I was in my early teens when my Grandfather died. I loved him very much and was, naturally, very sad to lose him. However, I remember just how much more of a loss it seemed to be to my sister, 8 years my elder, and never really understood why, at least not until I started thinking about Grandpa recently as the time of year comes around again when remembrance poppies are everywhere and the long running and oft ill tempered debate over their use (ubiquitous on television), symbolism and message rears it's head yet again.
It's clear to me now that my sister's grief seemed to be so much deeper because she had a more mature relationship with my grandfather. For most of the time I knew him, I was very young and as such, I saw Grandpa as most young children do, another elderly relative who, whilst being very nice and generous with his chocolate, had little in common with me. Now, in my early thirties, I would give anything to be able to have him with me now, so that I could engage with him on a different level, ask him questions that would never occur to a child and discuss issues that had little relevance previously.
One thing I was aware of whilst he was still with us was that he, like so many others of his generation, had fought in the second world war. It was never discussed with me directly by either my grandfather or my parents or even any of my siblings but there was no doubt. I had seen photos of him in uniform, I had seen many medals of all kinds, and my Grandpa was also a champion shot (he shot for Scotland and I later realised that many of his medals were for sport shooting, not fighting). A young boy in possession of these facts doesn't need any more information to jump to the right conclusion. However, I never ever raised the subject of the war with my grandfather and I realise now, looking back with a different perspective, that it was because he never discussed it, or at least he never discussed it when I was around and somehow the unspoken inference that it wasn't to be discussed got through to me.
As a youngster I took this lack of discussion as unquestionable proof that my Grandpa must surely have been some kind of super secret agent who couldn't talk about what he did in the war. I don't know for certain but it is much more likely that the reason my grandfather didn't talk about the war was not because he couldn't but rather that he wouldn't.
Many claim to have the loveliest grandparents but in my case, it was proven in the way he was revered by all he met and not just his family or close friends. He was the very essence of a gentleman and as fine a man as you could ever meet. It is hard for me to imagine this lovely man ever taking part in such a terrible and violent thing as war but it goes some way to explaining why a man can have a room full of memorabilia from his time in service but is unwilling to talk about it. It is the difference between remembrance and glorification.
In the debates about the wearing of the Poppy, that line is all to frequently blurred.
This country has been fighting an awful, awful war on 2 major fronts for the best part of ten years. Whilst we may no longer be deployed in Iraq, the toll is still being paid by the men & women who returned. Not only are the wars truly awful for those fighting, they are also deeply unpopular with the public at home. No wonder then, that the issue of wearing a poppy is courting more controversy each year as many people no longer feel that to wear one is a choice but more of an obligation.
I will wear a red poppy this year, as I have every year. I will wear one because from a young age I understood why it was important to have some recognised form of remembrance for those who had died while fighting in the service of their country. Be in no doubt, they did indeed die for their country. Whether you agree with the political ends of whichever conflict they may have been engaged in, they were ordered there by the people we elected to power. Rightly, or wrongly, each serviceman or woman that dies is owed a debt of honour by us.
What I won't tolerate, however, is the almost fanatical insistence from some that not wearing one is disrespectful, offensive or in some way displays hostility to the armed forces. A friend & colleague of mine wears a white poppy and I fully support his right to do so. I understand his reasoning perfectly and support him wholeheartedly. He will also wear a red poppy on Remembrance Sunday, yet for sure there will be those who take issue with his decision or cite a lack of respect on his part, even if they don't voice it directly to him.
There should never be, in any circumstance, an order to remember the war dead in a certain way and at a certain time. Of course it is correct that there exists a day of remembrance and a symbol of it but never, should people feel bullied into observing that day or wearing the red poppy for surely that defeats the very point of fighting for personal liberties and choice?
Let's remember the original reason for the red poppy was not strictly remembrance: it was a fundraising tool. The British Legion was formed to pick up the slack where the government of the day had not, or more correctly - would not, provide adequate care for injured or retired servicemen. It evolved into the recognised symbol or remembrance some time after it was first used. The British Legion did, and continue to do a fantastic job in caring for ex servicemen and providing the support they needed. Unfortunately, nearly 70 years on and still our service personnel have to rely on charity to get the appropriate care, this time in the form of Help for Heroes.
On Remembrance Sunday, the heads of our armed forces and our political leaders will line up, with the Queen to lay poppy wreaths and the public, largely, will ignore the irony of the sight of those who sent troops to war, failed to care for them while in service and failed to care for them out of service using the poppy to show their respect whilst not doing anywhere near enough to rectify the situation that led to the poppy being adopted in the first place.
It is right that people are educated as to the sacrifices made on our behalf. It is right that people have a way of honouring their memory. It is right that people can show their objection to war. It is not right, nor never will it be, to demand it of people. Wear a poppy, don't wear a poppy. It's up to you, not me.