As commonly known, during the first world war the poppy was one of the only plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields. Canadian poet John McCrae wrote about this in his poem Flanders Fields, helping the poppy come to represent the sacrifice made by soldiers. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces. People wear poppies around Armistice Day in honour of this. I won’t be one of them.
It makes me uncomfortable that everyone in the public eye seems forced to wear a poppy – research has found that three quarters of people who don’t wear the poppy felt ‘bullied’ to do so previously. Contestants on Strictly Come Dancing wear one pinned to their sweaty t-shirts as they practice the cha cha cha; presenters wear a bejeweled version like some sort of bizarre compulsory fashion statement. It’s often considered sign of extreme disrespect not to wear one, whipping up jingoistic frenzies in all corners of social media.
Poppies don’t say ‘never again.’ They don’t tell us to stop engaging in new wars, occupying land, killing innocent children and civilians. Why do we only care about ‘our’ dead?
For me, the colour of the poppy is to uncannily linked to what it represents; bloodshed, war, wasted lives.
Wearing a poppy has morphed into something sinisterly nationalistic, feeding into our current climate’s worrying narrative. I want to remember the soldiers who fought for our freedom, but by no means can I support all that has been done by the British army, no do I support war as a means to solve conflict. The original meaning of the poppy has been hijacked, and what it has now come to represent does not sit right with me.
Footballer James McLean faced enormous backlash year after year for refusing to wear a poppy. In an open letter, he explained that “for people from the North of Ireland such as myself […], and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.” The event in question was when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march.
Some opt for the white poppy instead, which is worn to signify pacifism and anti-war sentiment. Of course, right-wing papers such as the Sun have accused the Peace Pledge Union (behind the white poppy campaign) of “indoctrinating” children by distributing them at school. Colonel Richard Kemp, commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, said that teachers “should not be indoctrinating children with a left wing political agenda.” He’s the same man who said that women shouldn’t serve in arm infantry as they “lack ferocity and killer instinct.”
Newsreaders have also adopted their own small forms of protest – ITV News presenter Charlene White received extreme racist and sexist abuse for not wearing a poppy on air – but, as she is forbidden from wearing symbols of other charities – such as a World Aids Day red ribbon – on screen, she said in a 2014 statement: “I feel uncomfortable supporting just one charity above all others.” Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow has condemned widespread “poppy fascism.”
Unfortunately, the poppy has merged too closely with crypto-facist ideals and hysterical patriotism. I feel capable and confident of remembering the sacrifices of the dead without being coerced into pinning a bit of cardboard to my lapel.