It didn’t mean a thing if your poppy was bling…

A fantastic way to add a touch of sparkle to any outfit. Plated with a gold tone, hand crafted with over 100 ruby crystals and hand set with olivine crystals in the leaf, this stunning poppy brooch is engraved with a sentimental message of ‘Lest We Forget’ on the back. (Description of poppy brooch on poppyshop.co.uk)

Now that the commemorations have been observed, perhaps it’s time to make a different kind of observation. It took a century before some excitable bauble maker thought of turning the Remembrance Day poppy into modish ‘sparkle’. That’s a hundred years before those protecting the meaning of the simple unadorned poppy could rationalise the act of glamorising it for profit.

In one sense, it seems quite reasonable. How many paper poppies would The Royal British Legion have to sell in order to profit to the sum of £49.99 which is the cost of a single Swarovski brooch? Yet is it really better to have that money to fund good causes now or would it be better to reject quick profits in order to protect the symbolism of the poppy from the banal tawdriness of modern bling culture?

Beyond the icons of the world’s religions, there are few symbols we wear which mean quite as much as the simple Remembrance poppy. The red poppy with the black heart is as emotive as the poem that inspired it written by John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The verse emotes because it is simple. It’s the honest product of an workaday poet and not the tortured scansion of, say, Wilfred Owen. The end rhymes are the simplest kind and the phrasings promote an elegiac calm. The single word ‘fly’ floats at the end of the line, like the larks picked out against the distant sky. The movement of the stanza is from the close detail of the poppies blowing in the breeze, to an elevated vantage point where we can see ‘the guns below’. The poem moves, then, from the frontline of individual loss to loss seen at the scale of the global conflict. This is about remembering the many and not the few.

The poppy appeal grew out of the simplicity of this conceit. Poppies take their power by their similarity. They are visibly identical and express the truth that every sacrifice was equally made. The 888,246 poppies that last year surrounded The Tower of London were not speckled by the occasional poppy larger or more brightly coloured than the rest. The death of an officer was no more significant than the death of the lowliest private. The scale of similarity was an overwhelming statement which accounted for the installation’s power to draw and move visitors.

There have, of course, been different designs of poppies over the years but they have tended towards either minimalism in the form of the familiar paper and plastic variants and the small ceramic lapel pins, or realism in the form of artfully made buttonhole. The worst you could ever say about the more elaborate poppies is that they actually looked like a poppy. They promoted the conceit without adding extra meaning. They said ‘we remember the dead’ and that was all that needed to be said. Pinning a poppy to your breast was to pin a piece of Flanders Field, Ypres, the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Korea, the deserts of the Middle East, the cold rocks of the Falkland Isles.

The poppy appeal has similarly remained powerful because this symbolism has remained potent. Yet modern elaborations of the poppy design have added a meaning that is entirely new. It’s a meaning hard to define yet immediately recognisable. It’s partly fashion, partly conscious extravagance. It’s probably best summed up by adopting James Bartholomew’s excellent phrase, ‘virtue signalling’, described in The Spectator earlier this year.

The Great War was not the Simply Marvellous War Darling. People did not lay down their lives in the Second World War in order to defend a cosy kitsch. The blood that was shed did not fertilise the ground so that garish crystals would grow, so that B-list blingers and blowbroths could incorporate the act of remembrance into their light entertainment shtick.

Yet the fact that very few people complain about this new cult of brash poppies suggests that the poppy might itself be in danger of being misunderstood. The poppy has certainly become a yearly fashion accessory; a ‘must have’ in the sense that anybody appearing on TV without wearing one is immediately condemned. The act of wearing or not wearing a poppy has become politicised, as seen in the case of anybody brave/foolish enough to adopt the white poppy, worn by those who feel that the red poppy has itself become militarised.

Indeed, notice how criticism of the white poppy is more vocal than criticism of, for example, the Union Jack poppy, currently on sale. ‘This charming Union Flag brooch adds a modern twist to the classic poppy and pays tribute to all things British’ reads the blurb and, again, transforms the simply meaning of the poppy, this time giving it a touch of patriotism. It seems to say, let us remember the dead but only the British dead.

The problem in all of this goes back to that ‘engraved with a sentimental message of “Lest We Forget” on the back’ of the poppy described at the beginning. Sentimental is perilously close to sentimentalism. One is profound and felt and the other is consciously sought. And that’s the disturbing thing about these acts of  remembrance. If they are sought and not felt, they are merely a shallow extravagance that voguishly blends the established meaning of the poppy with the ultra-modern obsession with the look-down-and-pout selfie. Flaunting an act of remembrance means that it so no longer an act of remembrance. It is, instead, the very act of forgetting why we choose to remember.

 

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