Poppy wearing is something I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about over the years.
Time was when you wore a poppy in the week leading up to Remembrance Day. Nowadays poppies start appearing in October and are often worn up to and including November 11th.
When I was in the civil service in the early 1970s one colleague (a man in his early 20s) was asked why he was still wearing a poppy on the 11th – and this at a time when many of the staff were either ex-servicemen or had served in the War in some capacity.
By 2010, it was usual to wear your poppy up to the 11th and for someone to go round the office organizing a minute’s silence at 11 o’clock. This is where I began to felt uneasy – not at the minute’s silence per se, but the feeling that someone had made a decision that you weren’t free to question. Anyone wishing to observe a silence on that day was already free to attend the brief act of remembrance held at County Hall. It was the loss of freedom that bothered me – the sense that we were somehow being conscripted into what had always been personal and voluntary.
My family wore poppies and sometimes went to the Remembrance Day service. After all, my grandfathers and great uncles had all fought in the First World War and my father and uncles had fought in the Second (one uncle had endured a cruel forced march from Italy to Germany as a POW).
Unexpectedly, these increasingly ancient events have become more, not less, poignant and intense over time. For me it’s summed up in this photograph of two of my great uncles – one became a gentle old man who I knew and loved; the other died of wounds, aged 25, and is buried in a military cemetery in Belgium. It was only as I became older that I really understood the implications of losing your life at that age – of never having had the opportunity to marry, settle down, have children and grandchildren; of not growing old with your brothers, your sisters and your friends; of not having a lifetime of shared experiences and memories.
So why the ambivalence? I think it comes from a visceral revulsion at being told who to remember, what to remember, why to remember or how to remember. Above all I don’t want to be told that remembrance is all about “demonstrating support for armed forces” ( and by implication the politicians who send them to war). I don’t want to be told that the mere act of putting on a uniform makes someone a hero. And I don’t want to be told that asking questions is in somehow disrespectful to the memory of those who fought for our freedom in two world wars (it’s probably one of the most respectful things you can do).
I shall remember this year. I shall remember every time I see a village war memorial. I shall remember every time see a sepia photograph of bright-eyed, khaki-clad young men. I shall remember the widows and the fatherless. I shall remember those who never wore a uniform or carried a gun, but who lost and continue to lose their lives, their homes or their countries. And I shall remember them, not on terms dictated by Whitehall or Downing Street, but on my own terms.