Tuesday, 8 November 2011

acts of remembrance

I was hitching along the A30 from Shaftesbury towards Salisbury. An MG stopped; the driver said that I was welcome to join him if I didn't mind the labrador on my lap.

I didn't. We sped off. The brass disc on the labrador's collar identified its owner as  Lt. Col. Awdry. We passed the badges on the hillside at Fovant; I'd not seen them before. My host pointed them out.

"Had some of those CND chappies up there the other week," he said, "carving their badge. Took us all weekend to fill it in."

 I kept quiet about my allegiances. I was pro-CND, and fairly pro the armed services- it was only a small accident of biology that had stood in the way of my hopes to be a fighter pilot, after all. At a time when the government was contemplating axing conventional forces in favour of more nukes, it didn't feel like a contradictory position.

I got to meet a fair few retired military types in those days of the late 70s and early 80s, when I hitched a lot. Nice chaps, often with harrowing stories of war, quietly told.

One November, I wore a white poppy and a red poppy side by side. The slightly rottweiler-ish landlord of my local in Portsmouth ordered me to take the white one off. "I'm not having that in here," he said. The other regulars rallied round, and he backed down.

(His predecessor at the pub, the 5th Hants Volunteer Arms, was Major Gladys Walker, formerly of the ATS. One day I went in in an army surplus greatcoat, with Major's crowns on the epaulettes. "Take those off!" Gladys barked (she was good at barking). "I had to earn mine." It was a fair point, and I did, gladly.)

I've seen a couple of examples of ostentatious badges of remembrance recently. This horror, on Ebay. And the biggest poppy you ever did see, on the front of a Land Rover Freelander that was parked (where else?) on double yellow lines....  they make me uneasy, reminding me of Sassoon's 'Blighters' who 'mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume".

....and a few examples of rather militant snark about people not wearing poppies. By people who put poppy twibbons on their Twitter avatar, that sort of thing. Here's a bit from Kipling's Stalky and Co, where a politician comes to the school and lectures on patriotism....

And so he worked towards his peroration—which, by the way, he used later with overwhelming success at a meeting of electors—while they sat, flushed and uneasy, in sour disgust. After many, many words, he reached for the cloth-wrapped stick and thrust one hand in his bosom. This—this was the concrete symbol of their land—worthy of all honor and reverence! Let no boy look on this flag who did not purpose to worthily add to its imperishable lustre. He shook it before them—a large calico Union Jack, staring in all three colors, and waited for the thunder of applause that should crown his effort.
They looked in silence. They had certainly seen the thing before—down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton Sands; above the roof of the Golf-club, and in Keyte's window, where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart. What, in the name of everything caddish, was he driving at, who waved that horror before their eyes? Happy thought! Perhaps he was drunk.

..and here's my own contribution.

The bigger and redder the poppy
On front of the car or lapel
The more you're allowed to be stroppy
At those who remembrance less well.

Photo of Fovant badges: Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. I didn't know about white poppies, thank you for something new; Interestingly enough there are two kinds of war memorials in France, war ones and pacifist ones

    Sorry it's in french, but it lists where to find them). There was also a big movement against war just after WW1 and some amazing posters were created. Little boys playing with trains rather than guns and so on...

    18ct gold poppies - how cheap can you get?

  2. I've not bought a red poppy since the RBL (right bullying lot) refused to let a friend of mine take part in 'their' parade because he was wearing two poppies - one white and one red.

    They called him a coward for wearing the white one and said people like him weren't welcome to take part and belittled the memory of 'our brave lads'.

    He didn't make a fuss. He just went back later to lay his wreath in memory of those he had failed to save when he was on the hospital ship that dealt with the rescued crew of HMS Coventry.

    His experience of war (sorry - conflict) taught him that peace was a better idea. Unlike some.

  3. How apt the quotation from Kipling!

  4. A similar level of bullying to conform for cherridy surrounded the first Red Nose days when I was at school. Not very nice.

    I'm not wearing a poppy simply because the damned things never stay in place on me. My car does have one of the window stickers discretely placed in the corner of the rear windscreen though.

    Today a colleague was wearing a display poppy as a buttonhole, one of the big fabric ones. It might have looked over the top, but the way she was wearing it it looked extremely stylish.

  5. Thanks for that link, Anji. As I recall, there were three memorials in St Malo; to the deportees, the Resistance and the civilian dead. ...looking at David Cameron among the other EU leaders, I wondered what they made of his poppy; a reminder that 'we' had 'won'?

    That's a disgraceful story, AJ. Funny that they should be so blind to the irony of their thinking him a coward for not conforming, A friend on Flickr tells me his partner once got sent home from school for painting her poppy white. ...your story reminds me of a meeting on one of my old ships, where a colleague of mine, who had exited his ship when it was on fire during the Falklands, met a steward who'd been working on the ship he was evacuated to. It was a nice moment.

    Thanks, Tim. It certainly felt apropos. I liked that Milne poem quoted by the commenter on your blog. Hadn't seen that before.

    I'm curious about how the House Teenager's school handle Remembrance Day, Jenny; they've managed to be pretty clueless about so many other things.

  6. I try and leave all the politics behind with this issue.

    I look at what the British Legion does and I cough up.

    Sometimes I don't wear the poppy I get. Sometimes I do. It's never a conscious decision because it's not any kind of a statement, for me at least.

    It should not be about the poppy, but about the charity.


  7. I've just found your blog and just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading it. Enjoyed your poppy verse too!

  8. And so have I found and enjoyed - a year on, though. Not sure how I missed this last year.