Friday, 9 November 2012

The Red and the White

I see that the white poppies for Remembrance Sunday are making a comeback.  Well, actually I don’t see that at all as I’ve not seen anyone wearing one.  In fact, now I think on it, I’ve never seen anyone wearing one and it’s not as if I move in particularly militaristic circles.

No, what I mean is that I’ve seen an advert for them and someone posting in The Guardian website mentioned them.  Apparently they were first put on sale in 1933.  I’d always thought of them as an ‘80s thing, along with ‘Nuklear Power nein danke’ window stickers.  A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that Margaret Thatcher disapproved of them which doubtless explains their sudden flurry of popularity.

The idea behind the white poppy is to show remembrance for war dead while making it clear that the wearer is against war and therein lies the problem.  I’m not sure that the red poppy does denote that the wearer is happy and comfortable about the prospect of people dying in war.  Rather the opposite I’d always thought.  Some white poppy supporters point to the fact that the red one is worn predominantly by Unionists in Northern Ireland in which case I would suggest that said Unionists be castigated for turning it into an overtly political symbol, just as the English fascist movements tried to co-opt the St George flag.  I loathe football, but I am pleased that assorted World Cups have won that back for us.

With the best will in the world, I find the white poppy uncomfortable.  It smells too strongly of the kind of sanctimoniousness that assumes a moral superiority to all around.  I always think of the lines in the Tom Lehrer song, The Folk Song Army:

                        We are the folk song army
                        Every one of us cares.
                        We all hate poverty, war and injustice
                        Unlike the rest of you squares.

And here in its entirety:

While the red poppy might (and I say might) have honoured only the Allied dead of the ’14-’18 war, it certainly does not now.  Furthermore as the appalling bullying that went on a couple of years back that demanded that everyone should wear one seems to have died down, I am wearing a red poppy this year.  And if anyone wishes to wear a white one, let them do so, but be aware that it may carry as many negative connotations as the red ones you abjure.

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