Sunday, November 8, 2009


Although I travel to London often, this week I realized that I cannot ever have been there in the first week of November—otherwise I am sure I would have noticed the poppies. Huge numbers of people are just now wearing a red poppy in their buttonhole. The custom is not new; it is a gesture to commemorate all the men and women who have died on the field of battle, originally of course in Flanders. More specifically it signifies that the wearer has given a donation to the Royal British Legion in support of survivors, veterans, and war widows. Yet I cannot recall having seen the poppy appeal observed so widely since I was a little boy growing up in Melbourne, and the symbolism of November 11—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 (when Germany signed the armistice)—was not merely intact, but more or less thriving. This week I had a succession of vivid recollections of my dear father wearing a poppy home from the office, but not, I think, so many days ahead of time. My instinct is that towards the end of the 1970s in Australia the poppy-wearing custom was on the wane. Indeed through the 1980s I seem to recall that you could find and wear white poppies in preference to red as a sign of Reagan-era dissent. Not any more. Red poppies are as ubiquitous in Britain as they are invisible in the United States. I suppose this reflects a considerable degree of anxiety in respect of British forces currently serving, and indeed falling far, far too often in Afghanistan. At first I was uncertain whether to wear a red poppy was in my case a fearful presumption because, after all, I am not a British subject. But at our conference at the National Portrait Gallery last Wednesday I laid my dilemma before a gentleman who, I felt sure, would know. He was adamant: The poppy commemorates everyone who has ever laid down his or her life for nation, empire, dominion, commonwealth, or their allies, all in the cause of freedom. I should not hesitate to wear one. So I made my donation at the front counter of Christie’s in King Street, St. James’s (of all places), and for the past few days have trotted around the streets of central London so embellished, feeling at times like a dim and unsatisfactory shadow of my father but sensing also a vague chorus of approval from the ghosts of our many relations who served, fought, and died. What better source of forward propulsion in the pouring rain?

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