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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Poppies: memories and many meanings

I wrote about poppies last year. You write about them at your peril....

This week I read a piece about an ITV newscaster who had opted not to wear a poppy on screen. It wasn't that she was against it: she did wear one when not in front of the camera. Her argument was that ITV didn't allow her to wear anything as a broadcaster that identified her as a supporter of other charities such as breast cancer awareness, mental health or child poverty (I've forgotten her actual examples). So why, she argued, should the poppy, paid for and worn in support of the Royal British Legion, be an exception to that rule? 

I admire the logic and the ethics, but I'm afraid she is misreading the symbolism. She hasn't quite cottoned on to what the public mostly think they are doing when they wear the poppy. In social sciences-speak, she has got the semiotics wrong. 

The poppy is far more than the logo of a particular veterans' charity. As the poppy field in the Tower of London moat demonstrates, it is not quite like most other symbols. The fact that millions of people have already visited that display speaks for itself about the universal meaning the poppy has acquired in the 100 years since it became the emblem of loss and bloodshed 'in Flanders Fields'. I don't say that it's unique - national flags and religious symbols are other instances - but it's rare for an 'invented' symbol, especially a modern one, to cross over successfully from restricted to universal meanings. This is in contrast to 'natural' symbols like light, motherhood or the journey which have always carried archetypal meanings.

In today's Guardian there's a trenchant piece about the Tower of London poppy field by Jonathan Jones.  He argues that as a symbol, 'poppies muffle the truth' by substituting for the sheer horror of the Great War a generalised grief laden with noble notions of honour and pride. It is too beautiful for its own truth. 'I strongly believe that an adequate work of art about the war has to show its horror, not sweep the grisly facts under a red carpet of artificial flowers.' As a purely British symbol, it does not even include the fallen of allied nations such as the French, let alone the slaughtered youth of Germany. What is more, it airbrushes out of John McCrae's poem the clear imperative to the living to 'take up our quarrel with the foe'. And it certainly doesn't do justice to Wilfred Owen's bitter protest against the nationalist rhetoric of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori which is quoted by Jones, as it so often is in protest pieces. 

There's much that is persuasive about this argument (which doesn't deserve the Daily Mail's cheap jibe of 'sneering' against an earlier online article by the author). Yet once again I find myself asking whether it's got the semiotics right. It's too either-or. The trouble with symbols is that they are so complex and elusive, 'multivalent' as the theorists say. They never only mean one thing or the other. What may promote beautiful high-minded thoughts in one person can have the effect of drawing the next person into a raw experience of horror and despair. It's never possible to use the language of 'should' or 'must' when talking about symbols because the way we read and respond to them is a highly complex matter of shared meanings, collective and personal experience, cultural history, social psychology and emotional make-up.

I doubt that I am speaking merely for myself when I say that when I wear the poppy, I don't restrict its meaning only to the fallen of our nation or its allies. Jones mentions Christopher Clark's brilliant book on the complex origins of the Great War, The SleepwalkersWhen I read it earlier this year, I was thinking about how we would memorialise the centenary of the war's outbreak on 4 August 1914 in Durham Cathedral. One of the readings offered at that vigil as the lights in the nave were extinguished one by one was 'In Flanders Fields'. Far from seeming incongruous in a setting where we intended to remember all the war's victims, it was in fact profoundly moving because the words and symbols were able to move us from the particular to the universal, from the tragedy of individual losses to the catastrophe of the whole human condition.

I mentioned religious symbols as among those that have 'crossed over' from the particular to the universal. Take the Cross. Like the poppy it is capable of an infinite variety of readings. Historically it stands for terrible suffering exacted on the innocent by unspeakable cruelty. 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' Yet it soon came to stand for the fruits of that awful death as well: reconciliation, forgiveness, promise, peace, even triumph. It's an 'also', precisely not merely 'instead of'. You can see this development of a rich and complex idea happening in the pages of the New Testament just as you see it in the different ways people have responded to the visual image, indeed, in the different ways we find ourselves responding to that same symbol at different times in our lives. I think Jones' simplistic complaint about how the poppy has degraded and softened the symbolism of war would not stand up to scrutiny in the case of the cross which strikes me as a remarkably similar development. 

So I shall continue to wear my poppy. I do it with grief for so much loss and waste of human life, with shame for the folly of the human race and my part in it, with sorrow for the crucifixions of so many in the conflicts of our day, with prayer for the peace and healing of the world, and yes, with gratitude and pride for the courage, loyalty and service of so many past and present who have laid down their lives in war. I do it too as an act of personal resolve: to play my part in handing on the 'quarrel' with all that is cruel and wrong to the next generation so that together we can build a kinder, better, more peaceable world for those who will inherit it from us. 


  1. hello again,
    out of curiosity do you have any thoughts on wearing white poppies?
    in friendship, Blair

  2. Michael - the humanity of what you've written here comes through loud and clear.

    However, I do find myself struggling with the idea of the poppy as a universal symbol. It seems to me that most of the arguments about poppies are between those who are sure it is a universal symbol and those who know it isn't.

    In my little world, working in a cathedral which sells both white and red poppies to its congregation, which is surrounded by a significant Muslim population, which is in a city that has a two-way trade in sectarianism with Northern Ireland and that has a congregation that is very international, it is very obvious to me that the poppy isn't a universal symbol at all.