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Tuesday, October 27, 2015 

In the long term we are all dead.

There is something uniquely grim about this time of year.  Putting the clocks back an hour, giving for a few weeks slightly more light early in the morning at the expense of it being pitch black by the time most people go home only accentuates what is a neither one thing nor the other period.  It's not yet winter, and you can't yet either look forward to or dread the approach of Christmas, but nor does it truly seem like autumn, as the trees are stubbornly for the most part hanging onto to their leaves.  Not even the change in colours alters what seems to be a state of limbo.

To add to the gaiety, the end of October start of November also heralds the yearly descent into the festival of remembrance.  If it feels odd that the further we draw away from 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 the more important it seems to have become that we remember the sacrifices of those desperate times, then few pop their head up above the parapet.   Only recently has the poppy come to be omnipresent on screen for around the three weeks prior to November the 11th, mostly out of the fear that if someone fails to wear the red emblem it will be seized on as proof of a lack of something on the part of the individual or organisation they represent.

We can't of course know whether Moina Michael would have approved say of football clubs putting poppies on the shirts of teams mainly made up of players born abroad, being an American and all, but we also can't know that she wouldn't.  Nor can we speculate on how she or the others who were involved in first establishing the poppy as the symbol of remembrance might think of how the Royal British Legion now offers Battle of Britain Spitfire Poppy Cufflinks, at the moment on sale at £79.99, reduced from a ton.  Those with shallower pockets can opt instead for a poppy dress, a snip at £50, or a Union Jack Poppy brooch for a mere £15.  Any objections from say nationalists in Northern Ireland, who have long rejected the poppy due to the role of the British army during the Troubles, were presumably ignored or not so much as thought about.

It is all for a good cause, and how people choose to spend their money is no business of ours.  It does though rather encourage an arms race in those who want to show just how on side with the cause they are; is a mere paper poppy enough, regardless of how much the donor put in the pot when they picked it up? Conversely, does putting down £15 or more for a brooch then mean you can just get it out in subsequent years without making a donation?  Such are the potential hazards of what seems on the surface to be a very straightforward issue.

For instance, before he started agitating for Scottish independence, Stuart Campbell was a video games journalist.  A damn fine one in fact.  What most people might not know is the poppy is trademarked by the Royal British Legion, as Campbell discovered when he put a poppy on the cover of Amiga Power, as was also used by Sensible Software on the packaging of their game Cannon Fodder.  The Daily Star, back when it was almost a newspaper, duly tried to whip up outrage at this unauthorised use of the poppy for commercial purposes.  The Legion itself was less than amused by how the game's tagline was "war has never been such fun".  Despite the tagline and (ironic) title, Cannon Fodder in fact treated the death of the soldiers you controlled with the utmost reverence; those who died were remembered at the end of each mission, and they also each received a headstone on the main screen, far more than almost any game before or since has bothered to do.

You don't have to think the increase in the prominence of the poppy appeal, or at least in the period of remembrance is an attempt to foster the same kind of "support the troops" attitude prevalent in America to find it all rather curious.  There is not the slightest danger in our forgetting WWI, the suffering, the sacrifices, the privations, let alone WW2.  Quite the contrary in fact: previously neglected, the last few years have seen memorials dedicated to Bomber Command springing up, first the monstrosity in Green Park, now a taller than the Angel of the North spire in Lincolnshire.  


As the years pass, it's no longer clear precisely what it is exactly we're remembering.  WW2 offers much in the way of moral certainties, at this remove quite possibly to our detriment, where every dictator or new threat is the new Hitler or new Nazis, where not acting with an iron fist is to repeat the mistakes of appeasement.  WWI might focus more on the humble British Tommy marching off to war, but even here there has increasingly been an attempt on the part of revisionists to paint it as just as necessary as the war it inexorably led to.  One wonders if instead it has become another of those debates where there cannot possibly be any shade of grey: to question it to be unpatriotic; to suggest one day it will be as remote as Agincourt is to us now to be an insult; to view it as little more than an excuse for glorifying in war, an attempt to crush any dissent about maintaining support for military involvement overseas now.

Perhaps the answer in fact lies elsewhere, in our apparently insatiable desire for nostalgia.  Rather than try to understand the ever more confusing rhythm of our lives now, we seek comfort in the hinterland of our collective past.  Whether it be Magna Carta or Back to the Future, the past or our version of the past remains in our consciousness.  Remembrance and a sense of duty, to keep doing something even if it means little to us personally is enough to quash any wider questioning of the how and why.  Like it or not, there will come a time when Hitler, the few, the Somme and the Kaiser will be nothing more than ciphers.  Saying as much ought not to be controversial.

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The problem with the rites of remembrance though is that they are often so strangely passive. During WW1 there were no mutinies on the Western front - quite incredibly, there was no revolution. The soldiers continued to blindly follow what the military authorities told them, and the result was unimaginable slaughter and carnage. The tank had been largely invented by 1914, but hundreds of thousands of soldiers were still ordered to attack machine gun nests on foot. We should remember this with anger. Often the poppy appeals depoliticise WW1 or make it seem like just another natural disaster.

There's also the fact Field Marshal Haig was instrumental in the setting up of the Royal British Legion and was president until his death. Whatever the views and revisionist views on his role, there's no getting away from how immediate history, if not so much modern history paints him.

I read that poppy coverage you kindly linked to. And that guy you love put Cannon Fodder on the cover with the poppy, then said he wished all old soldiers dead.

That's a bit hardcore, even for people running Labour! It's a bit more than an accident which the Star whipped into a spun non-story, as implied.

Like the Star and RBL you apparently can't detect sarcasm.

On WW1 revisionism, I note it took off as the last few old soldiers who had been there died. In particular, I find it suspicious how the "trenches weren't that bad" brigade really started to come out of the woodwork once the veterans who might gainsay them were dead.

On remembrance generally, my great-uncle Ernie was a Desert Rat and he was very clear how much he held the RBL in contempt - and this was aroudn 1980... so it's sad to see how later generations can't cope with the idea that there may be more than one side to the story...

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