Nostalgia & History: Wearing a Poppy

It’s Remembrance Day and as in other years I’ll probably be wearing a poppy if I get round to it. Although I’m tired of zealous online poppy fanatics trying to out-do everyone every November and if I’m honest I think give it another fifty years and it’ll be phased out.

When I was younger, everyone seemed to wear a poppy. ‘Wear Your Poppy With Pride’ was the slogan which seems a strange emotion to encourage about the symbol of the flower which grew from the earth over the still decomposing remains of men and boys slaughtered in the First World War. But we wore them, with pride or whatever. There were still grandparents and great-grandparents who’d survived the two world wars. It seemed the right thing to do. For me, it still feels the right thing to do. My family is an old one, with my dad’s dad being born in 1899. My other grandad and many great uncles were in the Second World War. I wear it for them. 

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. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that people today can see how futile and costly war is.

Also it’s just not fashionable to be patriotic is it? I mean 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. But it’s all a bit much isn’t it?

Either that or an even uglier incarnation of patriotism: racism and BBC permitted jingoism in the form of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Blaming everything on ‘bloody foreigners’ as thought we never learned anything from pre war Germany.

Blame the British Legion for selling me something that goes so well with leopard print 

Patriotism has become so offputting these days that Remembrance Day and wearing a poppy has now become contentious. 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 (like me);
  • those who say the poppy is hypocritical, outdated, pointless…

And I’m starting to get why people feel that it’s not a symbol of reflection and commemoration any more bit of glorification and aggressive jingoism. I also think there’s a filtered history and blinkered nostalgia are unhealthy.

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.

It tells us that WWII was won by the ingenuity of the Bouncing Bomb, Bletchley Park, and Mulberry Harbours.

It tells us too 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 at the same time 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 archive photographs that people share on social media – then it’s easy to see how much has changed over the years since the Second World War. I couldn’t imagine a street party these days.

My grandad was a factory worker from Vauxhall in Liverpool. He had never been further than days out to 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 sing songs in pubs that you see in the black and white photo archives these days asking if anyone can put a face to a name but of course most people who’d still recognise them are long gone. Of entire families in one street, and standing up for the national anthem.

Back home, far from North Africa and Burma, 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 of course did as much or worse in Germany.

My grandad came home. He survived his time posted across the world, driving ambulances and ammunition to and from the front line, or pushing mules fitted with supplies and parachutes out of planes.

I won’t lie, I have a certain nostalgia for war stories, for Liverpool, for my hardy family. And I do believe they were fighting the good fight in the Second World War (my great 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, and that in itself is something that has never gone out of fashion. Never forget that.

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