I went for an interview recently. As I sat, going over in my head what I was about to regurgitate, I realised I wasn't wearing a red poppy. What negligence! Surely such forgetfulness will be duly noted by my interviewer and count against me in his evaluation of me? In my self-centred thought processes what aroused concern was not whether in not wearing poppy, I would be dishonouring the war dead. What mattered was arousing disapproval in another.
In wearing a poppy, most do not indulge in the concerns I had about attracting scorn. They wear a poppy because they want to participate in personal self-reflection on wars and the war dead, and a poppy is a means to facilitate this process. They want to support the worthy Poppy Appeal, to show to others that they are wearing a poppy and encourage them to do the same thing. There is something beautiful in the uniformity of individuals wearing the same type of commemorative symbol. A collective act among strangers mirroring the collective of mobilised soldiers from all different walks of life that served in the First World War, and other wars.
But in theory, just because there is a normal, recognised way to express commemoration, it doesn't follow that it has to be the only means to commemorate. Unfortunately, in the public realm, wearing a poppy is deemed the only way to remember war, a social obligation that must be conformed to. Flashing the poppy avoids a certain PR disaster. In recent days, how many runners on a news programme have scrambled, as the broadcast is about to go out live, to attach a poppy onto the lapel of a person about to be interviewed? Given the amount of disparagement Sienna Miller received for not wearing a poppy on the Graham Norton Show, we can safely assume a politician could wave his career goodbye were he to neglect to wear a poppy on Question Time.
In wearing the poppy, are such figures actually thinking about the war dead? Or is it merely a way to show to others that they might be, a defensive device that brooks no further questions? The poppy monopoly, forcing a single way to express commemoration has stunted the possibilities of other means of commemorating war. It's an annual tradition that is unthinkingly renewed, that scuppers the possibility of a reflective dialogue where new, alternative ways of commemorating wars are undertaken. When the poppy monopoly rules, a person who has devoted weeks to the organisation of a Remembrance Sunday service could face social chastisement for forgetting to attach their poppy to a jacket they wore that day.
In our transient age where emails, snapchats and tweets fall at an hourly rate into the abyss to be permanently forgotten, some sort of annual commemoration that forces the remembering of something so concrete and so significant is of immense value. The lives of the fallen, wounded and affected must be remembered, their sacrifice honoured and respected. But by the time next November comes round, it might be beneficial were individuals and groups to consider whether there are other ways to express remembrance about war, that doesn't make it a social taboo to not wear a poppy in public.
The argument which is recycled each year that soldiers died to give us the freedom to choose not to wear poppies is tripe. There were numerous reasons why soldiers fought in the First World War, and retaining the freedom expression of people a hundred years in the distance probably wasn't high on the list. But we don't have to try presuming to know the intentions of the soldiers to take advantage of the consequences of their sacrifice. Creative freedom is a delicious thing. Let's use it.