Being cross about poppies 

15 minutes | Poppies | Remembrance | Poetry | Swastikas

Since man stopped scratching his arse with a blunt stick and started doodling replicable shapes in the earth instead, the manifestation of any symbol has invited conjecture about its meaning. But poppification is something else. The pervasive, mass-adoption of misconceptions about a symbol’s meaning affects swastikas too—you might want to hold tight for this one—so yes, this is the poppies and swastikas story again. These details get forgotten. They need to be remembered.

For the most part, we’re talking about laziness. Most of us couldn’t give a rat’s tail what a symbol actually meant in its first incarnation. Inevitably, that leads to mis-use and commercialisation, which in turn leads to even more apathy. This cumulative dilution of knowledge explains how emblems get politicised or demonised unfairly and all too easily.

People don’t know, because people don’t care, because people don’t know.

As it happens, I do care. I don’t have an overt affinity for flowers or crosses, but I do care a little bit about people not giving a jot as to the backstory of symbols used to epitomise war, dammit. If these stories aren’t retold from time to time, then the potential for plurality becomes infinite and our connection to the past, weakens. So, as the anniversary looms—the Allies’ acceptance of Nazi Germany’s surrender of its armed forces (which, to be clear, is not the same thing as the end of a war)—it doesn’t seem out of place to go a bit Dan Brown. Let’s start with poppies.

Papavers exude powerful connotations. In the first World War, these hardy little flowers were some of the first plants to grow in freshly-turned soil that was strewn with lime-laden rubble. They flourished where men did not. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae captured that image of poppies, gently swaying, and blowing among the crosses in the first lines of his rondeau, ‘In Flanders Fields’.

Blowing, or growing? We’re still not sure. His handwriting was awful. Ironically, McCrae’s references to the flowers themselves were quickly taken out of context by all who read the poem. They’re mentioned only once, and McCrae then goes on: “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” he says, To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”

Wait for it. Let it sink in. ‘In Flanders Fields’ is anything but a poem in favour of remembrance or peace. Rather, it is a rallying cry to take up arms. McCrae’s words struck a chord with the readers of Punch magazine, where it was first published, and the stanzas and the flowers themselves fast became synonymous with wartime loss.

 In fact, a Canadian woman, Moina Michael, was so moved by the graphic image that she campaigned for her nation to adopt the poppy as a national symbol of remembrance. Other countries followed suit. Except—we didn’t, did we. Britain has never officially—as in, mandated by HM Gov in some way—we have never *officially* adopted poppies as symbols of remembrance.

Still, like stale beer on boozer carpets, the little red flower has seeped into our culture as a thoroughly British institution. And it delivers significant monies into the coffers of the well-deserving Royal British Legion—the UK’s largest Armed Forces charity—which has already taken people to court for breaching intellectual property rights over the iconic poppy brand. Oh yes, ‘brand’.

The flower’s image has a commercial lock-up now. The Legion’s choice of corporate sponsors has seen poppies popping up in some rum old places over the years (BAE and Lockheed Martin UK wouldn’t spring to my mind in prime position, if you’re on the hunt for a donors). ANYWAY.

Dorothy L. Sayers carved a memorable niche for poppy-wearing in her book: ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’. When the fictitious and rather marvellous General Fentiman is found dead at the eponymous members’ establishment on Armistice Day, Sayers’ protagonist—Lord Peter Wimsey—points out the absence of a memorial poppy. Quod erat demonstrandum: no conscientious General would be seen dead without one. In a short and pithy speech, Wimsey concludes foul play, and so the flower starts to bloom in its emerging status as a symbol of remembrance. Although…

… strictly speaking, It was Field Marshal Douglas Haig who approved the sale of red poppies in Britain, in 1921. But he did not do so for acts of commemoration. As President of the recently-formed British Legion, he believed the silk flowers would raise much-needed money to help veterans find work and housing. Haig’s Fund was an astute move: the poppies captured people’s hearts and a grieving nation emptied its pockets. On 11 November 1921, the first Poppy Appeal raised £106,000—a little over £4.3 million in today’s money—which, considering the state of the nation at that time, is bloody impressive.

However, those poppies were promoted specifically to commemorate the sacrifice made by British armed forces and those who fought alongside them. Haig’s intention was to raise money, and to underline the government’s political commitment to ‘never again’ enter into conflict—or so the theory went. In practice, discord remained. Churchill’s ‘never again’ resolve wavered and, by as soon as the early 1930s, people were having concerns about unorganised evolution and militarisation of supposed ‘remembrance events’ and the poppies on display at them.

As an alternative then, the British Co-operative Women’s Guild proposed white poppies for pure acts of remembrance, each one bearing the word ‘peace’. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) embraced the idea and has been producing and distributing white alternatives ever since.

Somewhat ironically, the PPU saw the white poppy as a symbol of non-sectarian pacifism. It is an ambitious organisation. It’s been campaigning for a world without war since 1934 and asks for a heartfelt pledge from its members: “War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.” 

