A good question: Do you wear a poppy?
One question, four answers
‘I wear it with pride to honour and remember the loss of life’
As an army chaplain, I am expected to wear a poppy at the traditional time of year on my uniform or on my preaching stole. But I wore one before I became a chaplain seven years ago and I will continue to wear one when I leave. I wore one as a teacher and explained the origins to my class. I wore one as a young girl, taking my pocket money in to school to buy a poppy from the trays that were brought around. I knew that people in my family had been killed in the First World War. One of those ceramic poppies from the installation at the Tower of London was for my great great uncle.
In the UK, remembrance poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or who are serving in the British Armed Forces, and their dependants. A team of about 50 people – most of them disabled former British military personnel – work all year round to make millions of poppies at the Poppy Factory in Richmond….
Clare Callanan is a Royal Army chaplain
‘When black bodies finally matter, I may consider wearing a red poppy’
As an anti-colonial, socially discontented, sceptical black young man in Britain, I was never inclined to engage with this potent symbol of British patriotism and belonging, but in 1993 an incident occurred that politicised my whole engagement with the red poppy. As a youth and community worker for the Methodist Church in Handsworth, north Birmingham, I was asked to support a black family with an immigration case. Two black women in their 30s were challenging a decision to deport their elderly Jamaican father to the Caribbean. He was frail and there was no immediate family in Jamaica to look after him. They had brought him from the Caribbean to the UK in order to look after him in his final years.
What made this Home Office decision all the more egregious was the back story of their father. In 1940 he had answered the call of the ‘Mother Country’ and paid his own fare to come to the UK in order to volunteer to fight in the war against Nazi Germany. Having fought with distinction in Normandy he had subsequently returned to Jamaica. Nearly 50 years on from his heroic actions during the Second World War, he was being recommended for deportation from the country…
Anthony Reddie is Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of South Africa
‘The white poppy recognises the responsibilities of peacemaking’
From crosses to football scarves, election rosettes to school badges, we have a need for symbols of meaning and identity. A sense of belonging is essential to our spiritual, intellectual and emotional growth, but the semiotics of allegiance may become idolatrous if left unexamined.
I used to wear a red poppy. Some years ago, I began to wear both the red and white emblems. Now, I wear only a white poppy. This is not because I have contempt for remembrance – it is rather because I hold it to be of the greatest importance. However, I believe the red poppy has now become a compromised symbol, no longer meeting the demands which remembrance should make upon our consciences.
In the years following the First World War, ceremonies of remembrance were far more low key than they have since become. The first commemoration was dedicated to grieving families and it was only as the war became more distant that the rituals grew increasingly military in tone. In 1930, members of the Co-operative Women’s Guild – many of whom had been bereaved by the conflict – began to wear white poppies as symbols of opposition to war and of the need to remember all its victims…
‘I wear it because I am grateful’
To answer a question with a question: do you celebrate Christmas? Some Christians observe it as a purely religious festival, some shun it as heathen hedonism, some throw themselves into both the faith and frivolity. Some atheists avoid Christmas as religious, some embrace it as a secular knees-up, others enjoy the carols and cribs as harmless fun.
In the same way, the poppy has a multitude of meanings for different people. I wear it because of what it means for me, which is that we desperately need to remember. In a culture that adores the new and the next and the now, we need all the help we can get to listen to the past. My generation, having spent so long at peace that it seems inevitable and indestructible, needs an annual reminder how capable the west is of throwing 10 million lives away in a war to end war, and then doing it all again 20 years later.
When I wear a poppy I am reminded what a very small shift in time or place it would take for it to be my father whose body was never recovered, my daughter buried in rubble or me in the engine room of a ship filling with water. I remember for once how privileged I am to live in peace, and how fragile our civilisation is. I am reminded of a few of the stories of the millions who could have been me, their fear, their bereavement, their disfigurement, their death…
This is an extract from the November 2016 edition of Reform.