Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Green Fields of France

The Christian think-tank Ekklesia is unafraid to take what it believes to be the right line on any issue even when it is controversial, and that is a virtue. To declare a small personal interest, they supported the March for Free Expression I was involved with last March. They are in the news now because they have suggested people should wear white poppies instead of the more conventional red ones.

A degree of 'political correctness' - behaviour calculated to provide a minimum of offence - may, however, be holding people back from exploring alternatives says [Jonathan] Bartley [director of Ekklesia].

The idea of an alternative white poppy dates back to 1926, just a few years after the red poppy came to be used in Britain. A member of the No More War Movement suggested that the British Legion be asked to imprint 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppies.

This did not happen, so in 1933 the Co-operative Women's Guild produced the first white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day (later called Remembrance Day). The Guild stressed that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the women lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers. The following year the Peace Pledge Union joined in the distribution of the poppies and later took over their annual promotion.
It is interesting to see the phrase "political correctness" used in this way. I think many people would see the white poppy as an example of P.C. - especially if political correctness is defined, more properly in my opinion, as the deliberate manipulation of language and symbols, designed to affect and alter the way people think.

Meanwhile the Pub Philosopher has been keeping track of poppy wearing and comments on Ekklesia's assertion:
For me, the poppy is about showing gratitude to the people who have fought to defend our freedom and our way of life. It is not about glorifying war. Most people, especially former soldiers, know that war is a horrible and messy business. Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to go to war, not for redemption but for survival. I give money and wear my red poppy at this time of year because it is the least I can do to show my appreciation.

I find the assertion that red poppies glorify war insulting and I hope that people send a message to the muddle-headed do-gooders by going out and buying more red poppies.
I hope the Pub Philosopher isn't drinking when he sees that
An 85-year-old woman, whose first husband died in the Second World War, has been ejected from a station for selling poppies.

Though Lillian Rood has been selling poppies at Hainault underground station in Essex each year for the past 27 years, she was ordered to leave last week by a new and "intimidating" station manager.
London Underground has apologised, but the fact that this could have happened is a sign of the times.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I was an army cadet and attended the Remembrance Day Parade every year, with great, and slightly surprising, pride. Then I drifted to the left and by the mid-eighties I had stopped wearing a poppy altogether. I never saw anyone selling white poppies but if I had, I'd probably have bought one.

Ekklesia put their case like this:
Speaking to the BBC and other media outlets, Ekklesia co-directors Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow said that annual occasions of remembrance were a good time to discuss whether war as an instrument of policy really does bring freedom and a more secure world.

“If you believe that those who serve in the armed forces are defending freedom, then freedom to consider alternative perspectives is surely part of what you stand for”, Bartley commented.
I think I'd have gone along with that in 1985.

Then, one day in 1986, I was drinking in a back bar in Glasgow. In this Protestant - sorry, staunchly Protestant - bar, one Catholic man drank regularly. That day he was there, sitting at the bar, crying. I went over and asked what was wrong. He told me he was crying because he had been to see his mother and she had been crying. It was the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and she always wept on the anniversary of that terrible battle.

All three of her brothers had been killed on the same day, but the telegrams had arrived at two week intervals. It had taken a full month for the dreadful truth to be, agonisingly, revealed.

This is such a simple thing, but it took that incident for me to understand it fully, as an adult. Poppies are worn for several reasons. The sales help veterans financially. Making them gives some veterans the pride of earning for themselves even though many are terribly damaged. They are a way of saying "thank you" to people who suffered, not always voluntarily or willingly, in the course of struggles that have left us a free and humane society.

But at the very heart of the thing, poppies are bought and worn as a small gesture of respect, a recognition of loss, a sympathy with grieving. They are not about us and our opinions. There are other ways to express ideas about conflict resolution or pacifism. Poppies are about that man sitting at a bar in Glasgow, crying, and they are about his old mother, who had cried every year for seventy years and would keep crying, every year, until she died.

And they are about her brothers, who must have been little more than teenagers, but were slaughtered in a muddy wasteland in France that had once been green fields and which, after the gunfire faded, would be covered again with grass, and with the frail, spindly, delicate beauty of countless red poppies, moving gently in the breeze.

I bought a poppy in 1986, and I have done so every year since. I buy lots of poppies; I fitted a big one to my car radiator this morning. And much as I like contrarians, I cannot help but feel, deep within me, a contempt for anyone who cannot bring themselves to do the same, and not buy a white poppy as well, as some have suggested. This is not a debate. It is a funeral.

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