A little old man sits on a metal fold-out chair in the station. He’s got a collection pot and a box of poppies. He amiably shakes his wares at you as you pass him, busy to get to work. You turn and smile at the dear lad and take out your headphones: Of course, mate. Here’s a pound. Have a nice day. And you take a poppy and put it on your lapel as you make for the train.
Down on the platform the air is thick with fumes and early morning fugue. Someone catches your eye. A man in his late twenties. He’s got your jacket on, hasn’t he? You move a carriage door closer to inspect. He’s got a poppy on, too. That’s ni… Wait. He’s got two poppies on? Is that allowed? The double-poppied man turns and sees you looking. He smiles until he realises you’re only wearing one. What’s the matter, he says to you with his eyes, don’t you care about Our Brave Boys?
You look down at your lapel, the single paper flower, pinned, mocking. Maybe you don’t like them as much as that other guy. Are you disrespecting the fallen with your single token of commemoration? You look back up and see that Mr. Double-Poppy is still staring at you, only now he has popped another two onto his jacket, the four poppies coalescing into a larger Transformer poppy. You start to sweat. You tried to remember the fallen… but you’ve not remembered them enough. You’d better go home and think about what you’ve done.
The red poppy is an instantly recognisable symbol of remembrance for British armed forces who have lost their lives fighting for the safety and freedom of their country. Only it’s sorta not, though, is it, especially not now, the year of our lord two-thousand-and-seventeen, the year of Poppy One-upmanship.
It is no longer enough to “remember them”, you must remember them in the right way, you must remember them more than the person next to you, as though the cumulative acts of remembrance are a war they are waging against political correctness and the crumbling of our dear, dear country’s legacy into the English Channel. “LOOK HOW MANY TIMES I’VE REMEMBERED!” they say. “I HAVE REMEMBERED SO MUCH – MEMORIES I AM MANIFESTLY DENIED BY THE NANNY STATE, AS THOUGH THEY WANT TO REACH INTO MY HEAD AND PLUCK THEM OUT – THAT I AM MAKING UP FOR THOSE WHO HAVE FORGOTTEN.”
The irony in all of this is, of course, the complete loss of meaning of the symbol. Football writer @Red_UnderTheBed wrote a great #thread of Tweets on the subject and how its semiotics have been warped.
There’s no better way to forget something than to commemorate it. Taking something real and turning it into myth. To forget the ignominy of war, you tell yourself that the war was glorious and just and true. That it was darkly beautiful, even; its dried battlefields a smoky vista of majestic selflessness unhindered by knotty politics and largely-avertible tragedy.
“British patriotism is illegal now,” someone will say from their bar stool. They will fix you with their gaze and turn to you with their flat pint. “They won’t let you paint a poppy onto a child’s face anymore, in case people find it offensive.” Soon you will see him sat in the corner, his own face messily painted into an approximation of a red flower. “I have…” he says, slumping into his seat. “Remembered ‘em.”
It’s obviously not that the poppy itself is offensive. For me personally, I’m not offended by the intention of the campaign – people in the Armed Forces have died or have been severely injured and the money raised goes towards helping them and their families – but the use of a little paper flower as a conduit for talking about (or displaying) their larger, impotent grievances is a load of shite.
The us-versus-them mentality of Brexit has turned into a giant pile-on and poppies have turned into Scouting badges where he (or she!) who has the most is winning a war only they know is happening. One poppy barely gets you entry, two gets you a cup of tea at the door. Three or four and you’re allowed into the inner circle, with its triangle sandwiches and Churchill biographies. If you get five you’re in the Poppy Club with all the perks that brings: the warming strength of sovereignty, the pride of a hundred lions, and a red teapot that says “Keep Calm and Remember Them”.
Each patriot is clambering to show their patriotism is larger, more bold, more fervent than the next fellow’s. In this world, it is remember or be forgotten.
Look how much he bloody remembers them, the Abominable Poppyman of the Midlands.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
When I put on this beekeeping suit adorned with hundreds of poppies, We will remember them.
As overt displays of impotent rage go, covering every part of your body in poppies is not the worst, but the poppy is no longer a plea to remember them so much as an appeal to acknowledge me. And you don’t really want to go, “OK, let’s throw to the experts, here” but you never see any actual war veterans screaming at cricketers for not affixing a poppy to their helmets. They are rarely seen forming a poppy flashmob in Birmingham or a poppy mosaic at a football stadium. More war poetry has said that war is hell than war is something you better fucking remember me for this, you ungrateful bastards. The veterans’ cause is largely taken up by people in tan cargo trousers and navy polo shirts, men with Andy McNab in their ears and England in their hearts, men who spend their spare time writing to the FA about respect and remembrance and swapping the red cards of referees for large, flat poppies.
For many, the poppy is no longer just a symbol of the Fallen, rather it is a badge to show the wearer is Still Standing. Standing up against what? Well, I’m sure they’ll let us know.
(Main image: Rex)