Archive for Poppy

No More Poppies

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on November 9, 2019 by telescoper

Over the years I have written quite a few pieces on this blog, around the time of Remembrance Sunday, about the wearing of a poppy, the last being in 2016. I have worn a poppy at this time of year for most of my adult life, but in 2017 I decided to stop.

For one thing, there is no pressure to wear a poppy here in Ireland. Indeed, many Irish people see the poppy mainly as a symbol of British militarism and colonial oppression. At a concert to mark the Armistice last year I saw only a few audience members wearing a poppy, and most of them were the shamrock version commemorating the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the Great War.

But I don’t think I’ve ever really been that susceptible to peer pressure, so that’s not the main reason for my not wearing a poppy. The main reason is that over the past couple of years the poppy has been appropriated by the likes of racist thug, career criminal and founder-member of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as Tommy Robinson):

I simply cannot bring myself to wear the same badge as this horrible racist gobshite, nor can I stand the hypocrisy of those politicians who make a show of wearing it while happily encouraging the rise of nationalism that caused all the suffering just a century ago. The message of the poppy is supposed to be `Lest We Forget’. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.

I have a lecture on Monday 11th November at 11am, when the traditional two minutes’ silence to mark the 1918 armistice is observed. Fortunately, lectures at Maynooth run from five past the hour until five to, so I will be able to observe this on my own before I start the lecture. But I won’t be wearing a poppy.

Is it disrespectful to the war dead to refuse to wear a poppy? No, of course it isn’t. What is disrespectful to them is to seek to reoeat the mistakes that led to wars in the first place.

A Suspension of Hostilities

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on November 11, 2018 by telescoper

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this weekend’s Irish Times, the First World War is, in many ways, still being fought. The Second World War was certainly very much a continuation of the First, after a break of just over twenty years, to which the short-sightedness of Western governments in their treatment of Germany was a contributing factor. The end of the First World War saw not only the disintegration of the German Empire (and the abdication of the Kaiser), but also the collapse of Tsarist Russia, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to boot. We are still living with the consequences of that upheaval.

All this reminds us – or should remind us – that the word `armistice’ means `a truce’ or `a suspension of hostilities’ rather than a lasting peace, and it is by no means impossible we could be sleepwalking to disaster once more. As President Macron put it in his speech today

Les démons anciens resurgissent : des idéologies nouvelles manipulent des religions, l’Histoire menace de reprendre son cours tragique. Faisons une fois de plus ce serment des Nations de placer la paix plus haut que tout, car nous en connaissons le prix.

Frankly, I fear very much for the future and take solace only in the fact that I am no longer young.

I have found the pomp and ceremony of this year’s official Armistice commemorations very difficult to endure. Perhaps there are some people, including some in high places, who have learned the lessons of history, but it is also clear that there are very many who have not.

Which brings me to the poppy. I have written quite a few pieces on this blog, around the time of Remembrance Sunday, about the wearing of a poppy, the last being in 2016. I have worn a poppy at this time of year for most of my adult life, but I decided last year to stop.

For one thing, there is no pressure to wear a poppy here in Ireland. Indeed, many Irish people see the poppy mainly as a symbol of British militarism and colonial oppression. Even at Friday’s concert to mark the Armistice I saw only a few audience members wearing a poppy, and most of them were the shamrock version commemorating the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the Great War.

But I don’t think I’ve ever really been that susceptible to peer pressure, so that’s not the main reason for my not wearing a poppy. The main reason is that over the past couple of years the poppy has been appropriated by the likes of racist thug, career criminal and founder-member of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as Tommy Robinson):

I simply cannot bring myself to wear the same badge as this creature, nor can I stand the hypocrisy of those politicians who make a show of wearing it while happily encouraging the rise of nationalism. Enough is enough. The message of the poppy is supposed to be `Lest We Forget’. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.

Why I’m wearing a poppy again

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , on November 2, 2016 by telescoper

Once again we’re coming up to Remembrance Sunday, an occasion to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts past and present. This is always held on the second Sunday in November in the United Kingdom, which means that this year it is on 13th November, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, which happened on 11th November 1918. Another way to commemorate this  is the observance of two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11th November itself. I plan to do that, next Friday  (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11 am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  is the wearing of a poppy. The poppy appeal raises money for veterans and their families, but the wearing of these little red paper flowers is something that not everyone feels comfortable with. Some people think that to wear a poppy is to celebrate militarism or even Britain’s imperialist past. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, it’s simply about remembering those who died. In fact, one of the main reasons the paraphernalia of  Remembrance Day observances (the Poppy, the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World War One. That’s why the Remembrance Day ceremonial laying of wreaths takes place in Whitehall, right at the heart of government. The ritual  was specifically intended to be a warning to the politicians who had brought the conflict about not to allow it to happen again.

