November is always the month that this nation indulges in a spot of collective angst naval-gazing; trembling hands hovering nervously over a collection tin, wondering if the poppy was still patriotically significant in this day and age. Marks of respect and solidarity nowadays come in the forms of garish rubber wristbands; and those unlucky enough to get contact dermatitis from wearing the bloody things would probably set up a Facebook page or something. The less IT literate amongst us may even hang a bedsheet from the nearest bridge with a crudely daubed slogan, leaving it to dissolve in the elements, with the painted letters running like the mascara of a drunken spinster.
The poppy has evoked a series of debates about the relevancy of it. After all, its primary purpose is to commemorate a war that happened over 90 years ago (with subsequent wars and conflicts bolted onto it for good measure like an old car supplemented with extra parts scavenged over the years to keep the rust bucket roadworthy). Media commentators and public figures questioned the validity of wearing a small paper flower -and the BBC edict to do so- likening the societal backlash to not wearing one as ‘poppy fascism’ …a stupid phrase given the circumstances. Perhaps the next annual Holocaust convention will be likened to a ‘roomful of gasbags’.
The problem arises from the expectation that you should wear a poppy, especially if you have a respectable job; i.e. teacher, nurse, civil servant, newsreader, lawyer (I made the last one up). To not do so would hardly result in a lecture about being bayoneted in the face while suffering the twin evils of mustard gas and trench foot, but probably result in a raised eyebrow and some huffing in those morning office meetings. This year I bought three poppies, simply because it was obvious that they were going to become detached by coats, seatbelts, etc. However, my third purchase was on the 11th November, and having a meeting that morning do you think I could find a bugger anywhere? The blind panic that engulfed me was totally unnecessary. If we don’t want to wear a bloody poppy then we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Equally if we want to imitate some fatuous WAG on an ITV reality show, fork out 85 quid and become adorned with the latest jewel-encrusted designer effort, then that should be OK too. Shouldn’t it?
I’ve always been anti-war. The blood-soaked follies of Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that in certain given circumstances, war is a tool too-oft used to promote the vested commercial and imperial interests of national bullies. War is akin to a load of drunken lads gatecrashing a houseparty, raiding the fridge, pissing in the aquarium, shagging the host and beating up her boyfriend, before setting fire to the pet dog who trails a frenzy of burning shit across the lounge. They then up and depart, leaving a smouldering aftermath of chaos and emotional debris that takes aeons to repair.
However unavoidable war is, one cannot doubt the fortitude of those who have to face death. We’ve all had what we consider to be awful traumatic events in our lives that we’d all prefer to avoid and forget: car accidents, fights, relationship breakdowns, financial worries, Lenny Henry …but how can this even scratch the surface of a daily fight for survival in conditions that would pollute the Gates of Hell, surrounded by the bloated decaying cadavers of friends we once sat next to in class learning our ABCs, chasing around the yard, catching butterflies, climbing trees, swapping cards, nicking sweets from the corner shop? How could we even begin to fathom the sense of helplessness that young men feel when they are sent out each day with the thought that they may never return alive to feel the glow of woman next to them or enjoy the warmth of the summer sun on a quiet sunday afternoon in the garden?
My great grandfather stands as the reason why I wear a poppy every year. Private Sydney Hooper (‘Pop’) was a gentle unassuming man who liked to sing little limericks to a four year old boy with shiny eyes who sat on his knee and demanded to see the bullet wound in his right hand and examine the gallantry medal nestling in a small velvet-lined wooden case. These twin trophies were the consequence of his capture of a pillbox armed to the teeth with German machine guns.
He never spoke much about the Great War or the effect it had on him. A small child could never comprehend PTSD or ‘shell-shock’. I remember those days at the height of the Summer of Love. He would take me up to Bethany Square, where there were lines of benches occupied by his comrades; many of whom had eye patches, empty sleeves where arms once were, refashioned bases of walking sticks to replace legs lost on the fields of Flanders, and faces spattered with a myriad of black and red holes. To a man they were rendered deaf from the constant artillery bombardment, and the local air filled with the high pitched whistling of mistuned hearing aids. Yet they still retained a sense of quiet dignity and perspective. Bitterness never entered the lexicon of their discourse. Every one of them oozed with the essences of enduring politeness, optimism and kindness. In the face of a sixties counter-culture that railed against the establishment and its tools of war, these old men never argued with the idealistic hippy youths that confronted them, preferring to agree with them that war was and is wrong; and despite the huge generational differences, won them around. The bizarre sight of iridescent long-haired youngsters joyously chewing the fat with old mutilated men who’d spat in the face of Satan will stay in my mind for always.
In the intervening months and years Bethany Square featured less and less of Pop’s friends; dissolving like the embers of a rain-soaked fire. In 1969, pneumonia took him to them. Even then he departed in quiet dignity. Bertrand Russell once wrote: war does not determine who is right - only who is left. I miss him, and can only wonder what he would think about my hatred of the sneering violent decadent something-for-nothing superficial rotten country we are living in today. He would probably take me to one side and lighten the mood with another limerick. Best we forget.