Monday, 3 November 2014

Poppycock

As the nights draw in and the air starts to mist from our lips, so begins the Quaint British Festival season.  Growing up in a Jewish family I became used to enjoying a tasting menu of festivities in September/October in the run up to Christmas time.  A new year, a day of atoning, then finally eating candied fruit in a barely serviceable wicker hut became a yearly tradition for me as a child. This meant that often I overlooked the more mainstream festivities that came after it: the American import of Hallowe'en, a few days later a boisterous commemoration of that naughty Catholic Guy Fawkes and then, finally, Remembrance Sunday.  If you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s like I did you might think that last one doesn't really fit into the British pre-Christmas festive calendar, but then it has had a bit of makeover of late.  When I was a child it felt quiet, respectful, understated and genuinely solemn - what an act of remembrance for millions dead in one of humanity's stupidest endeavours deserves. 

This Hallowe'en weekend it seemed that every British citizen was duty-bound to do their best Walking Dead impression and splash it all over Facebook.  I'm almost amazed that we didn't have pictures of David Cameron and Ed Milliband doing selfies dressed as Jack the Pumpkin King.  But that is nothing compared to the regimented uniformity that has Britain in its grip at the start of every November: poppy-wearing.  Now this isn't going to be one of those "why I'm not going to wear a poppy" type blogs.  I understand why people choose to remember the millions whose lives were utterly wasted in warfare.  Although it would be nice one year if we could commemorate their loss by maybe scrapping Trident, shutting down all the armaments factories, stripping our military back to a basic defensive standing army and plug all the saved money into diffusing mines left on battlefields around the world and feeding the starving.  But I appreciate that might be a bit bold and tricky for politicians who don't want to stymie that profitable military-industrial complex of ours.  More importantly, I also see a worrying trend of poppy-wearing orthodoxy creeping into British society over the past decade - any newscaster or weatherman, company secretary or corporate host who's buttonhole doesn't suddenly bloom into a little patch of papery grief every 1st of November is somehow breaking an essential rule of modern etiquette.  They haven't popped on the Eurostar and used a far flung field in Flanders as a litter tray for their dogs, but they may as well have done.  Again, whilst I don't agree with this enforced wearing, grief-by-numbers, I still understand why so many people feel the need to make their show of remembering and donate to worthy charities.

Yet it really is a testament to the addictive qualities of the poppy that even in its paper and plastic form the British find it so moreish and every year they have to indulge that little bit more.  The little symbol of remembrance and respect to the fallen of World War One has now started to pop up everywhere: the traditional lapels, of course, but also car bonnets, football strips, park railings and almost any available area that can be adorned.  Today I was driving down the A243 in Surrey and saw a three mile strip of lampposts wearing giant paper poppies, as though Beaker from the Muppet Show had decided to commemorate the horrors of the Somme.  Line upon line of these sentinels of basic infrastructure now transformed into...well, certainly not anything appropriate or even necessary for commemoration.  At first as I drove down the road it felt like the least subtle peer pressure I've ever experienced.  Row after row of streetlamps zooming past my window: "remember, remember, remember", but after the second mile of this insistent parade it just became ridiculous.  How could anyone ever think that it was in any way necessary to put poppies on them? 

I can't imagine those poor lads fighting one hundred years ago would have thought much about memorials, but I think they'd appreciate an understated statue in their hometown, a moment's silence, a yearly addition to clothing that makes all the citizens stop and think not of their sacrifice, but of their tragic and stupid loss.  If someone had said - "Don't worry chaps, win or lose, life or death, you'll be remembered on a single-lane A road just by Chessington on a rusty, flashing lamp post."  If this is the path we're going down, I fear for the solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, as next year all of the manhole covers in Greater London will be painted to look like poppies and anyone who doesn't strictly obey the two minute silence will have their face painted bright red as they're paraded through the city in shame.  There's nothing worse than being at a Christmas party and having to endure forced jollity from the office fun Nazi, blowing a party whistle in your face and urging you to "cheer up Scrooge!"  Except maybe going out into the world in Britain in November and having every media outlet, every shop and now the lampposts - the object whose job it is to help me see at night, not feel shame, remorse and upset over an insane cataclysmic conflict - holler at me to remember or you're a bad person and a bad citizen.

By now you might think I'm over-reacting.  You might think that I'm being disrespectful and however someone wishes to act in remembering the fallen war dead should be given the time and space to do that.  If councils (and I presume it's councils) want to adorn street furniture with poppies, let them be.  It is showing that these men are still in our minds and bound up in the very fabric of our society.  Maybe. Possibly.  But I'll tell you what really didn't need to be wearing a poppy: the wacky waving inflatable arm man I saw outside a car dealership at the end of A243.  Whoever made that happen may as well have taken a dump on the Cenotaph.