I’ve been wondering whether to buy a poppy. Thing is that I’ve been put off, particularly over the last few years.
One is that the whole ‘remembrance’ thing seems to focus far too much on the church and state and the military. No remembrance for the non-religious at the Cenotaph for example; no criticism of the whole concept of the nation state and how it’s got millions of people killed for very poor reasons. And where are all the memorials to civilians? It might seem odd that I should think that the military are too involved in remembrance – we’re remembering soldiers after all aren’t we? Well, sort of.
Thing is that most of the people who we should be remembering who were in the forces were conscripted or volunteered in times of national emergency for all kinds of reasons. Very few of them ‘gave’ their lives; most of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky buggers for the most part, victims. It pisses me off every time I see ‘to the Glorious Dead’ on war memorials because there’s nothing glorious about having pieces of your body blown off and bleeding to death in a hole in the ground having been sent there by the government – and even heroic sacrifice is too close to comfort to downright stupidity. And can anyone clearly explain to me the cause that was worth dying for in World War 1? Maybe if you were a direct victim of German expansionism you’d think differently I guess, but for most the cause that was being fought for is obscure at best. And as for the cause(s) being fought for in Iraq or Afghanistan, well...pick the bones out of that for me if you can.
On the face of it World War Two seems different – evil virulent racism, death camps, totalitarianism and the rest. Freedom, survival - all that stuff worth fighting for. I reckon the answer is ‘sort of’.
I recently read Winston Churchill’s history of WWII. A pretty good read I have to say and pretty gripping around the Battle of Britain etc (though that card is rather overplayed as it’s a story about not getting beaten – though let’s admit that not getting beaten is a kind of victory...) But there’s no reference to the Holocaust or extermination camps in any of it. There’s a lot more stuff about holding on to the Empire – a lot more old fashioned power politics than any moral crusade against Nazism. As it goes I think our Winston was one of those who really did recognise the Nazis for what they were and there was certainly a lot of principles flying around – the main one seems to be the attitude that ‘we’re not going to have these bloody idiots in uniform coming in here and ordering us about’ – and that’s good enough for me. But even national survival is not ‘glorious’. I buy into a lot of the Battle of Britain stuff, but in the end it was a bunch of blokes barely out of their teens (and sometime still in them) zipping about the sky firing lumps of hot metal and explosive into each other – horrible and painful and very dangerous indeed as well as not glamorous at all.
So leaving aside the state sponsored flag stuff, what are we left with? Thing is I’m really uncomfortable with the whole glorification of ‘service’ and the whole ‘our heroes’ thing. Yes, there are heroic deeds and occasionally heroic people (the ones that you’ll have heard of will generally be the peaceful ones though – am I right?). But surely most soldiers are just some lad from Barnsley who needed a job since British industry was closed down. No-one wants him to come home in a box, least of all him, but he does it for pay and perhaps because of a sense of patriotism that is at least partly misplaced. We should respect him for turning up and doing a dangerous job – but armies are bad things, a necessary evil, a drain on resources that should be feeding and educating people, not the highest calling in the land. We don’t have special days to celebrate our gallant bin collectors or old folks bottom wipers - and perhaps we should, as without them a lot of people would be dying a lot earlier and in a lot more discomfort.
Another troubling thing is that there’s been a kind of moral enforcement of wearing poppies in the media (calls for newsreaders to be sacked for not wearing poppies in newspapers, that kind of thing) and I don’t want it to start spilling on to the street. But apart from the public showing of something that I think is very close to nationalism and its cuddly cousin patriotism (there’s another question...) what is poppy wearing for?
Well, it raises money. Making a debit card payment would be more efficient of course but people do like something in return don’t they? When I were a lad it seemed clear that the money was being raised to look after old soldiers (not civilians I note again – being blown up without a gun in your hand isn’t as worthy it seems...) - but the WWI generation are gone and the WWII generation won’t be here long. So the money is for soldiers injured in more recent wars? Let me make this clear – I think that anyone who is injured mentally or physically should be properly looked after, preferably paid for out of public taxation. But do we need weeks of work and planning and selling and events and all the rest to do this? The further we get away from the original reasons for poppy day the more fuss is being made and surely that can’t be right? Do we need moral compass the Sun telling people to be quiet at 11am when most of the actual war generation think it’s a load of nonsense that they can’t be bothered with? The war generation weren’t sentimental they just bloody put up wi’ it - and I really do think they deserve thanks for that. I also think that we should respect their desire to not become a nation obsessed with its own second hand moral worth, grabbing a piece of their action, blubbing publicly about things we don’t understand.
So I think that we should remember those that died in wars. But not just the soldiers; and not through a morally enforced badge that too often places the buyer at the centre of the meaning, that makes the wearer feel warm inside. Let’s cut the crap - Look after those injured in wars, remember the shame and squalor of it and less of the ‘glory’ - and it is not wrong to not wear a poppy!
There’s a coda to this.
I was on a street corner in Middleton and there was an elderly man selling poppies from a tray outside Sainsbury’s. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t old enough to be a WWII vet but may have been old enough for National Service. It was cold and windy and wet and he was being really nice with everyone. I thought ‘if he can stand there in the cold and wind and rain for hours selling poppies because it means that much to him I can spare a quid’ – so I bought a poppy and felt warm inside. He seemed so grateful. He asked if I wanted a pin and I said no, that was fine, thanks. I knew I wasn’t going to wear it. I put the poppy in the window in the car. It probably fell to the floor and got trodden on. I won’t be searching for it...
I respect people who turn up and do stuff. ‘Good on yer mate’ I thought, however much I might disagree with him – and even if he was never in the forces or sorted paperclips in Aldershot.
But it is not wrong to not wear a poppy - and the more moral pressure applied the more I will resist!