Thursday, 5 November 2015

DON'T wear your poppy with 'pride'.

It's coming to the time of year when there is a myriad of Social Media posts about how we should all be wearing our poppy 'with pride'. Some of that, of course, is being driven by shady (and more blatant) far-right extremist groups, trying to piggy-back onto the whole thing in order to increase their social media reach and lay the foundations for more overt extreme nationalist sentiments. Britain First (and their various alternatively-titled manifestations) are the most obvious example of a group who have been doing this successfully for a few years now, but they are not the only ones by any means. Some have gone so far as to sell their own poppies (not even supporting the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, which is actually a big part of the point of the poppy adornment itself), with their own additional 'patriotic' slogans.

With the Oldham West and Royton by-election coming up, UKIP have launched into a full-scale campaign of supposed 'patriotism', specifically against Jeremy Corbyn (partly related to rumours about his potential non-poppy-wearing, as well as stuff about him not singing the anthem, being a republican, and so on)), and don't for a second think that they don't know exactly what they are doing in that. I've posted before here about the dangers of the language that has been used about refugees, and what we need to learn from history such things. This kind of 'patriotic' language is really no different, and no less dangerous. As author Michael Rosen very wisely wrote:

"I sometimes fear that people might think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you...It doesn't walk in saying, "Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

This is the very grave danger that we all need to be aware about with that kind of 'patriotism', and trying to appeal on an emotive level to feelings of 'national pride'. And there's that word again - 'pride'. Right wing groups are trying to tie the poppy as a symbol up with 'patriotism' and 'national pride', as if it were a symbol of celebration for our great military victories as a country. It is not. It never has been, and it was never intended to be.

The use of the poppy comes from this famous poem, of course:

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.

Now of course you might suggest that the final verse could be suggested as having some kind of 'patriotic' edge in terms of carrying on the fight, but the tone of the poem is very obviously about remembrance - about never forgetting the sacrifices made by the fallen, and not letting their deaths be in vain. And that is what the poppy really represents, in my opinion - not the glory of war, nor the glory of a country, but remembrance of the sacrifices that have been made in war (and not just the one war now, obviously), and of course remembrance of the sacrifices still being made in war today.

These right wing groups are trying to hijack that (partly on the basis of a very tiny minority group who have similarly misinterpreted the whole thing, and objected to the symbol - any such group is also completely missing the point, in my opinion) into some kind of almost infantile 'ain't Britain brilliant' thing, lurching as far as they can beyond mere nationalism and into xenophobia (often aimed, of course, at Muslims, conveniently ignoring the fact that many thousands of Muslims also lost their lives fighting for Britain in the Great War). They are trying to play with the emotions of those who quite rightly want to remember those who sacrificed their lives to make them feel that those soldiers doing so was something 'glorious' done to defend against 'the other'. In other words, it's just another attempt by them to try to subtly persuade people that 'the other' is something to be feared and hated - that 'foreigners' (especially Muslims) are both 'dangerous' and inherently 'anti-British', and that the poppy is somehow a symbol of that 'anti-foreign-ness'. Nothing more than another manipulative ruse, of course, but one that is seemingly being missed by many, including in the media.

We need not only to defeat the ideas of such people, but to understand what they are trying to do in terms of the way they are trying to manipulate people into supporting their hateful agenda. They are actually trying to make people feel guilty and 'un-British', not only for not wearing a poppy, if that is what they choose to do, but even also for not treating the poppy as a symbol of nationalistic pride and the 'patriotic superiority' of the UK over other nations. We shouldn't be fooled by this. It is not some benign sentiment of support for 'our boys' that they are really expressing - far from it.

Of course, there are some (and Jeremy Corbyn has been speculating as one who might) who choose to wear a white poppy rather than a red one. The justification for this is related to the idea of supporting 'peace not war', and the like, on the basis of seeing the red poppy as being some kind of almost 'pro-war' symbol. Personally I think that somewhat misses the point of the red poppy - if you think that commemorating those who have lost their lives is a 'glorification' of war itself in any way, then I don't think you're really thinking hard enough about it. That's up to them, though - the main issue is in the act of remembrance itself, not in simple having the right symbol pinned to your coat.

