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 a misconception about a symbol’s meaning affects swastikas too—hold tight at the back; I’m nothing if not open to Lucifers and light—so yes, this is the poppies and swastikas story again. And again, because these stories are being forgotten and they should be retold.

For the most part, we’re talking about laziness. We couldn’t give a rat’s tail what a symbol actually means. 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 didn’t care, because people didn’t know.

As it happens, I do care. I don’t an overt affinity for flowers or crosses, but I do care about people not giving a jot about the backstory to symbols that epitomise a second World War. 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, in the same month we’re commemorating the 75th anniversary of the formal acceptance, by the Allies, of Nazi Germany’s unconditional 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.

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 not sure. His handwriting left much to the imagination.

Ironically, McCrae’s references to the flowers were rapidly taken out of lyrical context. When you read the poem, you’ll find that poppies are mentioned only once, in the first line. McCrae then goes on: “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” he said, 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: it’s a rallying cry to take up arms. 

However, 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.

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 adopted poppies as symbols of remembrance. Still, the red flower has seeped into our culture as a thoroughly British institution; one that 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 its intellectual property rights over the iconic poppy brand. Wait, what? Oh yes, brand. The flower’s image has a commercial lock-up now.

Digressing slightly, the Legion’s association with corporate sponsors has seen poppies popping up in some rum old places over the years. BAE and Lockheed Martin UK. Not your average, peace-loving donors to an organisation that focuses on remembrance.

ANYWAY.

Dorothy L. Sayers carved a memorable niche for poppy-wearing in her book: ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’. When the fictitious General Fentiman is found dead in an armchair 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, 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 Marshall 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, is 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 the 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. Might leave that one alone.

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 defense, is a fair point. And a 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. 

All of this is well-known. 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 books.

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.

The Girls’ Club of America 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.

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 and the symbol is a spiritual one, it always has been.

The Japanese have a view on poppies, too. In Hanakatoba, 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.

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 handywork and, not surprisingly, refuse point blank to wear them. No pun intended.

Over time, the little red flower has become a bit of a British institution. Until recently. Today, poppy-wearing has created a bit of 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 have a heart, and 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 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. 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’s a case in point. For a long time, 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 that their time, at some point, had been heavily invested in me. Those conversations have always been rewarding.

I used to buy a poppy—but times change. As the childish furore over poppy-wearing reached its peak, 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.

“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?” 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 it up with, “A lot of men died, you know. You should be more respectful.”

Not clever. I have a bit of an objection to grief police. People who dictate how I should manifest remembrance according to their social norms. 

“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 unphased. “But do you know why we have the 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 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, but—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. She ended her days in North Norfolk, living close to 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 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 – for one night only, usually. 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.

In this, the 75th anniversary of the—you know—I have had another conversation, in-the-field (literally), about poppies in general. Remarking how strange it was that, well, here we were in May, with poppies at our feet, and November feels like such a long way away, and – “but you don’t wear a poppy.” My transgressions are legion, it seems.

There was no point in disputing the fact. I love dipping in and out of 1984 but I don’t like Big Brother. So, I don’t own a poppy, I don’t wear a poppy. 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, is that poppy-politics and social approval have become opium for the masses. However. Poppies do still denote the deserved act of remembrance in my mind.

This isn’t pompous; it’s not self-aggrandizing; it’s far from arrogant, it’s just the truth. When it comes to remembrance, I prefer to reflect year-round on the untimely death of those whose lives gave rise to the bloom’s pathos-tinged popularity. But 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.