As a young lefty student I grappled with the implications of the poppy appeal. The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies, as an overtly anti-war symbol of remembrance. For a time I wore a white poppy but, although I am against war, I don’t think a policy of non-violence would have helped much against Hitler’s Nazi regime and therefore can’t really call myself an out-and-out  pacifist. One year I wore both white and red poppies, but since then I’ve decided to stick with a red one.

Of course many in the Establishment would like the poppy to turn into a symbol of obedience, a kind of alternative national flag. Some people choose not to wear it precisely because it has that implication. The sight of some hypocritical warmongers wearing the poppy at the Cenotaph on these occasions sickens me, but their betrayal does not make me want to stop wearing it myself. Neither does the fact that so many seem to be so contemptuous of the great strides that have been made over the past decades to try to construct a Europe defined by peaceful cooperation rather than by narrow-minded nationalism and conflict. The parallels between Britain in 2016 and Germany in 1933 seem to me to be frighteningly real,  and I fear very much for the future if we carry on in the direction we seem to be taking. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m not young.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

Some poppy sellers use the slogan  Wear Your Poppy With Pride, but the original meaning  is much better expressed by the original, Lest We Forget. I’m not sure I wear mine with pride at all, in fact. What I feel is really more like shame, at the wastefulness and stupidity of armed conflict. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to live through anything like that, not only because I’ve had a relatively peaceful and comfortable life, but also because I have never been tested in the way previous generations were. I wear the poppy to acknowledge their bravery and to recognize my own good fortune.  When I stand for the two minutes silence I remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and  fallen civilians too.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV, there were angry complaints. I’m sure he didn’t mean disrespect to the cause but disliked the pressure being put on him to conform. I can see his point. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything at all.  But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

I don’t like pressure being put on people to conform. Orthodoxy and fear are always to be regretted and today’s society is over-condemnatory, swift to its manufactured outrage. But this change seems to have come from below, not been ordered by bullies: the daily reports of life and death in the forces, of the danger other 20-year-olds daily find themselves facing. And is the symbolism of the poppy being degraded as it is customised? No. You can’t do much to the fabulous simplicity of this symbol. And the poppy doesn’t preach: it’s not about “right” or “wrong” wars, but about brave dead soldiers. And the message was, never, Remember in the way we tell you to remember. It is, simply, Lest We Forget.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. You can decide to wear one if you wish. You can also decide not to.  It’s entirely up to you.  That’s the whole point really. It’s called Freedom.

Lest we forget.

Why I wear a poppy

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , on November 3, 2015 by telescoper

Once again we’re coming up to Remembrance Sunday, an occasion to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts past and present. This is always held on the second Sunday in November in the United Kingdom, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, on 11th November 1918. Another way to commemorate this  is the observance of two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11th November itself. I plan to do that, next Wednesday (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  is the wearing of a poppy. The poppy appeal raises money for veterans and their families, but the wearing of these little red paper flowers is something that not everyone feels comfortable with. Some people think that to wear a poppy is to celebrate militarism or even Britain’s imperialist past. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, it’s simply about remembering those who died. In fact, one of the main reasons the paraphernalia of  Remembrance Day observances (the Poppy, the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World War One. That’s why the Remembrance Day ceremonial laying of wreaths takes place in Whitehall, right at the heart of government. The ritual  was specifically intended to be a warning to the politicians who had brought the conflict about not to allow it to happen again.

As a young lefty student I grappled with the implications of the poppy appeal. The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies, as an overtly anti-war symbol of remembrance. For a time I wore a white poppy but, although I am against war, I don’t think a policy of non-violence would have helped much against Hitler’s Nazi regime and therefore can’t really call myself an out-and-out  pacifist. One year I wore both white and red poppies, but since then I’ve decided to stick with a red one.

Of course many in the Establishment would like the poppy to turn into a symbol of obedience, a kind of alternative national flag. Some people choose not to wear it precisely because it has that implication. The sight of some hypocritical warmongerers wearing the poppy at the Cenotaph on these occasions sickens me, but their betrayal does not make me want to stop wearing it myself. Neither does the fact that our politicians seem content to give away the freedoms that so many died to protect.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

Some poppy sellers use the slogan  Wear Your Poppy With Pride, but the original meaning  is much better expressed by the original, Lest We Forget. I’m not sure I wear mine with pride at all, in fact. What I feel is really more like shame, at the wastefulness and stupidity of armed conflict. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to live through anything like that, not only because I’ve had a relatively peaceful and comfortable life, but also because I have never been tested in the way previous generations were. I wear the poppy to acknowledge their bravery and to recognize my own good fortune.  When I stand for the two minutes silence I remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and  fallen civilians too.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV a few years ago, there were angry complaints. I’m sure he didn’t mean disrespect to the cause but disliked the pressure being put on him to conform. I can see his point. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything at all. . But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

