Intellectuals can be astonishingly stupid. I love ideas and I love abstract thought and I love the people who trade in them. But still: the great brain can sometimes entirely bypass the human heart.
This happened on Wednesday on the Moral Maze. There was a big debate about should one wear a poppy. The whole thing was rather phoney. I felt their hearts weren’t in it, that they were ginning up the gimcrack simply in order to make a programme of it. Because everyone knows that of course you should wear a poppy, if you wish to mark the dead, and the wounded too, and that if you do not wish to do those things, you should not. Some people wear them and some people don’t . Some people remember in their own way. Some people feel so enraged and lacerated at the very thought of war that they cannot brings themselves to acknowledge Remembrance Sunday exists.
All these are explicable human reactions, and should be left to each human to carry. But here was one of the stupid intellectuals, making a stupid point, in a stupid way. A woman from the British Legion was explaining that the poppy meant many different things to many different people. The intellectual said, crossly, that surely this rendered it meaningless. The woman from the British Legion then told a moving story about a young widow she had met, who told her that every time she saw someone wearing a poppy, she thought that they were acknowledging her small son, and the father he had lost. The intellectual snorted. ‘That woman,’ she said. ‘Isn’t she just kidding herself?’
And there is the stupidity of very clever people, in one sentence.
Of course the young widow might be indulging in a bit of wish thinking, but actually she is not so far off the mark. A lot of people with their poppies will be thinking exactly of fatherless boys like her son. But the point is that she, with unerring emotional intelligence, went to what was the crux of the thing. The poppy is to remember, and, just as importantly, it makes those who have lost their best beloveds feel less alone. That is why it is a communal act. The tearing isolation of grief is lifted, for one short season in November. And at the Cenotaph today, the men and women will march together, and the old comrades will find each other, and the nation will stop at eleven o’clock, as much as one as this old mutt of a country ever gets.
The people who shout about the poppy miss the point. It is not misplaced jingoism, or glorying in war, or mindless conformity. The people who wear it are not, as that intellectual sneeringly said, kidding themselves. The dead are dead, and the grieving are grieving, and acts of great courage and sacrifice were made and have been made and shall be made again, and should be marked. Respect is due.
You can make all the intellectual cases against that you want. Some of them will cohere. But that does not make them true, because they miss the heart of the matter. They evade the human factor. All the arguments in the world fall down in the face of one widow, whose burden is lightened for a moment, because of one flower on one lapel. That is why the poppy is worth it.
Every year, I buy my poppy and it falls off. Then I buy another one. Sometimes I look down at my naked lapel, with its forlorn pin where a flower should have been, and feel fretful, that people will think I did not have one, that I did not care. So then I go and get another one and try and fix it really tight and right and think: this will be the one which stays the distance. For the rest of November, I shall find little crumpled cardboard flowers, in the well of the car, down the side of the sofa, in the feed shed, where they have fallen. My comrades at HorseBack all seem to wear theirs with pristine efficiency, and I wonder how they do it. Marine training, I suppose.
I look at them, and the poppy takes on a whole new meaning, more personal than before. Two of the men wearing them this year have been catastrophically injured by enemy action. One was blown up, and one was shot through the head. I look at them, wearing their poppies bravely and well, and I think: if it is good enough for them, it damn well is good enough for me.
I never use photographs which are not mine. I make an exception today. Sadly I have no photographer for this, but I think it is beautiful, and eloquent.