This year, somehow, the poppy got complicated. I heard a few pious people rather ostentatiously saying they were not going to wear one because a poppy glorified war, or some such thing. These people, I noticed, mostly lived in north London and would not know a firefight in the Helmand Valley from a hole in the ground, although that has nothing to do with anything except for the mazy workings of my own mind. Luckily for them, millions of men and women fought and died so they did not have to live under fascism and so they can say what they damn well please. Luckily for me, so can I.
The poppy itself does not care. It exists in its own inanimate universe, accepting whatever meaning humans care to give it. It means something different to everyone who wears it. The old soldiers, who are not pious or ostentatious, who never speak about the war, who fought them in the fields and on the landing grounds, wear it, I suspect, for their comrades. I think they wear it for the ones who did not come home. They might wear it for their blood brother or their battle brother, for whoever fought with them on that day was their brother. Some of them wear it with pride and some of them wear it with a sorrow that goes beyond human words. Some of them wear it to staunch the slow act of forgetting; some of them wear it from simple respect. I will never know what they are thinking as they march up Whitehall, those old warriors holding themselves tall, perhaps for the last time. But I know that they are not thinking about the glory of war, because glory is not a word that veterans use.
I once heard a war widow say that when she sees people on the streets with a poppy in their lapel she feels that they are remembering her dead husband and the son he left behind. Of course she understands that most people have no idea about her beloved, but that is what she feels.
Some people wear the poppy with the very specific thought of the Flanders fields where the flower of a generation was cut down. Some people wear it for all the soldiers and sailors and fliers, in every conflict in every generation. Some people wear it because they don’t want to forget; some people wear it because they hope that never again will the best and the brightest be hurled, pointlessly and madly, into the canon fire.
I wear it for all those reasons. I think a lot about those boys of the First World War, and so many of them were no more than boys. I think about the girls too, the ones they left at home, the ones who nursed the wounded and ploughed the fields and kept the home fires burning, and who found, at the end of four bloody years, that everyone they ever danced with was dead. I think about the horses who strained and struggled through the mud, and who lay where they fell because nobody, in that filthy hades, had the time to bury them. They were athletic hunters and faithful farm horses and they must have been puzzled and frightened to find themselves in a place where there was no grass, no trees, no birdsong, but they went on doing their best until they could do no more.
And then I go forward in history, and think of the second great war with its millions of losses and its unmarked graves and its strafing and bombing, the mass killing that technology made possible. I go on through the later conflicts, in the Falklands, in the Middle East, in Afghan. I work, in a small way, with veterans, and they never pull rank because they have seen things that I cannot imagine and done things which I would never, in a hundred years, have the courage to do. They took me in and laughed at my jokes and my hats and my habit of hurling myself to the ground to get a good angle when I’m taking their photograph. Because of them, I know something about comradeship, and when I wear my poppy I think of them all.
I don’t wear my poppy with pride. I wear it with humility. I wear it for people who had, and have, a bravery of which I dare not dream. I wear it from respect. I wear it for memory. It’s a tiny act, once a year, but it means something to me. I am free to sit and write these thoughts in a liberal democracy with no secret police knocking at my door and that is, in part, due to the dauntless generations of fighting men and women who went before me. I wear the poppy to say thank you.