First things first, my granda – an unassuming but charming and jovial power station worker living in Derry – joined the ‘Ox and Bucks’ Light Infantry in the late 1930s.
He finished his service with five years in a POW camp and went on to become one of the last Dunkirk survivors in Northern Ireland.
My granda rarely spoke about the experience. Over the course of decades we found out in scraps that he had picked up some German, that he was forced to work as the camp barber (but never did cut hair again), that he wasn’t impressed with the behaviour of some American prisoners and that he developed a lifelong love of ‘a smoke’. Perhaps he associated this simple pleasure with a then-luxury that would get him through another day in the camp.
In his later years, just before his time in that camp began to return to him in his dreams, our family was helped to find him a care home by the Royal British Legion, their support making a big difference at the time.
And that’s why I wear a Poppy.
I understand that there are those who don’t wear one. I have no interest in their decision as it is absolutely – be they high-profile or otherwise – none of my business, and has no bearing on my own decision.
I believe my granda took a similar view. As an aside, he did however take a dim view of the disrespectful way we treat flags in Northern Ireland. For example, the sight of a Union Flag being used as a press conference ‘table cloth’ used to bother him. But that’s another story.
Every November I wonder why my granda, after all he endured, could keep a measured, respectful, live and let live attitude to the Poppy but our generations can’t do likewise.
That’s why I started deleting my Facebook app every November, a time of year when we see people point-scoring about some alleged slight against the Poppy by insert-this-year’s-accused-here, often before the facts have even been checked.
Not to mention opportunistic, aggressive ‘love it or leave it’ sloganeering by groups on the hunt for new members.
And I once heard a local politician speaking on the radio about an alleged Poppy infraction by a school. Incredibly, no one had waited for the response of the school before it was named on air.
Is it too much to ask that a memorial symbol is treated with the respect, the live and let live attitude it deserves?
Is it too much to ask that if a single shop employee supposedly insults the Poppy it be left to – say – a local Royal British Legion officer to have a discrete chat with a manger to see if things can be resolved, or if the alleged incident even occurred?
And wouldn’t that be better than chat-show bickering and headline-grabbing?
It even makes me wonder if any local newspaper or online outlet would lead the charge for dignity and declare their November Poppy coverage officially free of politicking and overreaction?
I have never seen the Royal British Legion reduce themselves to some of the petty Poppy-related clickbait and politically-charged posturing seen each year. We should follow their example.
As I’ve said, the decision of someone else not to wear a Poppy has no impact on me whatsoever. When a school or business is dragged into a debate it is between the parents or local customers and no concern of mine.
Nor is it the business of the wider media/ or social media users clicking blindly miles away from the issue. Often I can’t help wondering about the appropriateness of the motives of those who turn a matter for local diplomacy and even understanding into a noisy national debate.
My granda, when I was very little, once gave me his war medals to play with. I remember how soft and bendable the metal was, and later found out in school that a shortage of some types of metal was the reason.
His accepting attitudes to other people – despite five years as POW – were matched by his decades of good-natured living, absolute devotion to family and respect for others.
If we want to remember people like him, could we perhaps treat something as little as a paper flower in his memory with the same old-fashioned spirit of tolerance my granda lived by and even fought for?
In the meantime, I’ll continue to delete my Facebook app every November. I really don’t mind if you do likewise, if you wear a Poppy or not or if you agree with my views on the subject.
For my part my former POW granda would very much approve, and that’s enough for me. Thank you for reading.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net