I happened to be in Trafalgar Square on Sunday. Among the usual crowds were a large number of people in uniform who had come from the Remembrance Sunday service at Westminster Abbey. Many people were wearing uniforms of one sort or another, from Pearly Kings and Queens (I’m not sure if they had been at the Abbey, mind!) to policemen, to current and former soldiers with regimental blazers or dress uniform, many with medals pinned to their chests. It was striking, too, how many from the crowds were wearing poppies.
I always used to wear a poppy, but in the last few years I seem to have stopped, though I always drop some coins into the collecting boxes for the British Legion, and then have an awkward conversation where I fail entirely to give the seller a coherent reason why I don’t want the poppy. That must mean that I have not convinced myself, though I know I don’t want to wear it. The British Legion describes the Poppy Appeal in terms that make clear it exclusively remembers members of the armed forces who fell in combat, and while I remain convinced that they need support (which is why I always donate), it is perhaps that I don’t want to publicly associate myself with something that I think excludes the other, non-military casualties of war; soldiers of other nationalities, for example, or civilians who died and who are not so formally honoured. I don’t feel clear, either in my own mind or through conversations with others, whether this is me trying to have it both ways. There is something unnerving about being without a poppy in early November, akin to nakedness, vulnerability. I know that I couldn’t give a clear explanation why not, and therefore almost hope that no one will ask me to explain myself.
Plenty of Quakers wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union, either instead of or alongside the red poppy. The PPU’s website contains some interesting stories from people who have aroused strong reaction and controversy from their decision to remember the dead and the tragedy of war other than by wearing the red poppy. It has been around almost as long as the red poppy, and was intended from the beginning as a symbol of the waste and futility of war. I uphold others in their decision to wear the white poppy, but it’s not for me. This may, again, be a sign of trying to have it both ways, but I cannot accept that the deaths of so many can have been for nothing, especially not in the Second World War, which was futile in so many ways, which left us with so many unsolved problems, yet which also saved Europe from the savage madness that was Nazism.
My feelings here are closely bound up with my own family history; my grandfather Geoffrey Skinner, and his younger brother Raymond, were both solders in WW2. Raymond was (I think) 21 when he was killed, in 1943. My grandfather had already by then been captured, and spent most of the war in captivity, as a prisoner of war, in Austria. He was someone I loved and admired: a gentle, kind, loving, intelligent man of great integrity, whose words and ideas I hung on as a child. His war was spent not wasting time, not waiting for the years to pass as he stagnated in Austria; he sent to his sister, asked for textbooks, received them via a postal system that I still find hard to imagine operating amidst the destruction of a continent, and completed the studies he had always wanted to do before the war. Off the back of his self-teaching, he won a scholarship to Guys and trained as a doctor. Quite a story, and not one of the futility of war, but of its random and appalling nature. One brother, killed. Another, through an act of volition, able to turn negation and destruction on their heads, and to find peace and, eventually, a livelihood, through the willed decision to make the most of what was in front of him.
It’s this randomness of suffering that I think is captured in the photo. In the foreground, someone literally overcome by grief. At the edges of the frame, a second soldier reading, and a third staring distractedly into the distance. Even in the heat of the moment, even at the intensest times of our experience, there is always another perspective, always an alternative.