Friday, 11 November 2011

Lest we forget...(but what happened to the dignity?)

I bought myself another poppy at York Railway Station today. The one on my coat had become a bit battered and scruffy, so I handed my pound over to the friendly old timer standing by the British Legion stand and took my new paper and plastic flower, complete with a handy pin through the leaf.

I buy a poppy every year as a matter of course. I have since I was old enough and ugly enough to pay for them. I never thought of it as anything more than just a token of my remembrance and appreciation for the thousands of people who gave their lives in the two World Wars so that we could enjoy the freedoms we take for granted today. Armistice Day itself, the 11th day of the 11th month, was always marked with a quiet and dignified minute or two of silence and wreath laying by Heads of State at the Cenotaph. Remembrance Sunday was always about quiet and dignified ceremonies in towns and villages around the country, where wreaths were laid to remember the war dead, attended by the British Legion, Scouts, Guides, Army Cadets, Air Training Corps and son on. Remembrance and appreciation with dignity. The British way.

This year, I have started to have serious doubts about poppy-wearing for the first time in my life, and it saddens me. When I see what has happened in the media over the last few weeks, I wonder what the poppy has come to symbolise in the eyes of many people, and wonder what motivates people to wear them or display them nowadays.

For me there are two issues at play now. First is the politicisation of the poppy. Somehow the issue of remembrance has become conflated with supporting the troops, which is also conflated with supporting the current conflicts our troops are involved in. For some people, both in a pro and anti sense, wearing a poppy means you are doing all three. People who see me wearing my poppy may assume I agree with the the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even though I don't. I might be a supporter of the men and women in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, mainly because my father served in the Royal Signals for 22 years and my Grandpa was in the Royal Navy during WW2, but I don't agree with the political motives behind the invasion of Iraq or the continued occupation of Afghanistan. Of course, in today's climate of immediate false dichotomy, that makes me a supporter of the Taliban. If we're going to these ridiculous lengths, one could say that wearing poppies means you support the act of opium poppy growing in rural Afghanistan...but that would be churlish.

The other issue is the one of cosmetic grief. Everyone seems desperate to be seen to care about stuff these days. We have to ostentatiously display our feelings, and if you don't do this, you don't care. There's that false dichotomy again. I've noticed some troubling postings on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook about various issues, not just poppy-wearing. There are the things like: If you care about sick children and animals, like this! 97% of you won't! The implication being that if you don't like the post, you want all baby ducks to die of cancer. Give me a break.

And then you've got the unedifying spectacle of celebrities, politicians and footballers all elbowing their way into the screenshot to show off their poppies. The X-Factor judges and contestants all wore blinged-up sparkly poppies last weekend. There was a Tory MP on BBC's Question Time last night with the biggest poppy I've ever seen. And then there's the whole England football saga, where there have been more and more hysterical calls for FIFA to allow the England players to wear a shirt with an embroidered poppy on it. FIFA see it as a political symbol (there's that conflation again, can you blame them for seeing it like this?), so refused permission initially, but the histrionics got to such a level that FIFA eventually allowed England to wear armbands with poppies on. They even had a silent moment at the training session today and it was broadcast live. Quite bizarre, really. There have been loads of matches around this time in the last 90 years, but there was never such a hullabaloo made demanding that the players wear poppies to show they care.

Now I feel that if I don't wear one, I will be assumed to be some kind of uncaring, liberal pacifist. I could be two of those, I suppose, but I don't like people making such assumptions. Surely we all have the choice to wear one or not.

So this all leaves me wondering one thing: Where did the quiet dignity go?

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