I tend to find the almost enforced ubiquity of the poppy emblem in the UK media at this time of year more-than-slightly troubling: the Strictly Come Dancing dresses barely cover anything up, yet there’s room between the sequins for a poppy? Why not require all actors in all plays to wear a poppy over their costumes? Nevertheless, I shall be wearing mine this weekend and on Monday 11th November with respect, pride, sorrow and grateful thanks.
Originating just after World War 1 as a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who have died in conflict, the use of poppies was inspired by the poem In Flanders’ Fields, and has continued for nearly 100 years, now including significant fundraising for Veterans’ charities. In the past I’ve worn a poppy, but never with true or personal conviction. I’ve been lucky in that I don’t know of anyone in my family or friends who has died in conflict.
This year and every year going forward I shall be more conscious in my remembrance, but not only for the men and women who have served and died in our armed forces. I shall also recall those among our ‘enemies’, with whom we all share a common humanity, those injured, those families left bereft, the civilians who have died on all sides, the firefighters and medics, police and volunteers who died dealing with the impact of warfare in their own towns and cities.
This new conscious attitude was inspired by an outstanding exhibition we saw at the Imperial War Museum in London just last week. A Family in Wartime documents how ordinary people braved the challenges of life at home during the Second World War through the eyes of the Allpress family, who lived in Stockwell, London. It’s a remarkable and comprehensive collection of archive films, reconstruction and first-person testimony from members of the family, together with hundreds of period items of clothing, government documents and propaganda, a rebuilt Anderson air-raid shelter.
Everything it depicts took place barely 2 generations ago. My parents grew up as young children during ww2 and the rationing that continued for years after. My in-laws were slightly older, and were evacuated from Birkenhead when they were the same age as my younger daughter is now. 1.5m people were moved from their homes in just 3 days at the start of September 1939, more than half of them children, even before war had been declared on Germany and its allies, in anticipation of an immediate response. My mother-in-law and her younger sister were separated from their elder brother, and sent to the homes of a stranger who lived more than 40 miles away, which in 1939 was ‘a lot further’ than it is today. It might as well have been the other end of the country in today’s travel time.
The everyday hardships endured by a large part of the country during WW2 were breathtaking compared to life today.
There was a leaflet explaining how to make your clothes last longer. Its first point was about shoes, and started “If you have more than one pair of shoes…”. Contrast that massive assumption with the disposable consumerism of which we’re all part, where it’s easier and cheaper to throw something away and replace it than it is to actually preserve it or repair it.
The Government controlled everything, from strict rations as to what food each person and family was allowed to buy, to ripping out railings from streets and gardens for use in construction of weapons. The Big Society of which today’s politicians dream was an enforced reality, with parks converted into communal allotments, and almost universal public service of some kind.
It might not feel like it, but we’ve really never had it so good. We do have a lot to be grateful for, so at today’s Remembrance Service in Tetbury, and tomorrow at 11am, I shall wear a poppy, to remember all those who have gone before me.