Poppies red and white

Let us all wear the one red poppy with pride, sorrow, and unquenchable hope

 I was quite surprised to see a conversation on Twitter this week about the wearing of white poppies for Remembrance. Although I have been assured by one tweet that “white poppies have been respectfully worn for nearly as long as red ones,” I don’t remember having seen any since 1985, the year I wore a plain red one, tippexed white, as an angry young student in York Minster.

I don’t recall hearing anything about them before that year, either, but perhaps I had an impossibly sheltered upbringing. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to Google your way to a full history of the white poppy. My recollection of the early 1980s is that it was a time when many on the left, especially those of us who were young, felt a powerful reaction against the perceived harshness, heartlessness and easy militarism of Mrs Thatcher’s government, following the Falklands war and the ‘khaki election’ of 1983. Connections were made between the loss of life in that conflict and the loss of livelihoods during those years of high unemployment. Tony Benn, for example, got into deep water during one BBC Question Time for suggesting that members of the working class had particularly suffered during the Falklands fighting, having enlisted as a consequence of unemployment. David Steel (I think) reminded him that members of all classes had lost their lives in that war. But, that said, the poorest always do suffer the most whatever the prevailing wind: it was ever thus, and ever thus shall be.

This was the context that coloured the general relationship between Robert Runcie’s Church of England and the government. There was a specific difficulty surrounding the post-Falklands service in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Whereas Archbishop Runcie (holder of the unanswerably prestigious Military Cross) was clear that we needed to express a sense of sorrow for our own shortcomings in the relationship with Argentina and all that had followed, many government supporters saw no reason why we couldn’t have a full-on service of thanksgiving with trumpets, bunting, Land of Hope and Glory, and so on. (That’s a caricature, but you see the picture.)

In the early 1980s, therefore, the white poppy was worn by those who wanted to reject the government and anything that smacked of too-ready a reliance on military solutions to political problems past and present. It was adopted by those who wanted to commemorate conscientious objectors and others who had lost their lives in wars without being part of the Armed Forces; by those who wanted to ally themselves firmly with the peace movement, including organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and, I suspect, by those who felt that the great mass of unthinking red-poppy wearers were somehow not in favour of peace as ardently as they should be.

I wore one in November 1985 for a variety of reasons, but would say now that the wearing of a white poppy at Remembrance (while by no means necessarily disrespectful of the sacrifice of the fallen) is not something I could support. (I know that there are different traditions in other countries. I obviously speak only of the United Kingdom.)

My main reason has something to do with symbols. One of the things about any symbol is that it is shared by the community in which it is recognised, and that it has the capacity to speak without constant commentary or explanation. Some symbols are relatively straightforward, part of our natural furniture. One thinks of bread like this, a symbol of the fruits of our collective labour. Light is also unequivocal as a symbol. Others are more complex and richer, like water, which (in my own work of Christian worship) can be a symbol of purity, or birth or life; even of death, depending on context.

The symbol of the poppy arose entirely naturally from the earth, a consequence of the fact that the poppy grows particularly abundantly in any land that has been vigorously disturbed. It grows well on roadsides where the Gas Board has been laying new pipes, piling up the earth as part of the process. And, of course, it grew particularly well in Flanders fields after the cataclysmic churning of the First World War. And so the first statement of this symbol is one of hope: out of disorder and chaos and destruction, beauty, however fragile, can emerge. For the poppy is a fragile flower. It is easily crushed. Picked, it quickly withers. Alone, it is of little consequence; yet, as one of a myriad standing together, it is a thing of immense beauty and can colour an entire landscape with a vibrancy that catches the attention. It is also, as happy chance would have it, a flower that is red, and in its flourishing in the fields there flows that colour of birth and death, reminding us powerfully of every life lost in warfare, and every child born into the misery of discord. From that remembrance comes representation, and so the poppy petals fall from the heights of the Albert Hall.

I find something right and appealing in this ‘one size fits all’ quality of the poppy, for although in warfare lives are lost in different circumstances, and although the fighting we commemorate has been of very different kinds and causes, nonetheless every lost life testifies to the pride, stubbornness and folly that runs through our human nature, blossoming diabolically at those dreadful intervals when compassion and fellow-feeling are abandoned, and ploughshares and pruning hooks are beaten into swords and spears.

The poppy testifies also, of course, to human beings at our very best; to the immense courage and selflessness of those in whom goodness and virtue are so deeply rooted, whose fruits are seen in a beautiful, endless variety, from Goose Green to Gallipoli and from Belfast to Basra. It is in this sense that we can wear our poppy with pride: not in a narrow or self-satisfied tribal preening, but in humble recognition of what men and women of every race and creed can be.

A single poppy commemorates the young Tommy killed on the Somme; or the householder killed on the north-east coast by early experiments in aerial bombardment during the First World War. It commemorates the civilians, as ordinary as you or me, or their children as vulnerable as ours, killed in the air raids of 1940, some of them remembered in the stained glass of St Andrew’s, Croydon. It commemorates the soldiers and sailors obliterated in the Exocet attack on HMS Sheffield in the South Atlantic in 1982; or, more recently, the professional military personnel sent near and far to keep the peace. It commemorates the journalists who lose their lives as they write the first draft of history, reporting from distant war zones. It commemorates the easily-forgotten soldiers of the Empire, the Aussies and the Kiwis, the West Indians and Gurkhas, the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, all those whose white gravestones glisten in the military cemeteries of France with the same pure light as those that cover the bones of young lads from Yorkshire and Lancashire, from Surrey and Kent. And, let there be no mean measuring out of the milk of human compassion: the poppy we wear commemorates those who were our foes, though we never knew them. It remembers the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of those whose prowess we have lately applauded on the rugby field, those with whom we now do business, who build our cars and sell us holidays, and share with us in the task of addressing the global emergencies of today, building that safe and peaceful world that has eluded us thus far. And a single poppy calls out to those who are our foes, reminding them, and reminding us also of the need for courage and wisdom whenever evil threatens, and of the constant need for truthfulness and probity in all our international dealings. Just a single poppy reminds us sharply of the deep fragility of any human life, and of the appalling consequences of unleashing war and violence in any corner of the world.

The poppy, small and fragile though it is, has the strength to bear this great freight of remembrance and exhortation, but only if it remains an undivided symbol. In England, and in the United Kingdom, we have seen what can happen when a flag becomes associated not with the whole community but with certain strands within it. If the poppy is divided, it too will no longer be a symbol of a united human determination to make our future less bloody and much more just, and will enable any who deal in hatred in this cacophonous age to dismiss some as war-mongering fools, to denounce others as cowards and traitors.

On this day of all days, it would be good if we could stand together, diverse yet united under one unbroken symbol.

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