London Poppy Day

(I’m supposed to be writing about Blake and Parry and “Jerusalem”, but blogging is a kind of journalism, so I’ve got to consider current events, too—and they don’t stay current for long.  Besides, as Arlo Guthrie says, “You cain’t always do what ya s’posed to do”.  I’ll get back to “Jerusalem” soon, but in the meantime…)

A member of 23 Engineers collects donations and distributes poppies at Waterloo Station in London on Nov 1.  He’s a communication specialist, as my father was in WWII; when I described what my father did in the Pacific, this soldier said it’s much the same task today.

Every year in late October Britons start wearing little paper poppies in buttonholes or pinned to lapels, until by about November 3rd, almost everyone you meet—and certainly everybody you see presenting a programme or reading the news on network television—will have a little red paper flower on show.  And they—no, we—will be wearing them through November 11th, Remembrance Day, aka Armistice Day, aka Poppy Day.

You get your poppy, and a pin to hold it on, from someone collecting donations on behalf of the Royal British Legion.  The money goes to help veterans and serving military personnel or their dependents who are in need; the poppy is meant to remember the fallen in all of the wars, chosen because of the poem, well-known on both sides of the Atlantic, that begins

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row…

(You’ll also find the first line given as “In Flanders fields the poppies blow”.  The Wikipedia page for the poem gives the word as blow right next to an image of the handwritten poem that clearly has the line ending in grow.  Since the handwritten copy is from the poet—Canadian military physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae—and has his signature, I’m going to assume the word should be grow.)

Members of the King’s Royal Hussars, a cavalry regiment, gearing up to go collect donations and give out poppies at Waterloo Station. Yes, we still have cavalry units; they deal with tanks and other armored fighting vehicles.  I’m extremely sorry that these pictures are such low quality; you can’t tell that they wear distinctive red trousers (they call them crimson; Americans would call them maroon).  Because of their red finery, they’re nicknamed the Cherrypickers.

I happened to pass through Waterloo Station in London yesterday, and saw more than the usual number of veterans and soldiers out collecting money and handing out poppies.  By their uniforms, they were from all different regiments, too.  There had to be something out of the ordinary going on, so I asked around, and found myself speaking to Jeremy Stephenson, one of the founders of London Poppy Day.

Seven years ago, he and a few friends collected donations outside one London Underground station and raised £500 for that year’s Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.  The project has grown a bit: this year Mayor Boris Johnson zoomed up the Thames in a Royal Navy RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to kick off London Poppy Day, carrying a plastic poppy several times bigger than his head as he boarded HMS Severn ; military bands played at locations all around London; Military Wives, the surprise hit of a recent reality television programme for choirs, performed; and a real Spitfire aircraft visited Covent Garden.  And over 2000 volunteers from the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and several City firms (you can think of the City as similar to Wall Street) collecting at over 60 railway and Underground stations aimed to raise £1,000,000—in twelve hours.

A member of the London Irish Rifles collecting donations at Waterloo Station. He declined to let me photograph his face, but he did take my pound coin and give me a poppy. I watched while a couple with two small kids came up, and the kids were each given a coin to throw into the bucket and helped to put on their poppies–another generation taking up the tradition. What are the chances we can stop sending kids to war before those two are old enough to go?

I stopped to speak to a couple of the soldiers collecting.  I’m in awe of people willing to put themselves in so much danger on behalf of someone else, though I don’t understand, actually, why we’re still asking people to do that; it’s 2012, and I should have thought we’d be clever enough by now to figure out a way to avoid having to send young people off to shoot at each other.

But the day we work out a better way for all of us to share the same planet is going to be a long time coming, and until then we have to deal with war and its aftermath; this isn’t news, I know, but it’s one thing to see photos of soldiers in Iraq, watch video interviews from army camps in Afghanistan, or cheer for Paralympic athletes who lost limbs while in uniform, and it’s something else again to speak face to face with someone who has been there; who feels that he’s lucky to have come back; who admits that he’s lost friends; who agrees with me, when I say that the job must be terrifying, that it is terrifying; but who’s still a soldier.  It is in fact staggering that people do this at all, and especially when you can see how young they are; I talked to a veteran who, at age 25, commanded men who turned 18 on active duty in Kosovo.

Mr Trevaskis, who comes to my front door every year collecting for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

And that’s why I always get a poppy and wear it.  I’ve read opinion pieces explaining why the writers choose not to wear poppies (which shows you how common it is to wear one; not wearing a poppy is an aberration that requires an explanation): this one believes that the government should take care of veterans and dependents and not leave them to rely on charity, and that one feels that the poppies that once signaled “Never again” have changed meaning over the years, since the warfare we say we don’t want somehow never seems to stop.  But these aren’t theoretical soldiers who shouldn’t have to fight, they’re real human beings who have fought and who I’m sure want to see an end to war more fervently than the rest of us.  And yes, the government shouldn’t leave veterans and dependents out in the cold, but when it comes to needy people and charity– well, saying  “someone else should do it” doesn’t get you much of anywhere.

Young people still put themselves in danger for others, hoping to do good, making huge sacrifices; I respect them, and thank them, and wear a poppy.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current events

2 responses to “London Poppy Day

  1. I came across this when I was writing a post on 11/11 last year.

  2. Candida

    It seems really odd to a Brit that poppies need explaining to anyone! I’ve always assumed they were ubiquitous in any country involved in WWI, or at least the Allies, but looking online I see it is pretty much just us and some Commonwealth countries, even though the poppies started in North America, not here.
    My kids won’t believe any other colour (Himalayan, Welsh, or Californian) is a “real” poppy, regardless of botany. They don’t see red poppies growing (wrong kind of countryside around here) so it’s just the Remembrance poppy that makes that strong impression.
    I had a student edition of WWI poets back at the dawn of time that had a footnote on the blow/grow thing: he wrote “grow” first, but it’s also at the end of the poem, so the publisher suggested changing it to “blow”, the poet agreed, and that was the wording that first appeared in print.

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