I don’t like pressure being put on people to conform. Orthodoxy and fear are always to be regretted and today’s society is over-condemnatory, swift to its manufactured outrage. But this change seems to have come from below, not been ordered by bullies: the daily reports of life and death in the forces, of the danger other 20-year-olds daily find themselves facing. And is the symbolism of the poppy being degraded as it is customised? No. You can’t do much to the fabulous simplicity of this symbol. And the poppy doesn’t preach: it’s not about “right” or “wrong” wars, but about brave dead soldiers. And the message was, never, Remember in the way we tell you to remember. It is, simply, Lest We Forget.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. Lest we forget.

Lest we forget

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 11, 2012 by telescoper


It’s Remembrance Sunday which happens this year to fall exactly on Remembrance Day, so I scheduled this in advance to be posted on the eleventh hour as seems appropriate. I’ll be observing two minutes’ silence as this goes online, on my own as I prefer to do it on such occasions. I’ve written long posts about my feelings about Remembrance Day (see the tag Poppy for examples), so I won’t repeat myself here.

I will however take the liberty of posting this video about shell shock and other reactive disorders, as a reminder that the Poppy Appeal is not just about remembering the fallen, but also about helping the survivors who have been maimed or traumatised by war. It’s not an easy clip to watch, but then it’s not supposed to be. Click through to the other segments if you can stand it.

I’ll also add that many victims of shell shock were shot as cowards, including three seventeen year-old British soldiers who had lied about their age in order to enlist. Nowadays this is recognised as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and although it can be treated, there is no complete cure.

Some people say that Remembrance Day glorifies war. I don’t see it that way at all. It’s there as a reminder of  the horrors of  past wars to urge us avoid armed conflict in the future. It’s a pity our politicians seem not to understand this.

Lest we forget.

Insensibility

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on November 11, 2011 by telescoper

It’s the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month which means it’s Remembrance Day. I’ve posted about my thoughts about this time of year before (see, for example, here and here). Rather than say it all again, therefore, I decided to post a poem by the greatest poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen. I might even go as far as to say that this is Wilfred Owen’s greatest poem. It’s certainly one of his most complex and ambivalent works, as it juxtaposes the necessary insensitivity of men who have to survive in conditions so appalling
that they might otherwise go mad, with the unawakened or even wilful insensibility of people who have never been confronted with the horror of what war is really like. Lest we forget.

I

Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

II

And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies’ decimation.

III

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

IV

Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.

V

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.

VI

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

To the Warmongers

Posted in History, Poetry, Politics with tags , , , on November 8, 2010 by telescoper

As we approach Remembrance Sunday (which this year lies on 14th November) I find myself once again wearing a poppy on my coat lapel, and having once again to explain this to those I meet in the department and elsewhere who don’t approve. I’ve already said everything I think I need to on this in posts last year and the year before, so I won’t repeat myself at length here.

I am aware (and acutely sensitive to) the danger that the wearing of a poppy might be mistaken for support for militarism and that many of our politicians would like to manipulate the meaning of this symbol in precisely that way for their own ends. Nevertheless, I will wear one and will observe the two minutes’ silence on Thursday too. Why? Lest we forget, that’s why…

But instead of debating this again, I will  post the following poem and letter, both of which were written by Siegfried Sassoon.

The poem is called the To the Warmongers:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss.
Young faces bleared with blood,
Sucked down into the mud,
You shall hear things like this,
Till the tormented slain
Crawl round and once again,
With limbs that twist awry
Moan out their brutish pain,
As for the fighters pass them by.
For you our battles shine
With triumph half-divine;
And the glory of the dead
Kindles in each proud eye.
But a curse is on my head,
That shall not be unsaid,
And the wounds in my heart are red,
For I have watched them die.

The astonishing letter below was written by Siegfried Sassoon in July 1917, and was subsequently read out in the House of Commons. Sassoon narrowly escaped court martial for treason.

It’s worth noting the last two paragraphs:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The tragedy is that these words could equally well have been written about Afghanistan 2010 rather than France or Belgium 1917. The sight of Tony Blair wearing a poppy at the Cenotaph is one that filled me with nausea, but his hypocrisy makes it more, not less, important to hang on to the true meaning. Lest we forget. Nowadays, though, I don’t really “wear my poppy with pride”, but with something rather closer to shame.


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