The Poppy – A perfunctory and hollow ritual?

Alice Eccles 13 November 2012

A symbol of personal reflection, or a reaction to social stigma? Alice Eccles asks whether the message of the remembrance poppy has remained faithful to its original purpose.

Today, those who assert that the poppy exists in a political, historical and cultural vacuum exhibit either their own naivety or wilful ignorance – perhaps even both.

As early as 1919, Remembrance acts of commemoration provoked controversy. A huge number of returning soldiers expressed their outrage when faced with what they saw as the glorification of a squalid and meaningless loss of life. More recently, the poppy itself has become the life-blood of widespread debate.

In 2010 David Cameron faced the tricky situation of being asked to remove his commemorative poppy by Beijing officials while on an official visit to China. The request was made as the poppy is a vivid symbol of China’s humiliation at the hands of European powers during the 19th century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. Cameron and accompanying ministers gently refused the entreaty, explaining “they mean a great deal to us and we would be wearing them all the same.”

The symbolic flower again sparked tensions that year when a Muslim group burned poppies and chanted ‘anti-crusader’ slogans during the two-minute silence, in protest against British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, the poppy has consistently fuelled controversy in Northern Ireland; whether or not one wears a poppy has time and again reinforced sectarian divides. It was not until 2010 that Margaret Ritchie became the first leader of a nationalist party, the SDLP, to wear a poppy.

Over the past weeks I have watched as the evocative red flower blossoms in the buttonholes of public figures and private citizens alike, but I can’t help wondering whether the poppy retains its intended meaning.

Politicians eagerly co-opt the symbol to their particular agendas. Dr. Ted Harrison, the author of Remembrance Today, has criticized “B-list celebrities” for “vying for attention by wearing the poppy.” Even footballers will take to the pitch with the little red flower emblazoned on their kit after the voluble row that raged long and hard last year.

Such ostentatious displays of commemoration are distracting us from what we should really be remembering in this act of memorial. The humble poppy has been seemingly corrupted by our exhibitionist culture, threatening to sanitize the very notion of war in the process.

How would the widows or the mothers of the First World War dead react to the flashy, showbiz launch of the Poppy Appeal last Wednesday, which this year included Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott among its spokesmen? It would seem that nothing is immune to commercialization in the heady atmosphere of the 21st century, as the British Legion website offers poppy-themed stocking fillers, umbrellas, and salt and pepper pots.

The historian Jay Winter has suggested that there are at least three stages in the process of remembrance. The first is the shaping of a commemorative form, a form that clearly communicates a set of meanings to people at large. The second is the embedding of this ritual act into the calendar, thus entrenching it in social identity. The third stage then pays witness to this ritual waning in strength as it either dissolves or is transformed into something different.

Today, we exist in the context of this third stage. The wearing of a poppy no longer reflects an elective choice, made in the respectful memory of the war dead. Rather it has become a social imperative enforced by a burgeoning culture of ‘poppy-policing’.

The case of wearing (or not wearing) the poppy has become cheapened and politicized, as their proliferation now means that not having one on display is to commit the ultimate social faux pas. Indeed Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news presenter, generated a media frenzy when he hit out against ‘poppy fascism’ and ‘intolerance’ after he was criticized for refusing to wear the emblem on air in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday in 2010. The phrase, though it is needlessly crass, does articulate the increasingly vicious annual hounding suffered by those who opt not to wear the symbol.

In such an atmosphere the poppy has become an affected communication of how much one cares and a physical manifestation of one’s patriotic credentials. Just as Christmas songs tinkle over the speakers of shopping centres in October, so too is there a competition as to who pins their poppy on first. In 2006 Jim Devine, the then Labour MP for Livingston, was widely mocked by political satirists when he began sporting his poppy in the middle of October.

But Devine is not the only culprit of such one-upmanship. It appears that the poppies being worn across the country no longer serve as a memorial of the lives lost on our behalf, but are a brightly coloured reminder of the divisive one-upmanship that characterizes our nature.

There is something so depressing about the thought that this potent symbol of seemingly unquantifiable sacrifice has been hijacked by packs of holier-than-thou busybodies.

The poppy used to represent a beautiful hybrid of personal reflection and communal remembrance – no longer. Instead, walking down the High Street it is now impossible to tell whether a stranger’s poppy has been pinned to a lapel because they have really tried to engage and grapple with the enormity of the sacrifices made, or whether they have crumbled under the iron fist of social propriety.

In such an atmosphere of social stigma, buying a poppy has become a perfunctory and hollow ritual – an effort to chip away at that gnawing feeling which springs not from a feeling of gratitude towards the fallen but from the beady eyes of the indignant and the outraged.

In future years, I hope we can return to the roots of the poppy and reinstate the symbol as a meaningful display of personal reflection.

This little red flower might still act as a vessel through which we can come to grips with the very real sacrifices made by the men and women of this country, for our present and future freedoms.

Alice Eccles