I remember first wearing a poppy on my school uniform, aged around six. I didn’t know why. Vague recollection tells me we had assemblies and church services to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the war – which war, how many wars there were, or what war even was, I didn’t know. Mine was a Church of England school, and shortly after the poppy section of the year was done, we went on to learning the Christmas story and making shoeboxes for children in Africa – where is Africa? Why do children in Africa need boxes? I didn’t know this, either. The poppy phase was just that, a phase in the year that we remembered all the men who died wearing green for our country. The other eleven months of the year I didn’t think about them at all. Making sure the poppy didn’t fall off my jumper (which it always did), was of greater concern to me than remembering. I didn’t know how to remember people I didn’t know, when World War I seemed about as long ago to me as the birth of Jesus Christ or the existence of the dinosaurs. The concepts of remembering past my own experiences, and of mourning, were alien to me.
Fast forward to 2019, and November is upon us. Poppies are absolutely everywhere, still, and as Remembrance Sunday comes around, we are told that it is still important to remember. It is important to remember, but the act of remembering, in itself, is good enough.
Indeed, it is not simply remembering, but the purpose of this remembrance, which is important. Supposedly, to revisit catastrophic death and bloodshed serves to ensure another war does not take place. Does it have another purpose? To routinely remember tragedy is to prevent another, as the #NeverForget hashtag that resurfaces every year on 9/11 suggests, or the yearly London dedications to the recent Grenfell Tower fire. Yet it seems our enforced, belligerent annual remembrance of World War I has taught us little.
Since 1918, there has been another world war, and throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the British governments have found yet more ways to kill more British soldiers and foreign civilians. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both wore poppies, but this symbol of remembrance aided, perhaps, their reasoning for yet more murder. The poppy has become a symbol not just of remembrance but of political nationalism. To enforce on schoolchildren, and on the general public, the idea that to criticise the poppy is to disrespect the blood shed by frightened young men in the trenches is a nod to the British empiricism we should be leaving behind. The poppy, when used in this way, is a token of our sentimentally obsessive attitude to war and a glorification of its aftermaths.
Just the other day, I was on the tube opposite a poppy-wearing man. He spotted a rogue, crushed poppy on the carriage floor, and leant down to pick it up, straightening out its paper petals before turning in his seat to place the poppy in the window of the train. (Now the train remembers the war too, it seems. That train is doing its part for British identity.) Minutes later, a man came down the train asking for change, and this man, this man who so carefully un-wrinkled the petals of a fake poppy on the floor, buried his head in his Evening Standard. I stared at him in disbelief, and he caught my eye, before further inserting his greying head into the newspaper. His little performance with the poppy was an attempt to set an example to me, or to the rest of us on that train without poppies on our jackets. Arrogant about his little paper flower, he shut himself off to a present day tragedy within an instant.
In a country where the cut-throat Right is winning, where people who have worked and contributed to this country for years of their lives are being deported, and our country is the second biggest manufacturer of arms in the world, the poppy doesn’t give us anything. It doesn’t give us anything. Ask huffy poppy-wearers about our government’s love of war – the conflict in Yemen for which we provided weapons, or the Iraq war, or the Faulklands war, or in fact any of the repeated murder of people by the British government in the past hundred years – they’ll bury their heads before you. The poppy was created as an emblem for the people who didn’t deserve to die for anyone, not your country or mine, and has turned into a pathetic excuse for nationalistic ignorance.
To add into this Great British fever dream, there are different colours of poppy, such as the pacifist white poppy, the purple poppy remembering animals, and – heaven forbid! – the rainbow poppy for LGBTQ remembrance. Die-hard red poppy wearers are upset about non-red poppies because poppies, apparently, represent bloodshed. (I thought they resembled poppies, from the poppy fields of France.) On Strictly Come Dancing, Saffron and AJ, the youngest couple competing, didn’t wear poppies in last week’s show. They received such vile responses from viewers that this week, the BBC marched them to Waterloo station to cheerfully sell poppies to commuters. All better now!
The poppy has come to represent everything awful about us. As my friend Ndumiso wrote on Twitter this week, ‘[…] Since we have to wear them out of performative mourning […], let them be whatever colour. The underlying ethics don’t change with the colour of the poppy. And fundamentally, what is at stake with poppy gate is that the very notion of broadening remembrance totems to better represent the bodies that died for “us”, one must come to terms with and accept that “others” died for “our” current socio-political positioning […]. It also forces “white consciousness”, white bodies, to really engage with the afterlives of “othered” bodies post “global” war(s). i.e Alan Turing being chemically castrated by the very lives he saved, or the Windrush generation being booted out of a country they helped rebuild.’
Ndumiso is right. The reason many defend the red poppy over its other forms so vehemently is a protection of supposedly “British” values over “other values”, like valuing the LGBTQ+ community, or pacifism. There isn’t a poppy in the world that could satisfy them other than the bloody poppy. It seems difficult to admit, but undeniably true, that our reverence of the poppy, and the hideous war it represents, gives it a powerful place in our country’s identity; we will never move on from the hideousness of our past while we cherish it. It’s time to do away with ritualistic mourning, and time to take power away from the poppy.