Wearing Your Heart on Your Lapel

November 11, 2011 8:38 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In the famous 13 verses of chapter 13 of (13:4) his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”. Paul’s use of the term ‘charity’ intends its meaning of love for one’s fellow human beings. nevertheless, the point is well taken. A great deal of vaunting accompanies modern giving.

There was always a strain of display, of wearing one’s token in one’s lapel, if not one’s heart upon one’s sleeve, about charity. The flag day may be a thing of the past, but ribbons of various shades now announce a range of causes, pioneered by the bright red AIDS ribbon of the mid-’80s. I used to shout at the televised Hollywood stars rolling up on Oscar night with their scarlet flashes: “And will you be wearing that to work tomorrow or is it just to show an audience of a billion what a caring person you are when you’re on parade?” They no longer wear them, now that their hairdressers and personal trainers are long dead and AIDS only deeply troubles a paltry demographic, the entire Third World.

The most noticeable charity emblem in Britain has always been the Remembrance Day poppy. The poppy is de rigueur in certain circles, notably in parliament, in business and on television. Tony Blair used to sport one before anybody else, as soon as decently permissible after the Easter break. Within half a day, every other MP would have followed suit, doubtless imagining that not to wear a poppy would send one to the bottom of the poll at the next general election. This year, the first sprouting in the Commons was on the breast of a backbench Tory Europhobe, presumably thinking to sway large swathes of a seemingly instinctively patriotic House.

As soon as some MP (or Blairite) appears in October on the green benches with a crepe button-hole, the herd follow. They’re all wrong of course, as is anyone sporting a poppy before Wednesday of last week. The poppy’s run should be from All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) until Remembrance Sunday (which this year falls on the 13th). People who respect tradition know that and keep to it. You didn’t see Her Majesty flashing a poppy on her Australian tour.

But there are more pressing protocols for an MP to consider. Is it possible – surely not – to be too ostentatious in such matters? Blair started to cultivate a brace of green leaves behind his poppy: would one be presumptuous to seek three? Oh, the fine calculations of imagined preferment ‘

The BBC’s poppies are clearly distributed simultaneously at the entrances of every live studio. I do not know if wearing one is explicitly compulsory in the News and Current Affairs department because no one has ever had the temerity to decline to wear one (if anyone has, it has been hushed up). They are certainly compulsory in all but name.

The BBC always protests that poppy-wearing is voluntary among newsreaders, weather forecasters and other studio-visiting pundits but it seems most unlikely that anybody fronting for the Corporation who declined to pin on the symbol would hold onto their job for long. Some pretext would be found for the change but it would certainly be for defying an unwritten house rule.

The news is expected to be disinterested, except over the fallen military (and sport: George Alagiah’s smile always turns beatific when he has a news item on something he calls “Man United” but, as I always take that to be some new manifestation of the Peace Corps, I suppose I should be pleased). The BBC regards the poppy as politically neutral, which of course it isn’t. No reporter or presenter would be allowed to wear a breast cancer ribbon or a gay pride badge. These favours would be thought to compromise the BBC’s neutrality. But the BBC is not neutral about national remembrance.

No doubt the explanation is that Remembrance Day is a national coming together, led by the head of state, in a way that the Last Night of the Proms or the Turner Prize is not. But the act of remembrance has its critics. Some years ago, the notion was revived that those who were concerned more for the victims than the perpetrators of war might wear white poppies. It didn’t take. The Women’s Cooperative Guild devised the white poppy in the 1930s to memorialise the non-combatants who died in the First World War and to stand as a symbol of peace. Red poppyists are apt to blackguard the white poppy as a token of cowardice, appeasement, pacificism and every other unspeakable sin attributable to commies, lefties and subversives. It’s academic anyway. Where could you buy one?

You don’t see many red-poppy-wearers in the street these days either, because you don’t see many poppy-sellers in the street in my neck of the woods. No doubt if you popped into a branch of the British Legion, you’d be able to pick one up. In my childhood, as October turned to November, there’d be a poppy-seller on every street corner, vying with the penny-for-the-guy kids, but both figures have melted away. (Bonfire Night, Firework Night or Guy Fawkes Night – as November 5th was variously known in the distant past – has been displaced by Halloween, an American device imperfectly grasped by British children). But those who fought in the Second World War are too old to stand on draughty street corners and their children and grandchildren aren’t much interested in Remembrance if they’re not in the public eye. So wearing the poppy has become a phenomenon that you see on television, something public figures do.

This year there has been a simply ridiculous row about whether the England football team should be permitted to have the likeness of a poppy added to their shirts – ironed on, I fancy, like the transfers of my childhood. Why, 93 years after the end of WWI, this should suddenly seem a nifty notion I cannot imagine. FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, initially said no and quite right too. Before long, we’d find footballers (a pretty reactionary shower) wanting to weave the pound sterling symbol of UKIP onto their shirts. Then FIFA went and backed down.

Needless to say, sports pundits and politicians (led by Cameron) clambered onto what promised to be a sturdy bandwagon. There was much airy talk about “honouring the fallen” as if that is something you can meaningfully demonstrate while fouling your opponents, throwing dives and spitting a lot. But I think what gets to me most is the sheer self-importance of the demand. Just do your job: win the bloody match.

