AS a post-WW2 Baby Boomer I was brought up to remember the fallen in two world wars and respect all those who’d served king and country in whatever humble a capacity.
My grammar school always held a Remembrance Day service and once I was conscripted to read the oration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ecclesiasticus, 44:1), shards of which are still ingrained in my subconscious.
In those austere days we kids were surrounded by the detritus of war. Bomb sites littered my city, Anderson shelters rusted in back gardens, almost every home had a photo of someone who’d soldiered and my teachers, almost to a man, bore the scars of conflict, some more bizarrely than others.
Our physics master insisted on being called Major not Sir – ‘I never got a bloody knighthood,’ he’d rumble, ‘but I got a commission and a load of shrapnel in my a*** at Monte Casino’ – a fact underscored by the service-issue Webley revolver he used as a paperweight on his desk.
Mad-eyed Harding barked Latin at us and had a baseball pitcher’s accuracy with a blackboard duster, notwithstanding a deformed right hand. Always clad in a thick, white, rolled-necked sweater, he’d hum constantly and seemed to exist on jam butties.
Naturally, we all joked he was bonkers, but were still stunned when he went completely off his rocker in mid-lesson one day, bursting into tears and fleeing the classroom, never to be seen again.
A week later our PE instructor, a D-Day veteran, told us Jammy – our clichéd nickname for Harding – had commanded a cruiser escorting Arctic convoys to ice-bound Murmansk. Manning the bridge for hours on end, all he ate were sarnies smeared with raspberry preserve, humming to anaesthetise his mind from the incessant din of exploding enemy shells. The reward for his courage, lunacy and frostbite that cost him four fingertips was a Distinguished Service Order.
Most of the men I grew up around never spoke of their war service; there was a tacit understanding you never asked. Instead, almost in defiance, we became action junkies at the cinema, goggling at the derring-do of John Wayne clearing out Jap machinegun nests on Guadalcanal (though, in reality, Duke never saw active service on account of his age and an old, sports injury).
However, even as impressionable youngsters we learned to discern the demarcation lines between Hollywood heroics and the terrible, horrific reality, evidenced by what was all around us in terms of human suffering and architectural destruction.
Which is why today – Remembrance Sunday – many of us will show we’ve not forgotten and wear a poppy in tribute to those called upon to make the supreme sacrifice and others who survived, having ‘done their bit’.
Some now question the sentiment of this public/personal display of patriotism.
In fact, as early as 1919, acts of commemoration provoked outrage amongst huge numbers of returning veterans, when faced with what they saw as the glorification of the squalid and meaningless loss of life.
In 2010, Muslim extremists burned poppies and chanted ‘anti-crusader’ slogans during the two-minute silence in protest against British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (this year, say the community’s leaders, a million Muslims will wear poppies, perhaps recalling their many co-religionists who fell in action).
And, in a crass gesture, Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow generated a frenzy by refusing to wear the little red flower, attacking what he termed ’poppy fascism’ and ‘intolerance’, claiming the symbol had become cheapened and politicised.
‘Their proliferation now means that not having one on display is to commit the ultimate social faux pas,’ Alice Eccles asserted recently in The Cambridge Student Magazine.
To expand in defence of Alice, her piece inspired some sensible – and sensitive – debate, querying whether the message of the remembrance poppy has remained faithful to its original ideals.
Alice asks how the widows or the mothers of The Great War dead would react to flashy, showbiz ‘B-Listers’ gatecrashing Poppy Day, which this year include pop songstresses, Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott.
‘It would seem that nothing is immune to commercialization in the heady atmosphere of the 21st century, as the British Legion website offers poppy-themed stocking fillers, umbrellas, and salt and pepper pots,’ she points out.
Fuelling that debate further are high street jewellers, flogging garish, stone-encrusted poppies for £45 – with just £4.50 going to the worthy cause of the Legion – thus despoiling a potent symbol of sacrifice and perverting it into a fashion bauble.
Then there’s poppy etiquette…like when is it appropriate to start wearing one? According to an informed source, it should only be in the week preceding Remembrance Day and, rather like decorations being taken down after the 12th day of Christmas, the emblem should be removed immediately after Armistice Day, November 11.
So much, then, for the jingoism of Jim Devine, the then Labour MP for Livingston, who was widely mocked in 2007 when he began sporting his poppy in the mid-October.
And where should it be worn? On the left lapel for men, on the right side for women, advise those who’ve made a forensic study of poppy protocol.
Finally, what about the little green leaf that’s become an added adornment to poppies in recent times – where should that point?
To eleven o’clock, naturally, insist the experts, signifying the end of WW1 hostilities on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (maybe someone should have a quiet word with David Cameron, since the Prime Minister has been snapped wearing his poppy leaf at variously anything from mid-day to three p.m., tut, tut, tut).
All this cranking up of ritual propriety, though, makes me think the whole notion of symbolism is in dire danger of being hidebound by the holier-than-thous, out to hijack the public’s heartfelt compassion, personified by the act of donning a humble, paper poppy.
So, as I wear mine with pride, I hope Alice is right when she says, ‘This little red flower might still act as a vessel through which we can come to grips with the very real sacrifices made by the men and women of this country, for our present and future freedoms.’