Does everyone wearing a white poppy know this? That the emblem represents a desire for unilateral pacifism and a heartfelt promise to deliver on such a lofty ideal? I’m not sure they do. 

George Orwell had a few words to say about pacifism and the PPU. Less about poppies, which is a surprise as his father worked for the British government’s opium department, overseeing production of the drug before its export to China. Britain had an opium department. Who knew? Orwell published his thoughts in the October 1941 issue of Adelphi magazine: “Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi.” Wow. Even I might leave that one alone for a minute.

Controversial? Uh-huh. But Orwell also accused the PPU of moral collapse when some members showed sympathies with Nazi Germany or joined the British Union of Fascists—which, in his defence, is a fair point. And a fair point that leads to another great misappropriation of symbolism: the swastika.

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit, svastika, meaning ‘good fortune’. It is also known as a cross cramponnée or tetraskelion. Early Christian artists understood that, but they referred to the symbol as a ‘fylfot’. They used it to ‘fill the foot’ of ecclesiastical stained-glass and, well, to decorate everything, really. There’s an outstanding, large crooked cross on the end of one of the pews in Sheffield Cathedral. You’ll find a row of mini-fylfots on the Bishop of Coventry’s mitre, on his tomb in Coventry Cathedral—Coventry, a place so devastated by bombing that the Nazis coined the phrase ‘Coventriert’, meaning to demolish or raze a city in the manner of the 1940 air-raid. 

In Buddhism, the swastika represents the footprints of the Buddha. In Mesopotamia it was used on coins. The Norse races used the symbol for decoration, and in Hinduism and Jainism the hooked cross is a spiritual symbol of well-being. You will find swastikas all over Asia and Indonesia, on temples and on houses concerned about vulnerability against the forces of Mother Nature. And—when he saw Hindu traders opening their annual account books with a swastika to ensure an auspicious start to the year—Rudyard Kipling asked for the symbol to be included as a ‘good luck’ motif in the preface and on the spine of his booksand all of this is well-known, there’s nothing new here.

GRATUITOUS KIPLING

“Till the snow ran out in flowers, and the flowers turned to aloes, And the aloes sprung to thickets and a brimming stream ran by; But the thickets dwined to thorn-scrub, and the water drained to shallows, And I dropped again on desert – blasted earth, and blasting sky…”

Chambois. Which cross do you see first? Which one is more powerful in your mind’s eye?

Thankfully, it appears the the rising right in America has overlooked the evolution of children’s organisations. The Girls’ Club of America’s once published a monthly magazine called The Swastika, and the swastika was once introduced as a badge of fellowship for Boy Scouts all over the world. “When anyone has done a kindness to a Scout it is their privilege to present him or her with this token of their gratitude, which makes him a sort of member of the Brotherhood and entitles him to the help of any other Scout at any time and at any place,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Blimey, Bob.

The meanings *we* give to a symbol depend on who we are. What our belief system is. What our values and views on life may be. Until recently, for example, the Japanese used swastikas to identify temples on tourist maps. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s true, on their maps, a ‘manji’ usually points counter-clockwise—so it’s the reverse of the symbol adopted by the Nazis—but Japanese Buddhism uses both derivations, clockwise and counter-clockwise, and the symbol is a spiritual one, it always has been.

The Japanese have a view on poppies, too. In Hanakatoba, which is the Japanese language of flowers, a red poppy means fun-loving (hinageshi); a white one (shiro) is a symbol of rejoicing; and a yellow one (ki) means success. Traditionalists choose their birthday blooms carefully. If I ever send you Chrysanthemums, it’s not because I like you.

In Greek mythology, however, the poppy is a symbol of consolation. Jupiter gave poppies to Ceres. He hoped that papaver somniferum would help to assuage her grief for Prosperpine, her daughter. And for the Greeks, the swastika is also a sacred symbol: the ‘tetraktys’ denotes the sun. The Irish take the same view: the swastika is or was a Celtic symbol for sunshine. But when it comes to arranging flowers, Irish nationalists see poppies as a symbol of British rule or the British Army’s handy-work and, not surprisingly, refuse point blank to wear them. No pun intended. That is serious stuff.

Over time, the little red flower has become a bit of a British institution. But today, poppy-wearing has created a schism. Jon Snow summed the situation up succinctly in 2010. He’d been photographed wearing a coat bereft of a poppy, before Armistice Day but during the peak poppy-sales period. “I wish to wear mine on Remembrance Sunday,” he said. “When you wish to wear yours is your business. Compelling people to wear poppies because you think they ought to is precisely the poppy fascism, or intolerance, I have complained of in the past.”

Well said, that man. Swastikas; poppies; religious tokens or bad-taste badges with googly eyes. The decision to display any symbol is a personal one and, in that vein, most of us would agree it should be neither prohibited nor obligatory. True, in an ideal world it should also be a well-informed decision: it helps to think about how a symbol may be interpreted. Or you might want to take a stand. It depends on your level of devilry that day. The poppy has bloomed and now fades; the swastika has become a symbol that is lost in the ruins of its own reputation.