After all, with a few civic-minded exceptions, the great majority of people sail through the great silence on November 11th blithely unaware of it happening. A few years ago, I found myself at 11.00 am in a branch of Woolworth’s (for the benefit of younger readers, this was an international chain of stores that had its origins in the USA). An announcement over the PA declared that the two minutes’ silence would be observed, transactions would be suspended and it was hoped that customers would join in the gesture. However, for the entire duration, the cacophony of piped muzak, demonstration televisions and in-store promotions continued unabated, made all the louder by the lack of deadening activity throughout the store. I suppose this bedlam had been enacted every year that the 11th fell on a trading day.

I have several objections to the poppy. First, I dislike ostentatious displays of charitable donation. I think a sandwich board that shouts “I gave” is vulgar and self-serving and that is what the poppy is, even if BBC people or MPs are “issued” with poppies without any actual donation being made. The fact that I don’t wear a poppy doesn’t mean that I don’t make a donation to the British Legion. You don’t need to know whether I do or not. It’s my business.

Second, I don’t see why one has to conform to someone else’s timetable. In my student days, I made a little protest. I bought a poppy in October, kept it and then wore it in April. I argued – and I found that I was obliged to argue surprisingly often – that if the fallen were worth remembering in November, they were worth marking each day, not just at a prescribed time. It made people extraordinarily cross.

Eventually, my protest seemed more trouble than it was worth. Mostly, my point concerned the ostentation of announcing that you had ‘given’. I was brought up in the belief that personal finances were private matters, and that charity was included in that privacy. Unless you were a recognized campaigner for a cause, you opened your wallet but closed your mouth. However, I fear I rather suspect that the veil drawn by my father over any contributions he made conveniently cloaked his parsimony rather than any reticence.

Thirdly, there isn’t just a poppy. There’s a single poppy, a poppy with leaf trim, a poppy with double leaf trim, a double poppy with double leaf trim and, doubtless, a poppy corsage. No doubt the late Sir Jimmy Savile sported a hydra-headed poppy with marching-band and Mighty-Wurlitzer accessories. The elaboration of the poppy brings in an element of competition, particularly among MPs, over who appears more generous or supportive or ingratiating or pretentious. So the poppy is not an affectless gesture, a simple show of respect, as BBC managers would have us believe. It is a surprisingly complex symbol of establishmentarianism. It identifies the wearers as part of a tribe, the tribe that, had it been of age then, would have been proud to join up and fight the Kaiser and the Hun or the Führer and the Nazis, even without all the benefits that hindsight brings.

Except, of course, that political leaders worship at the altar of ‘our boys’ while war is being waged but every generation systematically neglects its ‘boys’ once hostilities cease. From the shell-shocked of World War I to the front-line troops maimed by the chemicals and IEDs of modern warfare, the casualties are of no interest and are even a nuisance. They seek in vain proper levels of compensation for the sacrifices they were required to make. The annual poppy collection is not enough,

Kipling’s superb poem, ‘Tommy’, which created the Joe-Soap-for-a-soldier name of ‘Tommy Atkins’, caught the ambivalence of society to the battery-fodder soldiery. This is its last stanza:

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

Kipling was aghast at the conduct of the WWI and found expression of his feelings again and again in poetry. This simple, devastating couplet is the whole of a verse entitled ‘Common Form’:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

No society has any use for the maimed regular or the demobbed conscript because he reminds it of its stupidity and aggression. The bellicose Blair, the leader who took this country into more wars than any predecessor, minister or monarch, was no more attentive to those who return from war service injured in mind and body than any other prime minister. Indeed, his government, unlike those of most EU countries and even the US, gave no financial assistance of any kind to its own citizens injured or bereaved by terrorist action abroad until his third term. The trumpeted War on Terror was not, it seems, conducted as a war on behalf of human decency.

In response to the continued disgrace of the level of provision for injured troops, the movement called Help Our Heroes has grown up, a kind of year-round Remembrance. Its organisers and supporters have avoided being drawn on the fact that such help is so sorely needed. And no doubt that student of Blairism, Cameron, feels he can deflect any outrage at government provision into a claim that this is the Big Society in action. Indeed, it provides us with a handy general definition of charity: the making-up by individuals of the shortfall in state provision. And all shades of opinion collaborate in this comprehensive deflection of national responsibility onto private effort.

If it weren’t for the fact that all factions of the Commons sport the poppy, from the unreconstructed Thatcherites and Paisleyites to those Liberal Democrats who opposed the invasion of Iraq even before it happened, we could accuse MPs of, in their own quaint expression, “playing politics” with the war dead. As it is, we are faced with a solid wall of convention, the poppy-wearing class. It is odd that such a tiny proportion of the general public now identifies with that class by the most direct and simple means, themselves wearing a poppy. Perhaps there are the beginnings here of a genuine, popular, anti-establishment movement.

Across four decades, W Stephen Gilbert has been variously a writer of books, plays, magazine and newspaper reviews, articles and reportage on both sides of the Atlantic; a producer of drama and documentary for the BBC, C4 and ITV; a reader of scripts for the stage and screen; and an inveterate sender of letters to The Guardian. He has served on numerous industry committees, boards and juries, pitched projects in Hollywood and for several years posted blog pieces and book-length work on the internet. But like the Sondheim character, he never does anything twice.


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