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1 November 2017

Poppy tat lets you keep the pride – but ignore all the horrors of war

Poppies are being bundled into a Keep Calm and Carry On nostalgia – while still appearing on fighter jets. 

By Stephanie Boland

You’ve seen that poppies have started appearing in shops. Maybe you’ve even bought, and lost, your first one — the lifespan of a poppy on a coat lapel either appears to be two ragged months or, more likely, under a second.

But what if you want to go further? What if you want a poppy pin badge with the crest of your premier league team in enamel alongside? What if you want to buy your dog something from the “poppy paws” range, or make all your stationary poppy-themed, with a floral design that combines the red flowers blue and yellow ones, and pretty fronds of fern?

You’re in luck, my friend. Because this year’s poppy shop is here — and its offerings are wider and more inventive than ever. There’s even a poppy onesie to “cosy up on chilly days” while supporting the work of the Royal British Legion. It is this last item that has gained wider notoriety, with Tweets joking that it is “disrespectful” not to wear one to bed.

It’s worth digging into this joke. The Royal British Legion is careful to stress that the poppy symbol is not “a sign of support for war”, although the John McCrae poem which inspired it, “In Flanders Fields”, is far from pacifistic.

There is an argument to be made that, as a symbol of life continuing, bringing the poppy symbol into everyday items is perfectly fitting. It is also difficult to begrudge the Royal British Legion the chance to swell their coffers if poppy onesies are the way to go. After all, their services are still desperately needed, including by young men and women who have served in recent conflicts.

Yet a onesie covered in the symbol of Flanders is uncomfortable. Poppy motifs have appeared on the fuselage of a fighter-bomber jet associated with wars waged in the present, not just in the past. The poppy is also part of a disquieting nostalgia for war. You find it on tea towels and Christmas jumpers — the sort of Keep Calm and Don’t Mention the War merchandise that wishes to fold Ypres in with the WI and Sunday roasts. Not for nothing has the RBL designed a vintage radio and Churchill tea towel for the range (the latter is sold out).

To read John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and then look at this stuff is to experience a sort of emotional vertigo: the bright comfort and cosiness are so utterly at odds with the reality of young men drowning in the mud thousands of miles from home.

Perhaps, though, it would still be fine — albeit a little off-key — were it not for what else the poppy has become in recent years.

At its best, the poppy appeal has a gentle elegance. It speaks not of “the quarrel with our foe”, but of churchyards at 11am on a bright November mornings and scouts fidgeting as they put their banners together; of school children knocking on the door of each gratefully-distracted classroom to take donations before putting the box back on the desk at reception. If the British are generally rather bad at reckoning with history, the poppy appeal at least successfully funnels patriotism into charity.

At its worst, though, it reflects our worst: a noisy, cheap, are-you-with-us-or-not loyalty test in which the now oft-mocked phrase “our boys” also implies the fact they’re not their boys.

This, I ought to stress, is far from the tone struck by the official messaging of the Royal British Legion. But it is the tone that appears in abusive Tweets; the sentiment underscored by outraged headlines about Jeremy Corbyn not bowing low enough at the cenotaph.

A couple of years ago, I wrote in these pages that it is perfectly possible to respect the work of the Royal British Legion, and honour servicemen and women, while still feeling uncertain about the poppy’s place in increasingly fraught debates around nationhood and belonging “in a discursive environment which is … increasingly marked out by entrenched ideological positions”.

I had no idea. Reading those words again post-Brexit — after the front pages calling high court judges “enemies of the people” and racist poster boards with politicians posing in front — they seem hopelessly naïve. The talk of loyalty and traitors has become something that many of us found hard to envision even as recently as two years ago. Back then, I spoke to an Irish friend whose colleagues were shocked that his feelings about the British military made him unwilling to wear a poppy. He’s gone home to Donegal now — but I do wonder what that same office conversation might look like today.

If these are the terms of the debate, poppy tat takes on a new meaning. It becomes the marketable front of the same loyalty test that sees newsreaders sent racist, sexist abuse if they decide not to wear a poppy on air.

It would be narrow-minded to say that people are wrong to buy these things, or that doing so necessarily indicates any lack of understanding. People can, after all, buy what they like, and I can imagine some terribly sad reasons that someone might want a poppy babygro. And, again, £39.99 to the Legion — minus production and shipping costs — isn’t to be sniffed at. I’ll be disappointed if the best way to drum up support is through onesies, but you can’t blame the RBL for trying.

What you can do, though, is ask what it means to snuggle up on the sofa in a poppy onesie, fill your house with kitsch patriotism and dream not of missing sons, but tea dances. To keep the pride and skirt around the horror. As Alan Bennett has one character say in The History Boys, it’s not lest we forget; it’s lest we remember.

After a certain point, it can’t just be about the pennies. We have to think, too.


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