Remembrance poppy sales figures are expected to break records again. More people than ever, it seems, are buying them this year. The charge that poppies are becoming something of a fashion item is not without foundation. I find the ‘bling’ poppies somewhat distasteful but if that’s what it takes to raise cash for wounded soldiers in a celeb-obsessed age then so be it.
The wearing of poppies has seen something of a revival since the 1990s. There was a time when many people wondered whether and for how long the tradition of remembrance would survive. Conventional wisdom held that, once the Second World War veterans got too old to march, that would be it.
When I started work in the mid-1980s, our chief executive was a veteran of the Second World War. He had only caught the last few months of the war and he was working well past retirement age but, even then, there were still a few wartime soldiers in public life. Thanks to the conscription of the 1950s, most of those in the upper echelons of society had seen military service. Company directors, senior civil servants, hospital consultants and judges tended to be in their 50s; just the right age to have done national service.
In the decade that followed, they all began to retire it was probably no coincidence that, at the same time, the poppy boxes began to disappear from offices, shops and public buildings. I couldn’t find any figures to confirm this but it seemed to me that fewer people were wearing poppies each year as the nineties wore on.
It all changed in 1998 with the anniversary of the end of the First World War and the re-discovery of veterans like Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. The BBC, with its TV series and news reports, played a large part in making these men famous and telling their stories to the world. In 1998 the long-abandoned tradition of keeping the two minutes’ silence on the 11 November, as well as on Remembrance Sunday, was revived.
This renewed interest in Remembrance Day was, sadly, fuelled by the regular flow of dead and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan over the next decade. The suggestion that the work of the British Legion would one day be over now seemed absurd as a new generation of servicemen clearly needed its help.
Now, the poppy and Armistice Day probably have more publicity than ever. Football teams, as far as I know, never wore poppies in the past and they were never as prominent on TV as they are today.
So, while this might look like an old tradition, quite a lot of it is relatively new or, as in the case of today’s silence, a recent revival. I’m not knocking it. Anything that raises money for people who have sacrificed so much is a good thing, even if those sparkling poppies make a few old gits like me wince.
I will carry on wearing my paper one as usual. Though it began to go out of fashion, I always wore my poppy. Even when I was a punk I wore one. It was usually wound through the skull and crossed bones on my leather jacket. Appropriate in a funny sort of way, although perhaps as distasteful to some at the time as the sparkling poppies appear to me.
I’m glad poppies and Remembrance Day have had a new lease of life, although some of the reasons behind it are no cause for celebration. It will, though, clearly go on for many years yet. Even when the last Second World War serviceman has died, and the war passes beyond living memory, we shall still be wearing poppies and keeping the silence. And, however sparkly the poppies are, that has to be a good thing.