Nostalgia & History: Wearing a Poppy

It’s Remembrance Day and I shall wear a poppy. 

When I was younger, everyone seemed to wear a poppy. There were still grandparents and great-grandparents who’d survived the two world wars. 

Of course, there’s always been conscientious objectors in wartime and I think if there was conscription today we’d see a lot more of that. Some for political reasons; spiritual reasons; some borne out of the kind of society we live in now – we’re not terribly patriotic unless you’re talking about the odd royal wedding fanatic, skewed UKIPers and the angry Daily Mail commenters, or the stereotypical White Van Man with tattered England flags left over from the last World Cup. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing….or not even a thing at all, I dunno. 

It’s just not very fashionable to be patriotic is it? There was a slight contrived resurgence when Kate Middleton married Prince William. A few half-arsed organised picnics and lots of Pimms for the news cameras. Kirsty Allsopp, WI Lite, the Military Wives, GBBO…. twee Britishness wrapped up in a Cath Kidston bow.

My glitzy Poppy. Not exactly humble but don’t blame me, blame the British Legion for selling me something that goes so damn well with leopard print



We seem to have divisions amongst us: those who wear a poppy and will support any military action past present or future; those who wear one to commemorate the dead but don’t support recent campaigns; those who say the poppy is hypocritical, outdated, pointless…

History tells us that WWI was a bloodbath, fought by doomed Pals, mere cannon fodder ushered to the trenches by comfortable generals in plush hotels. That WWII was won by the ingenuity of the Bouncing Bomb, Bletchley Park, and Mulberry Harbours. That the Korean War, often nicknamed the Forgotten War, claimed nearly as many lives as Vietnam which in itself became a turning point in the eyes of how many ordinary people on the home front viewed their country’s decision to go to war. History can show you the heroic image of Simon Weston but can gloss over Thatcher’s war crimes in the Falklands depending on where your information comes from. History will show you Churchill, victory sign and cigar, the saviour of war torn Britain. But it’ll downplay the slaughter in Ireland before he became Prime Minister. 

After all, History is only the version of events that people have decided to agree upon. 

Last year’s beautiful Poppy installation at St George’s Hall, Liverpool (Liverpool Echo)

If, like I am, you’re interested in social history or your own family history – or perhaps just enjoy some of the wonderful archive photographs that people share on social media – then it’s easy to see how much has changed. I love seeing people at home, domestics scenes, and the pictures of street parties, for example. I couldn’t imagine a proper street party now. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt any real community spirit about the street where I’ve lived. 

My grandad was a factory worker from Scotland Road in Liverpool. He had never been further than days out at the seaside when he was called up for the Second World War and was catapulted into the jungle and the desert for years on end. He came from the land of street parties and open front doors. Of entire families in one street, and standing up for the national anthem. Back home the Luftwaffen dropped fire bombs on his mother’s house by the docks, on the churches where his family sheltered and prayed and were buried alive in the rubble, and his young wife and daughters were evacuated. The British did as much or worse in Germany. 

VE Day Street Party (IBTimes.co.uk)

My grandad came home. He didn’t die whilst thousands of miles away from home, driving ambulances or delivering ammunition or pushing mules out of planes wearing parachutes. And I’m often think how well I’d manage in the same circumstances. Spoiler alert: I’d be absolutely shite.

I won’t lie, I have a certain nostalgia for wartime, for Liverpool, for my hardy family. And I do believe they were fighting the good fight in the Second World War (my uncle liberated Bergen Belsen of which I’m immensely proud). But war is war and is not to be glorified. It’s not vintage tea dresses and victory rolls to the soundtrack of close harmony groups. It’s the stench of dysentery in the jungle. Heat stroke in the desert. Gruelling physical work. Lack of sleep. Bullets fragmenting in organs. It’s governments playing toy soldiers with real people. It’s greed and it’s ego and it’s power and it’s fear. 

These days we’re cynical, we’re enlightened, we have access to accurate news reporting….and even more access to propaganda, which in itself has never gone out of fashion. Never forget that.

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