Ted Heath was not always easy to love, but his grumpiness could be endearing. I remember him once inveighing against badges. Badges, he said, lapel-stickers, medals, tags, ribbons, bumper-stickers, rosettes, even T-shirts with writing on them — they all added up to the same thing: using yourself as a human billboard to advertise your convictions or good works. He detested the practice, he said. This diatribe had been prompted by a request to attach some perfectly harmless sticker — Save the Whale or whatever — to his coat. The young man who had asked him to do it was rather winded by the tirade.
But I agreed with Ted. I still do. Of course one can see why those who have merited a decoration in war or national service may care to sport their medals on suitable occasions, but even this practice seems to me (to be candid) a little showy. As for slogans, political badges, the gold £ lapel-pins that a certain kind of Eurosceptic wears, ugh. At party conferences some Liberal Democrats literally run out of lapel-space on which to sport all the statements they wish to be seen making.
Tattoos repel me as the ultimate, indelible, irremovable lapel-sticker. And during the Eighties I took a lonely stand (at least in some of the circles I moved in) against those red ribbon Aids awareness things; and the pink ribbon breast cancer awareness things, and against the green and white ribbon things, too, whose import I now forget. As for the afternoon recently when virtually the whole House of Commons turned out in yellow ‘remember Maddie’ ribbons — well, let’s hope some of them are embarrassed about it now, even if not at the time.
I just think, I suppose, that it’s a bit vulgar to decorate yourself with your affiliations, your sympathies or achievements. We are not sandwich boards, nor cattle to be ear-tagged, and if I am honest I must confess to feeling doubtful even about wedding rings and engagement rings, any more than if I were livestock I would wish to be branded or have a ring driven through my nose.
I don’t like wearing uniforms either; and surely many would agree. But something I’ve found harder to justify to others has been a reluctance to wear a red poppy in the weeks before Remembrance Day. It really hasn’t been a failure of patriotism or respect for the war dead — by no means — but more a dislike of the almost obligatory nature of this outward observance among a certain class of people. Parliamentary sketchwriters have noted how as soon as the first frontbench MP sports his poppy in the chamber (frugally saved from a previous year, in a fair few cases), all the others, fearful of being thought tardy in respectfulness, do likewise — within hours. The effect of this social dynamic is that poppies start flowering earlier and earlier every year: a sort of cultural equivalent of global warming.
So why was it that last week at Marylebone Station, for the first time in my life, I found myself marching up to the elderly gentleman at his poppy stand and, without a moment’s hesitation after putting my contribution into his box, taking my poppy (as I always used to decline to do) and actually putting it on? I didn’t even need a pin as the buttonhole in my lapel (never tested before) turned out to be real.
There are three reasons. The first is that the Royal British Legion’s poster campaign this year has been so moving. You must have seen it. Scenes of family togetherness and happiness are pictured except that, in the photograph, a flesh-and-blood man — perhaps the father — has been replaced by a sort of ghost, an air-spirit, half-transparent, constructed only of poppies so you can see right through him wherever there are spaces between the poppies. Staring at these images on billboards I have had to fight back tears.
It has made me ashamed, parading my precious objections to wearing a poppy. To those who were lost, those who survived them, and those injured who lived on disabled, there have been more important concerns.
The second reason is that we now have before us many very recent losses of life, or dreadful injuries. Almost every week the newspapers report another soldier killed or gravely injured in Afghanistan. People have seen these losses on the front pages of their local papers as well as the inside pages of national newspapers: real people, friends or friends of friends. This somehow lifts the story above whatever concerns we may have to save the £ or reform the voting system.
The third reason may seem to contradict what I’ve just written — indeed, does contradict it — but not emotionally. Though the two world wars fought in the last century grow steadily more distant in time, I’m not finding (are you?) that they are becoming less real.
Of course there are every year fewer who do actually recall. I was born in 1949. My father fought in the war that, when I was young, everybody talked about: World War II. ‘The Great War’ was then an earlier but still well-remembered horror. As a youth this used to irritate me: ‘why can’t they move on in their minds?’ I used to think. Poppies and Remembrance Sunday seemed to me part of this inability to let go of the past.
But today few could be called fixated, yet everybody still knows. We know objectively that these conflicts mattered tremendously. Nor is it even a question of taking sides. I’m glad Britain won, of course, but am well aware of arguments about the claimed futility of the first world war. These arguments may be correct. I don’t care. One just thinks of the horror of it; and of the magnificent, unreasoning self-sacrifice of which human beings are capable, and one is moved. As time goes on one can feel pity for the German troops and people, too, in both wars.
Some months ago I described in a Times column a war diary by a young girl in Germany, Hilke, which had come into my hands, and I’m pleased to learn that this is now to be published next February by Templus Publishing. In simple, unaffected prose we follow the war through the eyes of a patriotic but unpolitical teenager, who joins the Nazi youth movement, as do all her friends, never questioning the war though never really understanding it. Feeling for this girl as a reader — hoping after every British bombing raid that the bombs had missed Hilke’s family — seems to conflict in no way with support for the Royal British Legion’s annual campaign.
For me it added to it, contributing to an overwhelming sense not only of the tragedy but also of the momentousness — socially and emotionally as well as politically — of those great convulsions. As I carefully buttonholed my poppy at Marylebone Station I thought about the sixth-form political conference at Warwick School where I was heading, to speak; and felt very sure that by way of example, wearing a poppy was a better thing to do than going without. The poppy will stay on my suit until Sunday. I shall never again reject it.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.