Wearing your heart on your lapel

As the remembrance poppy is emptied of meaning, phoney protests against it blossom.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown launched her own anti-poppy appeal in the London Evening Standard (1). ‘How can I wear this blood-red symbol honouring fighters when this very week Allied forces are launching an overwhelming attack on Fallujah?’, she asked.

Which blood-red symbol is she talking about? There is little sign of any militaristic honouring of fighters in the poppy adverts on the London Tube. ‘Your best way to say thank you’ reads the heading, over a grinning girl offering her poppy with outstretched arm. Another shows a young, smiling Asian woman, pinching poppy between thumb and forefinger.

Stuart Gendall from the Royal British Legion said that the campaign was ‘trying to reflect the times, trying to involve people’. The Legion is promoting the poppy as a ‘very personal gesture’, to remember the casualties of conflict – rather than as a badge of support for British soldiers in Iraq or anywhere else. ‘It’s a very individual thing’, said Ann-Mari Burt, public relations officer at the Legion. ‘It’s a way of saying thank you, whether or not you agree with what they were fighting for. It’s not political.’

In establishment circles, among MPs, broadcasters and bankers, wearing the poppy is still de rigueur. Some see this as solemn, honouring Britain’s war dead. But for most it’s just the done thing. ‘Everyone wears one for TV. It’s just a paper poppy’, a broadcasting assistant told the commentator Mary Kenny, who as an Irish Catholic objected to the Unionist connotations that the symbol has in Ireland (2). Julian, a 41-year-old lawyer, tells me that he sees the poppy as ‘humanistic rather than patriotic. I’m not glorifying war by wearing it’.

Inasmuch as it means anything in Britain today, the poppy is perhaps akin to the ribbons for AIDS, breast cancer or autism, which function as emblems of their wearers’ emotional sensibilities. The poppy appeal uses the same terms as AIDS campaigns – one of the aims of the 2003 appeal was to ‘help boost awareness’ (3). The slogan ‘Your best way to say thank you’ evokes a personal demonstration of emotion.

It was back in 1921 that the poppy was taken up as a symbol to remember the First World War of 1914-1918; the poppy was the first plant to spring up on the muddy battlefields of France, immortalised in the poem by Colonel John McCrae: ‘In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.’

The reason that First World War remembrance can be adapted for today is because it was never that tub-thumping in the first place. After all, it is a poppy we pin on our lapels – a neutral symbol of loss and regeneration, rather than a martial or patriotic insignia. The two-minutes’ silence, instituted in 1919, is a moment of private reflection as well as public ceremonial. Meanwhile, the plain, blank form of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph memorial in London’s Whitehall does little to glorify war.

The conflict buried the nineteenth century’s sure beliefs in King and Country. The young war poet Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and right to die for your country). The war was followed by a period of crisis, where the old establishment’s principles fell apart. Rather than sing marshal songs, many in Britain just wanted to try to forget the trauma. The Royal British Legion was formed in this context, in 1921 – a charity seeking to tend the wounds of war, rather than celebrate it. And understandably so. Owen was right: there was little sweet or right about the senseless battle in which young men were sent to ‘die as cattle’.

It’s no surprise that the British Legion is making an effort to update its poppy appeal for today. The First World War is another country now, in every respect. In his history of the twentieth century, the historian Eric Hobsbawm recalls being asked by a student whether the term ‘Second World War’ implied that there had been a First (4). An American literature professor despaired after an essay by one of his bright Stanford students discussed ‘how traumatic it was for [Virginia] Woolf to see the peaceful English countryside devastated by trench warfare during the First World War’ (5).

We find it difficult to relate to those men who threw themselves over the top for Britain. A recent London Times survey found that only one in five twentysomethings would take up arms for their country if called to do so, and 57 per cent would fight only if they agreed with the reasons for the conflict (6). At a time when the deaths of three Black Watch soldiers in Iraq sparks a national furore, and America is up in arms about the (wholly imaginary) possibility of a draft, what are we to make of the some 800,000 British conscripts who perished in muddy trenches?

Although always ambivalent, there used to be more politics in the poppy appeal. Stuart Gendall says that in the past the Legion sometimes used ‘Churchillian statements’. The 1982 appeal rode off the Falklands Factor that emerged in response to Thatcher’s war with Argentina in the south Atlantic, selling a million more poppies than in the previous year. There is nothing resembling the Falklands Factor over Iraq, which the Legion could play off today. One British Legion representative recalls a campaign from the late 1980s, which proposed that were it not for the war dead, Britain would be under German rule. Another 1980s advertising slogan was the belligerent ‘Give a damn, give a pound’.

In the late 1990s, the poppy appeal seemed to lurch between the traditional and the modern, uncertain about how it should be pitched. In 1999, there was the solemn slogan ‘Forever in their Debt’, but this was followed up in 2000 with the birthday greeting-card ‘Forget-me-not’ and ‘Always & Forever’. In 2001 there was a return to the traditional, with ‘Greater Love Hath No Man Than This’ – then 2002 tried both, with the familiar ‘We shall neither fail nor falter; we shall not weaken or tire’, and the personal appeal, ‘Please Remember My Daddy’; 2003 settled on ‘Your way to say thank you’, which seems to have stuck.

It’s because the poppy is an ambivalent symbol that it can now be presented as ‘Your best way to say thank you’. It is because the meaning of the minutes’ silence was left open, that it can be adapted to today’s concerns. Tony, a 41-year-old jeweller, told me that in the minutes’ silence he thinks ‘about lots of things – such as my own losses, a brother who died recently’.

Yet at the very time when the poppy means less politically, it is coming under fire. By attacking the poppy, people like Alibhai-Brown are launching themselves at a paper tiger. The poppy today isn’t about ‘honouring fighters’. Attempting to prove yourself by battling with the ghosts of the past is a mock brand of radicalism. Alibhai-Brown’s biggest concern seems to be that the poppy doesn’t cater for her personal emotions. ‘How can this flower convey my anger over this illegal war and the anguish of ordinary Iraqis whose lives are seen as worthless by Blair and Bush?’, she writes. Perhaps she should make her own ribbon to express her anguish.

Whatever its meaning, at least the poppy appeal does some good helping ex-servicemen in need. I don’t wear one, but it is arguably no worse to pin on a poppy than it is to make a self-satisfied show of throwing it away.

(1) Evening Standard, 9 November 2004

(2) The Times, 8 November 2004

(3) Natasha Kaplinsky launches 2003 Poppy Appeal – Your Way to Say Thank You , 23 October 2004

(4) Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm, Abacus, 1995

(5) Our First View of the End of the World, 5 November 2004

(6) Generation whatever, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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