Magazine article The Spectator

I Hate Badges and Ribbons, but This Year I Have Decided to Wear a Poppy for the First Time

Magazine article The Spectator

I Hate Badges and Ribbons, but This Year I Have Decided to Wear a Poppy for the First Time

Article excerpt

Ted Heath was not always easy to love, but his grumpiness could be endearing. I remember him once inveighing against badges. Badges, he said, lapel-stickers, medals, tags, ribbons, bumper-stickers, rosettes, even T-shirts with writing on them -- they all added up to the same thing: using yourself as a human billboard to advertise your convictions or good works. He detested the practice, he said. This diatribe had been prompted by a request to attach some perfectly harmless sticker -- Save the Whale or whatever -- to his coat. The young man who had asked him to do it was rather winded by the tirade.

But I agreed with Ted. I still do. Of course one can see why those who have merited a decoration in war or national service may care to sport their medals on suitable occasions, but even this practice seems to me (to be candid) a little showy. As for slogans, political badges, the gold £ lapel-pins that a certain kind of Eurosceptic wears, ugh. At party conferences some Liberal Democrats literally run out of lapel-space on which to sport all the statements they wish to be seen making.

Tattoos repel me as the ultimate, indelible, irremovable lapel-sticker. And during the Eighties I took a lonely stand (at least in some of the circles I moved in) against those red ribbon Aids awareness things; and the pink ribbon breast cancer awareness things, and against the green and white ribbon things, too, whose import I now forget. As for the afternoon recently when virtually the whole House of Commons turned out in yellow 'remember Maddie' ribbons -- well, let's hope some of them are embarrassed about it now, even if not at the time.

I just think, I suppose, that it's a bit vulgar to decorate yourself with your affiliations, your sympathies or achievements. We are not sandwich boards, nor cattle to be ear-tagged, and if I am honest I must confess to feeling doubtful even about wedding rings and engagement rings, any more than if I were livestock I would wish to be branded or have a ring driven through my nose.

I don't like wearing uniforms either; and surely many would agree. But something I've found harder to justify to others has been a reluctance to wear a red poppy in the weeks before Remembrance Day. It really hasn't been a failure of patriotism or respect for the war dead -- by no means -- but more a dislike of the almost obligatory nature of this outward observance among a certain class of people.

Parliamentary sketchwriters have noted how as soon as the first frontbench MP sports his poppy in the chamber (frugally saved from a previous year, in a fair few cases), all the others, fearful of being thought tardy in respectfulness, do likewise -- within hours. The effect of this social dynamic is that poppies start flowering earlier and earlier every year: a sort of cultural equivalent of global warming.

So why was it that last week at Marylebone Station, for the first time in my life, I found myself marching up to the elderly gentleman at his poppy stand and, without a moment's hesitation after putting my contribution into his box, taking my poppy (as I always used to decline to do) and actually putting it on? I didn't even need a pin as the buttonhole in my lapel (never tested before) turned out to be real.

There are three reasons. The first is that the Royal British Legion's poster campaign this year has been so moving. You must have seen it. Scenes of family togetherness and happiness are pictured except that, in the photograph, a flesh-and-blood man -- perhaps the father -- has been replaced by a sort of ghost, an air-spirit, half-transparent, constructed only of poppies so you can see right through him wherever there are spaces between the poppies. …

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