Remembrance commemorations, and their associated poppy, are not about 'celebrating our achievements in war'. They are not about 'celebrating our wonderful nation'. They are not about 'patriotism' or 'nationalism' at all. They are about remembering those who sacrificed - those who lost their lives in war. They are about the opposite of 'glorification' - they serve as a reminder about the horrors of war, and exactly why we should try to avoid war from happening. How can a person have 'pride' in remembering people who have died on the battlefield? The very idea has horrific implications.

To digress slightly into something very personal for a moment, as a young lad (I guess about 8 or 9) I was taken (as part of a family holiday) to Ypres. I wandered around preserved trenches in the area, stood at the Menin Gate as the Last Post was sounded, visited war cemeteries and visited museums in the area. It made a massive impression on me, and one that is still with me today - indeed there are some pictures I saw then that still remain etched into my brain, though I haven't seen them since. It was a large part of prompting a life-long interest for me in history, and the Great War in particular. The enormity of what happened then, and what happened just a few years later in the Second War, are things that I have spent a great deal of time contemplating, and the sacrifice of those who lost their lives is something that hangs over all of that like a shroud, and I'm sure dictates my own wider attitudes to modern warfare and those who are doing their duty today. While I do not always agree with the actions of politicians in sending soldiers to into combat, I could not be more supportive of those who put their lives on the line every day - that's about humanity, though, not about narrow, nationalistic 'pride'. I'm certainly not 'proud' that in the modern world we are still having to send human beings out to risk their lives, and take the lives of others - that fact is not something 'glorious' at all.

Personally, I do usually wear a poppy at this time of year. The only time I do not, and the only reason I ever do not, is if I happen to simply not have been somewhere where they have been on sale (it happens very occasionally - I do have one this year, though). I will not be one of those people who carefully keeps a poppy stored away, or buys some kind of non-British Legion everlasting badge to show how 'proud' I am. Part of the pint of the poppy is to contribute to the appeal, so I make sure that when I wear one that is what I have done. In wearing one, and in considering what I am doing and why, I certainly do not wear it 'with pride'. Far from it - I wear it with remembrance, with reverence, with reflection. I wear it with sorrow and with sadness for the great losses that war has brought to so many people, families and communities. I wear it in mourning, to remind myself that people have given their lives, and are still risking and giving their lives, to do their duty for their (and my) country. I wear it in mourning for the great waste of humanity that war brings. That is what I think it should really be all about.

Above is one example of poetry from the first world war, and I will give you another - 'Futility' by Wilfred Owen. Though the symbolic poppy is quite rightly no longer about just that one war, that is where it originated, and is still very relevant in considering exactly what wearing a poppy should be all about. 

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

That is what we are really talking about when we remember those who lost their lives in war (all war) - not the 'glory' of it, but the sheer, numbing pain of those who endure such losses, and the sheer waste of human life. If anybody can feel 'pride' in that remembrance in any way, then I think they really have to take a long, hard look at themselves and what they are thinking. There is nothing whatsoever there to be 'proud' about.

Wear a poppy, by all means - it's a very good thing to do, of course. Wear it with reflection. Wear it with respect. Wear it with remembrance. Wear it with reverence. Wear it with sorrow. Wear it with sadness. Wear it to show your support for all those human beings who lost their lives, and for those human beings who continue to risk their lives. But don't wear it with 'pride' - that's really not what it's about at all.

In my opinion, if anybody wears their poppy 'with pride', then they are simply doing it wrong.


  1. We must remember the Great War (WW1) was the war to end all wars. That's what the white poppy stands for.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Excellent blog.

    I am dismayed in equal measure by both halves of the Glasgow football divide at this time of year. A significant but limited number of Celtic fans are vehemently opposed to the poppy, displaying 'no blood stained poppy on my shirt' banners. The majority of Rangers fans are so pro-poppy they are basically shoving it in peoples faces. Both have the same, wrong, idea about the poppy, they both believe it celebrates the military.