years. But there is undoubtedly a sizeable proportion of people who do so for their own self-image, to show what caring people they are.
It is a shame that those who died needlessly in wars, and indeed those who sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedoms, should now posthumously find themselves pawns in the early twenty-first century’s compassion wars – where the only casualty is dignity.
- Such a quiet boy
Anyone who has been verbally accosted by white men in white vans – ‘get your fackin ‘air cut, hippy!’ was a refrain directed at me for years – will sympathise with police authorities who were intent on finding out that the Washington sniper emanated from this tribe of hooligans. ‘We were looking for a white van with white people and ended up with a blue car with black people’, says Charles Ramsey, police chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, almost with an air of disappointment.
A white male sniper would have suited many people down to the ground. Cue endless psychologists and columnists, torturing us all with their theories on ‘the crisis of masculinity’. The more indulgent-minded would conclude that the sniper’s actions were ‘a desperate cry for help’. We could all talk about gun control too – and racism, just for good measure. Yet for some reason, none of these issues has materialised – or not to the degree they would have had police caught a white van man. Presumably, because the chief suspect is black and Muslim, the liberal left is too terrified to even talk politics, for fearing of offending someone.
Instead we have been subjected to endless psychological profiling. What turned John Allen Mohammed into a Muslim, and then a killer? What was his relationship with Lee Boyd Malvo like? And then there was the obligatory ‘what the neighbours said’: one recalls Mohammed as ‘a loser’. Another remembers him as a youth: ‘He was very, very quiet.’ In other parts of the world, Movsar Barayev, the leader of the Chechen group that invaded the Moscow theatre, is remembered by neighbours as a quiet and gentle soul, ‘a tender boy’.
Curiously, in both cases, nobody is quoted saying: ‘Come on, man, it was so obvious. This guy had killer nutcase written all over his face from day one.’ But of course, they never do.
- From Norwich to Slough
The BBC 2 television series, The Office, has been a great success. The DVD of the first series sold 80,000 copies in a week, while the second series has enjoyed a viewing audience of almost five million viewers. It is acclaimed by all strata of society, from the opinion pages of the Guardian down to the man in the pub. Much of the applause is deserved. We all recognise the sad ‘wacky’ office types, sigh at the all-too-familiar parochialism of office politics, squirm at management speak and forced attempts at avuncular familiarity.
But what strikes me is how unoriginal it is. The fake documentary format is hardly innovative. Rob Reiner’s legendary mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, was recorded 20 years ago. On the small screen, we saw it in the 1990s with The Larry Sanders Show and the BBC’s own I’m Alan Partridge.
Indeed, The Office‘s famous David Brent is highly derivative of Norwich’s own Partridge. Here we have a sad, petty, vindictive man whose sense of humour is but a source of bewilderment and embarrassment to those around him. His career is on a downward curve; he is stuck in a dreary part of Middle England.
So why the success of this programme? Maybe it reflects that fact that everyone in the UK empathises with this tragic environment because everyone hates their office job too. That’s not very funny at all.
Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).
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