The Meaning of a Poppy

The Meaning of a Poppy

Have you ever read Neil Gaiman’s short story of the twelve months? The idea of personifying the months of the year is by no means one that Gaiman invented, or even a particularly new idea. It’s one that has long existed in folklore. Personally, I like to think of the months in terms of colours, flavours and textures. For me, a month is personified in things I can touch, hear, see, taste and smell.

November is the time of year which is the most sensory to me. November smells of damp earth and clean air, it sounds like fallen leaves crunched underfoot. It tastes like homemade broth. It feels like cold rain; and its colour is particularly significant. November is the only month of the year which is dyed red.

Not the red of a fallen leaf, or even of fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ night. Right at the heart of my November is the red paper poppy, which even now you will see appearing on Britain’s streets, attached to coats and jackets, a bright contrast against the darkening days.

To a foreign audience, this is perhaps one British custom which needs some explaining; and no two people will give you the same answer. What the poppy symbolises is simple enough; it marks the end of World War One where the fields of the last battleground in France were said to be full of the scarlet flower, and commits to memory the fallen servicemen and women of this war and every war since. What the poppy means is an entirely different matter altogether.

A friend of mine today drew my attention to this article. An ex-serviceman, Ben Griffin, claims that the Poppy Appeal is becoming no more than a farce which seeks to “trivialise, normalise and sanitise war.” Mr. Griffin is also quoted as saying that “the use of the word ‘hero’ glorifies war and glosses over the ugly reality. Calling our soldiers heroes is an attempt to stifle criticism of the wars we are fighting in. It leads us to that most subtle piece of propaganda: You might not support the war but you must support our heroes, ergo you support the war.” He continues, “It is revealing that those who send our forces to war and those that spread war propaganda are the ones who choose to wear poppies weeks in advance of Armistice Day.”

It’s true that the majority of those who wear the poppy have never had to experience war first hand. It is also true that the majority will probably never fully appreciate the horrors of war. Does this then mean, however, that the general public lives under some rose-tinted misapprehension that war is all about glorious marches against the evil enemy and the romantic, heroic deaths of young men who will never return to their waiting sweethearts? Does it mean that people blindly buy poppies in their millions simply for fashion’s sake?

No, it does not. Very few people in our nation are so far removed that they do not know someone who was or is involved in a war. My grandad served in the Second World War in Burma. No, that does not automatically make me an expert on war; I don’t indulge in the glorification of a secondhand connection to a war which ended long before I was born. But I wear a poppy, because I want to remember those men and women who gave up their lives, because whatever the reason, they gave up their lives.

This is not about politics. It never was. Wearing a poppy does not amount to supporting a political agenda, even unknowingly. Personally, I am ‘politically’ opposed to unnecessary loss of life. This does not mean I am for or against any war. It means I care about someone who laid their life on the line for someone else’s sake.

Those who seek to place political meaning in the wearing of a poppy are free to try, of course. This is, after all, a free country; people can say what they wish. I too am free to express my feelings in the form I choose; which so happens to be wearing a poppy. If a politician also chooses to wear a poppy, it is not necessarily revealing of their “political agenda” or even a reflection of the nature of their leanings. It is part of their public duty and expression of their personal morality, without which they would not be fit to serve in the post they hold. For, which is worse? A politician who joins the nation in remembering our dead and supporting our living, or a politician who doesn’t show any emotion for their people at all?

For me, November is red. A single paper poppy commits my grandad to memory. The field of poppies which comes to the nation’s mind as the 11th November draws close is a poetic one. But it is, as always, an enduring metaphor for the countless sacrifices which should not be forgotten.

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