Today, we prostitute symbols and actions all too easily, to denote our fleeting affinity with a cause. Take emojis, for example. Convenient, perhaps, but it is hard to dispute they’re having a deleterious effect on future literacy levels.

Go on, think back a couple of years to the Artist Who Was Formerly Known as Prince and Then Later Known As Prince Once The Feud with Warner Brothers Was Over—think about the transient effects of adopting a symbol that cannot be replicated in standard fonts, and what that might do to our culture in the long term. The use of symbols will always be a statement that’s open to interpretation. The reward is social acceptance, or rejection, by our peers. Here is a case in point:

For a while, I made it a point to invest some of my time with anyone whose chest full of ribbons and a Royal British Legion box told me their time, at some point, had been heavily invested in me. Those conversations have been rewarding. And always, always, a privilege.

I used to buy a poppy too—but times change. As the childish furore over poppy-wearing reached its peak a couple of years ago, I was castigated on social media for not adding a poppy to my avatar. Not long after that, gentleman of some advancing years tut-tutted at me, in the street, tapping a florid lapel to make his point. And then a—younger—poppy-seller took me on in broad daylight. Fool.

“You’ve not got a poppy on,” she said, cheerily jiggling a box of blooms.

Clearly, this was an invitation to part with cash.

“No, I haven’t.”  

“May I ask why not?”

Now, if you know me, then you know questions like this are dangerous. For a nanosecond, I did wonder if she was officially connected with the Legion—foreign or domestic, one never can tell. Poppy-sellers are usually docile creatures. Non-intrusive. However, I was about to give her the benefit of the doubt—seeing as how she’d said, ‘may I’, not ‘can I’—when she followed up with, “A lot of men died, you know. You should be more respectful.”

Not clever. I object to grief police. People who dictate how I should manifest remembrance according to their interpretation of social norms are unlikely to get second helpings if i’m doling out the pudding. 

“I do show my respects,” I said, politely. “I remember who died, where and how, and why they were fighting and for whom. I don’t need to wear a poppy to do that.”

Unfortunately, for her, she was un-phased. “But don’t you know why we have poppies?”

Like lambs. Et cetera.

Starting gently, “I do,” I said, but she’d stoked the fire: “but I prefer Clement Scott.”

I know it was pretentious but come on, she started it. ‘In my garden of sleep, where red poppies are spread; I wait for the living, alone with the dead,” and then I couldn’t remember the next bit but I was on a roll so didn’t stop – “By the graves in the grass, I am waiting for thee; Sleep! Sleep! In the dews by the deep! Sleep my Poppyland, sleep!’”

I’ll explain—and I know I’m wandering—my grandmother was a grand teacher. During her lifetime, she was a great believer in the notion that children would benefit if good poetry or a significant chunk of prose was served at every meal.

As a result, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is an old friend and I have the frustrating ability to recall small snippets of verse or classical passages and aphorisms. Flotsam and jetsam. Makes me seem a right arse, I know. Mostly worthless, some are useful, but now I’ve picked them up, I am loathe to cast these little friends adrift. My grandmother lived the latter part of her life in her beloved North Norfolk, living not far from Poppyland, and we went there sometimes on walks that should have left me three feet tall—such is the toll on little legs.

I see her now, turning the pages of ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady‘, and I can hear her quoting John Ruskin at me: “The poppy is painted glass, it never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it,” she’d say, “Wherever it is seen against the light or with the light; always, it is a flame, and warms the wind like a blown ruby.”

I thought about spouting that one too at the time, and did contemplate saying, “Madam, you may keep  your poppy—”, but the poppy-seller had been distracted by an easier target and I moved on. Unsatisfied, but poppy-free.

Today, when tragedy strikes, a call goes out. An appeal is made. Makeshift shrines appear and candle sales spike overnight as a sign of solidarity, usually for one night only. Celebrities are lauded for tweeting promptly but their timelines soon revert to other things. Every tribe on all of the terraces observes a moment’s silence—for the time it takes to eat a large meat pie.

Harsh? Perhaps. I love dipping in and out of 1984 but I do not like Big Brother. For me, the poppy is a symbol that’s been obscured by polemicists, hijacking the image of what was once a very focused campaign for their own, commercial agenda. What’s worse, poppy-politics and social approval have become an opiate for the masses. However. Poppies do still denote the deserved act of remembrance in my mind.

This isn’t pompous; it’s not self-aggrandising; it’s far from arrogant, it’s just the truth. When it comes to remembrance, I prefer to reflect year-round on the death of those whose lives gave rise to the bloom’s pathos-tinged popularity. I also ponder on the dearth of knowledge about symbolism in general and how strange it is that political agendas—an insane fascination with fascism or a deep-seated affinity to stalwart, conservative values—can still be represented entirely by something as simple as a flower or a cross.