In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from falling hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
It is a beautiful piece of poetry, entirely suited to honouring and remembering those who died in the mad, futile slaughter of World War 1. However, I do wonder what its author, John McRae, would think if he knew how the symbol of his poem, the poppy, has been appropriated since.
Today is Remembrance Day, when the Commonwealth remembers those who died in First World War, and in other conflicts beside. Even the most ardent pacifist can see that a day when people remember those who have fallen in battle, regardless of how you viewed those conflicts, is necessary and right. It has become custom to wear a poppy as a sign of that remembrance and for many years it was an innocent, selfless thing to do, a decision left entirely up to an individual.
But then something changed. You would think that as the years passed to the compulsion to wear a poppy would fade. You would be wrong. It has grown. And as the clamour for the poppy to be worn has grown, so has the backlash from those who don't wish to. To the point where there two sides have formed, both as intractable as the other, and both as boring.
Every year the right wing press in the UK watch TV with a gimlet eye. Heaven forfend that a BBC presenter should appear without a poppy in their buttonhole for this be proof that the national broadcaster is indeed the hotbed of pinko liberal sentiment its swivel-eyed detractors believe it to be. Unfortunately, the ludicrousness of this argument compels those who feel wearing a poppy is in some way glorifying war to equally hysterical heights, and hurl back insults about 'poppy fascists.'
This week the whole charade reached its nadir. The England football team, that brave bunch of stout hearts who are never fearful of lying down and dying in some foreign field, and arguing with the ref while they're doing it, wanted to wear a poppy emblem on their strip in a friendly match versus Spain tomorrow night. No big deal, you might think, if slightly ostentatious and unnecessary. After all, I don't remember them asking to wear it during previous matches arranged around the time of Remembrance Day. However, the Germans, who, let's face it, might be the most offended by the gesture, said they didn't mind.
In stepped Fifa, the sports' governing body and never knowingly reasonable, who said a a minute's silence was fine, as was the wearing of black armbands, but that the poppy was a political symbol, and that to allow the England team to wear it would set a precedent for other teams. I suppose they feared other national teams wearing symbols to honour the dead in slightly more controversial wars and battles.
Cue an intense and very silly debate, in which it was variously recommended that the English players should a) wear the poppy anyway or b) cancel the match. Given the hype, hoopla and dullness that surrounds the national side these days, I was well in favour of b) though not for any reasons to do with a poppy. In the end, a compromise was found and the England team will wear a kit with a poppy emblem on their armbands. If only a similar level of negotiation and diplomacy was possible back in 1914...
But at least it shone a light on how preposterous the poppy debate has become. Hopefully, moving forward, we can drop the daft arguments about why people will or won't wear it, and remember what the idea of remembrance is all about. The quiet, civil consideration given to the deaths of millions of men and women in battle, and a reminder why such conflicts, particularly pertinent in these days of spurious politician and oil men's wars, should only ever be a last resort.