A Scottish Fireman laments…
As the annual poppy debate reaches its inevitable crescendo, only to recede for another short year, I read various, diverse accounts explaining who is right, who is wrong, what causes offence, why one commemoration is exclusive and so on, almost as if the very act of remembrance is a competition of some kind.
Every year, the same debate is regurgitated, only the arrangement of the wording seeming to differ. Every year I feel vindicated in not wearing a poppy. I should point out that I had already given up doing so, prior to relocating to Belfast some years ago.
Growing up in the quiet countryside of Scotland, the Troubles were something I lived via the 6 o’clock news. Neither I nor my friends could fathom the blind hatred we saw based on perceived religion. The whys and wherefores were not covered in history at school. I attended a Protestant church (more through duress than desire) each Sunday and some of my classmates went to the Catholic one at the opposite end of the village. That was as far as our reference to religion or experience of segregation went, for which I suppose, we should all be thankful.
At this time, I and most of my friends were among other things, members of the Boys’ Brigade, more for the opportunity to get a game of football each Saturday than anything else however, given the organisation’s links with the church, we attended a number of parades during the year. One of these was the annual service of remembrance at the village war memorial. We marched alongside the Scouts, Guides, church members and others, stood solemnly and paid our respects as a member of the local brass band played the Last Post and wreaths were laid.
At this time, my opinion was already clearly defined. I was there to remember those who fought and died in the two world wars. It would remind me that I was lucky, at that time, to have a great grandfather still living, who had served in both and also, the hundreds of thousands who had not returned. The poppy was a simple, small mark of respect which I chose to wear.
As years passed, I left the Boys’ Brigade but I continued to wear a poppy, generally in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday. I can’t say with certainty, when I first noticed the change around the significance of the poppy. There seemed to be a growing feeling of mass hysteria surrounding grief and how that should be displayed generally. Perhaps a catalyst for this was the death of Princess Diana but I can’t be absolutely sure?
The poppy started to become a more long term fixture, appearing earlier each year and not vanishing the day after Remembrance Sunday. Comments would be made if someone wasn’t wearing a poppy and it seemed television appearances were only permitted for poppy wearers. More and more, the freedom of choice that those we were remembering fought for, was being denied almost hysterically by the media, to a disturbing level, some well-known figures being unjustly vilified for not wearing a poppy. On the scale of irony, it was right up there.
I felt that it was becoming a mass movement, almost a commercial enterprise, where people were seeking inclusion, rather than expressing a free choice and I made my decision not to wear a poppy. I paid my respect on an intimate and personal level and have done so ever since.
Years later I found myself in Belfast where I discovered all my preconceptions based on the news reports I’d seen were mostly ill-conceived. It was refreshing to discover that trees actually grow in the city and the predominant architecture isn’t concrete (you may laugh but British media in the 70s/80s was not particularly complimentary).
I also discovered a whole new debacle surrounding the use and display of poppies and much of it disgusted me. I understand many of the arguments from nationalists and unionists about the wearing of the poppy and I fully respect the fact that views contrast sharply on either side of the fence. What I don’t understand is why anyone can think that trivialising the poppy by using it as a badge of allegiance, which is certainly how many appear to treat it, is deemed respectful in any way. This especially applies to paramilitary groups carrying poppy wreaths and using the poppy in murals to commemorate murderers.
I’ve already explained why I stopped wearing a poppy and there is nothing here which convinces me to change my mind. I’d be among the distinct minority in the area in which I live, in not wearing a poppy. Sadly, it is all too obvious at times, that some people are making assumptions about me based on this one fact.
To a lesser degree, the new trend, quite literally, for fashion poppies further trivialises the solemnity I associate with them. Gaudy and flamboyant affairs adorn lapels both male and female, like Christmas baubles, which for me, only serves to further strip meaning from what used to be a poignant symbol. The poppy makes an appearance in a multitude of products as diverse as whisky bottles, to flower planters. For a symbol which is upheld by many as a mark of respect, it seems odd that the symbol itself is not treated with that same respect.
As it stands, I see little chance that I will ever wear a poppy again but I will at least be safe in the knowledge that I hold the utmost respect and gratitude for everyone who gave their lives for me to have the choice to make that decision.
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