It was a wee bit of running joke in my family to mention my Granda’s WW2 spell in the Film Unit in Italy. A wee bit of ribaldry whenever ‘The Guns Of Navarone’ or the like turned up on a Sunday afternoon before Scotsport. Except that after he died, it transpired he was at Normandy. And not on a wine tour. Like a lot of men of that generation, he minimised his role in the conflict once he was back in civvies. He ended up in the Film Unit, sure, but only because he got shot in the arse on the beaches of France.
I don’t say ‘shot in the arse’ for comedic effect. You might want to imagine a bullet shot from a German machine gun ripping through your flesh as you land on a strip of sand in a country you little about, in a war you know as much as any 19 year old would. That’s why he ended up spending the last bit of the war showing Ronald “Fucking” Reagan films to guys marching up the Apennines. After that, he got sent home, eventually taking up employment in a nationalised industry, before taking early retirement when it was privatised.
He never wore an Earl Haig poppy.
My other Granda was a bit younger. He ended up stationed in post-war Palestine, keeping the peace on behalf of the long-dead Arthur Balfour and his half-pissed Declaration. Stationed down the road from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, he popped out for ten minutes (knowing my Granda, it was probably for 10 Embassy Red) and came back to find a smouldering shell where British HQ had been.
After that, he was shunted to Egypt, spat on (and I mean literally) by a population sick of British colonisation after nearly 70 years of occupation; and sent to Malaya to fight a nasty, colonial, resource-driven conflict, which the Empire ultimately lost, in keeping with the rest of the pink disappearing from the map. Coming back to a Corpy house, he did a turn on the Corpy buses before becoming a mechanic for the Scottish Ambulance Service, dying of cancer before he received a penny of a pension.
He never wore an Earl Haig poppy.
I tell these stories of dead family members, not because I’m proud or because they are in any way remarkable – although I am and they are – but just to reject the nasty little smear that echoes around the right-wingers in our midst at this time every year, the lie that only by wearing a red poppy do you properly remember the dead of conflicts past. I know neither of my grandfathers had much difficulty remembering their time in the army – the death, decay, violence, and inhumanity – and neither countenanced sporting a poppy (that’s not even mentioning my Belfast-born great-grandfather, who, in lieu of any work for young Catholic men, joined the British Army just after WW1 and had the IRA shoot him out of his house for his troubles. After that he set up home, like thousands before him, in the Gallowgate. I suppose therefore I have the IRA to thank for ensuring I exist. Talk about metaphysical conundrums).
Were they being disrespectful to their comrades? I challenge anyone to utter those words. I challenge anyone to minimise the totality of experience they went through, a period of their life that very few alive today can properly comprehend. I challenge the likes of Melanie Phillips, and the other spittle-flecked reactionaries who denigrate those of us who remember the victims of wars via methods they disapprove of, to say I disrespect my grandas and the men and women alongside them by consciously deciding not to don a red poppy.
I wear a white poppy because I think nearly all of those killed at war are worthy of our thoughts, because I believe nearly all human beings are fundamentally decent creatures driven to indecent actions by their environment, and because the idea of valuing human lives higher because they happened to be born on the Tyne rather than the Rhine sits uneasily with me. Those are only my beliefs; it’s not for me to say whether they’re right or wrong, whether they’re the most appropriate way to view war, coloured as they are by the prism of my 21st century, relatively safe perspective.
To say these things is to be accused of “politicising” the act of remembrance. Good. I can think of no better way of remembering the waste of war than by asking questions of the political decisions that led us to war in the past, the decisions that determined the world we live in today, and questioning that world. Questions like: Why the life of a Bavarian WW1 conscript sent to die by the butchers in Berlin isn’t deemed worthy of official commemoration, while the life of a Bradfordian WW1 conscript sent to die by the butchers of Belgravia is? How young men and women end up being blown up by home-made landmines in the backstreets of Kabul, while 5 miles away other young men and women end up being blown up by US-made cluster bombs, all the result of the decisions taken by some of those besuited types lined up at the Cenotaph? When did we as a society relieve the Government of its responsibility to assist those injured and wounded as a result of being sent into conflict by those suits, and instead implore the public to fund their care and rehabilitation?
Remembrance isn’t about whether you wear a red poppy, a white poppy, or no poppy at all. A moment of honest, thoughful reflection on the horrors of war is worth more than a thousand flimsy pieces of material, especially if those thoughts re-occur at other times of the year. If the presence or otherwise of that material helps concentrate the mind, use it. But it’s also about asking those questions and many, many more. It’s about demanding answers of those past, present, and future, who hold the lives of millions in the balance, as to their motives and reasons.
To go meekly along with the Establishment and attach a red poppy on your lapel simply because you fear the opprobrium of others if you don’t, seems to me to be the worst way possible of respecting the spirit of those who, in their last moments, must have known better than any of us what the worst of war means. And who, one hopes, would want us to ask the questions that might save their descendants from a similar fate.