OH, look – a poppy row. We haven’t had one of those since the last one. Every year the indignation is cranked up over something or other; and every year the noise drowns out the respect.
It’s the paradox of the poppies: those demanding that we pay respect shout so loudly that all respect is forgotten. It’s the same every November, so much so that the poppy row has become a traditional as durable as Remembrance Day itself.
The newspapers, or some of them, scavenge for evidence that someone or other isn’t being sufficiently respectful. Last year it was the actor Sienna Miller who caused so-called offence by sitting on Graham Norton’s sofa while not wearing a poppy. Appearing on TV poppy-less has become a favourite offence.
All BBC presenters seem to wear a poppy by edict. This sort of enforced respect caused Channel 4’s Jon Snow to coin the phrase “poppy fascism”. And that was fully ten years ago in a blog for Channel 4 in which Snow responded to a viewer who had complained about his lack of a poppy.
Snow wrote: “There is a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there – ‘he damned well must wear a poppy!’. Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air.
“I respect our armed forces, the sacrifice and the loss, and like others I remember them on Remembrance Sunday. That’s the way it is. I won’t be wearing a black tie for anyone’s death – I don’t for my own relatives, so why on earth would I for anyone else’s?”
Quite right. Although another sort of tradition now sees Snow’s sensible thoughts dragged out annually by people like me. I have just checked and a year ago I mentioned Snow in a blog headlined: “When did we get so silly about poppies?”
This year’s silliness is of a different order in a sense, as the ‘villain’ is not someone who has been poppy forgetful, but an entire organisation. Fifa has decreed that English and Scottish players cannot wear poppies when the teams meet on Armistice Day. This is because world football’s governing body bans political, religious or commercial messages on shirts.
The Football Associations of England and Scotland say they intend to defy this ban by allowing players to wear poppies on black armbands. And they will accept whatever punishment Fifa dishes out.
Prime Minister Theresa May joined in the let’s-shout-about-this chorus by declaring the rule to be “utterly outrageous”. Well, it probably is. But this is a tedious row, and as unnecessary as all those other silly rows about poppies.
I don’t care whether footballers wear poppies or not. I don’t care if TV presenters forget to buy a poppy or decide that wearing a poppy isn’t for them. I don’t always remember to buy a poppy myself. But I do shed a quiet tear sometimes on Remembrance Day over my grandfather who carried stretchers through the mud of the Somme.
We all have family links to those who died and those who survived, but are now dead. And these rows disrespect the dead.
Fifa appears to consider poppies to be a political symbol. This will outrage many people – and utterly outrage a few more. I suppose it depends on your definition of political. Those who feel that red poppies excuse wars rather than honour the dead may well feel that the poppy is a political symbol.
I don’t feel that, by the way, although I do think that the simplicity of the poppy appeal has somehow become politicised. And that’s why we have these ridiculous rows every year.
Harry Leslie Smith, a 94-year-old veteran, went to his first Remembrance Sunday in 1928. Two years ago, he declared that he would never again wear a red poppy in public thanks to the sight of red poppies ‘festooning’ politicians’ lapels. Of that first Sunday, he has said: “I don’t remember whether people wore poppies but they wore their grief like jagged glass.”
Do wear a poppy with pride if you want to; or don’t wear a poppy if that is your preference. Or wear a white poppy if you wish (and can find one). And next year let’s remember the fallen without another stupid row.