It is the time of year again when we are customarily asked to remember the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in wars past and present. For a week or two in early November, lapels up and down the country are adorned with a bright red poppy, the recognised symbol of remembrance. It's a touching tribute to the dead, injured and currently fighting for those who choose to wear one, but what if you don't choose to wear one? Do you care less? Are you a bad person if you don't publicly show your respect in this way?
I wear a poppy pretty much every year. After I've bought one, I still donate every time I come across a tin contributing to the Royal British Legion Poppy Fund. I have utmost respect for soldiers both historic and current - my grandfather fought in the Second World War - and while largely a pacifist who does not agree with many of the recent wars that have been waged across the world, it's a job I don't want to do and donating to the fund is my way of tipping my hat in recognition of the work military personnel do.
But why do I wear a poppy to display that? Is it to make me feel good? Not really. Is it because poppies go with my eyes? Um, no. My main reasons for wearing it are devastatingly simple: I get given one when I plop the coins in the red plastic box, I quite like putting things in my lapel (not a euphemism) and, primarily if I'm perfectly honest, I am wary of a hostile reaction if I don't.
At a branch of Poundland in Northern Ireland, a member of staff walked out of work after being asked by a manager to remove the poppy they were sporting, as it was against the company's strict uniform policy. As the worker marched out of the shop, they vowed that when they returned on the following Monday, the poppy would still be present on their uniform. After adverse publicity, thanks in part to a Facebook page which is both an embarrassment to Poundland and the angry mob behind it, the firm has climbed down and now said employees may wear poppies.
It seems on the surface that Poundland has made a massive misstep here, and they have in a way, but it's important to remember why uniform rules exist. Uniforms mean everyone is on the same level - your beliefs, morals, income and, more importantly, horrific dress sense indistinguishable from those of your colleagues around you. I'm reading between the lines here, but I wonder whether Poundland's point was that if nobody could wear poppies, then those who didn't wear them wouldn't look as if there was something missing. Believe it or not, poppy bullying is real, and it is coming to a bare lapel near you.
A few years ago, I was on a bus and had left my poppy-garnished jacket at home, my lapel thus bare. I was vaguely aware of a woman standing next to me, when I heard her mutter in a mock whisper "You should be ashamed". I thought little of it, after all, she was right - I've a whole cupboard of skeletal truths I should be ashamed of, but then she carried on. "I said, you should be ashamed," she muttered, looking me square in the eye.
"Go on then," I said, "I'll bite. Why?"
"Why aren't you wearing a fucking poppy?" she accused. "Think you're better than everyone else, do you?"
I considered her for a moment, wondering whether she could actually spell 'war'. Should I explain to her my poppy was at home? Why on Earth should I give this idiot the time of day?
I rolled my eyes and made to get off the bus, parting only with a "Mind your own business" rather than an F-worded tirade. I imagined her going home to her family, and boasting about how she'd taken some fey bloke on the bus down a peg or two for forgetting his jacket with a paper flower on it.
It's a localised version of the annual furore when a BBC presenter forgets to wear a poppy, the public and the media enjoying the brief and dull scandal. Over on Channel 4, newsreader Jon Snow chose not to wear one a few years ago, and this was spun by the tabloid media into a huge story, as if he had set fire to a Union Flag live on air and urinated on it to extinguish the flames. Perhaps this year he should; the news could do with a donk on it at the moment.
Breast cancer has pink ribbons, AIDS awareness has red ones, the Marie Curie Cancer Care appeal has daffodils, yet nobody is vilified for not wearing these symbols, even though you could say - if you were feeling very brave - that cancer and HIV have potentially more direct, measurable relevance and impact on our daily lives than wars far-off in either distance or time. It's not necessarily a view I take, but you can be forgiven for choosing not to commemorate international disputes you don't agree with or feel any attachment to.
Wear your poppy with pride, yes - and I shall once more this year - but don't feel that little red paper flower gives you special dispensation to shame those who don't. That is not the brand of freedom our soldiers fought for.
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