Why I don’t Facebook in November: the dignity of the Poppy on social media

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.

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  • Robin Keogh

    I have never worn a Poppy despite my Father, Grandfather and Great grandfather being proud members of the British armed forces. Having just read your piece, I might think about doing so this year.

  • Thank you Robin, that’s much appreciated.

    I was hesitant to put pen to paper on this one as in an ideal world it is a subject that doesn’t need discussion, simply individual choice and nothing beyond that.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I only wear my poppy on Remembrance day. I don’t think it’s important to wear it for weeks before that day. I wear it in memory of my grandfather and an uncle who didn’t return home in 45. I also wear it in memory of my uncle’s ( who survived the war) but had the guts to volunteer. When wearing it I also think of my grandmother whose first husband was killed in WW1 and second husband (my grandfather) in WW2. I think she deserves it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you mr Johnston for a sensitive and intelligent piece about what the poppy might mean for those of us with links to those who fought. I’m frequently putting forth on Slugger about the gross misuse of the poppy for political ends, frequently by those who have no links with anyone who served.

    I’m posting an Image of some Belfast men queueing to join up on the first Monday of the war, from the Belfast Telegraph of the same day. As it was published over seventy years ago, the image is now considered to be out of copyright, I should perhaps mention. My uncle is fourth from the left. He was vociferous in later years about those later active in Unionist politics who had used the British sop to Dev of tacit neutrality in the north to avoid service, but who wrapped themselves in the flag on every occasion after it had become “safe” to do so.

    I fully agree with your “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?” and profoundly resent the fact that should I wear a poppy locally, I am identified by most who see me with Loyalism.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Robin, a fine sentiment. We really need to take the poppy entirely out of politics, and to let it properly stand for the memory of those who served against tyranny between 1939-45 . This is something all of us have benefited from. And for those some of us remember who served in an earlier war.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Make sure you wear it to the November cumann meeting……..

  • An interesting idea and point Alan – wearing a Poppy just on Remembrance Day itself hadn’t occurred to me before.

  • Thank you for this.

    How priceless those old photos can be, I have one of my granda in the power plant and another looking a lot less well-fed and well-presented with his fellow Ox and Bucks soldiers, no idea where it was taken though.

    I have to admit I have a thran streak when it comes to bypassing the ‘labels’ Northern Ireland people like to put on each other, but I certainly understand your point.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, CJ, and again I must repeat just how important a thing I think it is you are saying here.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Seaan, I am and have been always been fascinated on yr historical points upon the Blueshirts: my dear uncle Fred was a Blackshirt and now in the idiocy of old age I need to understand the lunacies of youth.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Terence, I aim to “please and inform”, so I’m glad someone finds it interesting! Quite interestingly, too, many Blackshirts (and Blueshirts!) fought against Hitler. Mosley’s eldest son Nicholas fought through the war and from Italy corresponded with his father (in detention) about Oswald’s discovery of the philosophy of Heraclitus! For these who fought I’d imagine that their patriotism overrode any belief that Fascist intellectuals may have had in Mussolini’s attempts to build a “Fascist International”. My uncle served alongside a blue shirt veteran ranker of the Spanish Civil War who had ended up in the Irish Guards.

    I was perusing Ian Whyte’s most recent Auction Catalogue (17th October, not that I can ever buy anything!) and discovered on page 105 an Old Comrades flag of the Blueshirts. It was a red cross on a blue field. I wonder if the creator of the Ulster Nation flag was unaware of this, or if he was having a very private joke:

    http://www.whytes.ie/14.asp?Auction=20151017

    I can highly recommend Ian Whyte’s catalogues for their interesting artefacts and fine historical analysis of lots.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Well you are correct that the Blackshirt/Blueshirt did fight. Uncle Fred fought with Mongomery in the western desert and died of the profound shock in 1953. He was a devastatingly hansome Mosely/Childers lookalike: I really think that he fancied himself in a Sam Browne and the old bat-wing jods.

    Over a long career I have met many members of the insurgent tendancy, namely:

    Ossewa Brandwag: Baader Meinhof: African National Congress: Irgun: BUF: DeFlag: South African Communist Party and of course our own much loved conflictiores.

    They were for the most part rather nice people.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I can entirely endorse that from my own experiences over a long and rather confusing career also. My wife even learnt piano from the dictator Franco’s sister in law while living in Estepona in law during the early 1970s. She grew up with their children, and tells me that the husband, Franco’s brother, was delightfully charming and funny.