Why I wear a white poppy.

I wear a white poppy for Remembrance Week for this reason: I want to use this time to remember and think about all those whose lives have been blighted by war, just like others do. But I do not support the Royal British Legion. Instead I prefer a sister symbol that is equally as meaningful and as historically and ideologically valid, with the same underlying intention.

The white poppy has been around since 1933 and grew as a symbol of remembrance alongside – rather than later than – the red poppy. Crucially, the white poppy is an alternative to – not in opposition to – the red poppy. It is not a political symbol, certainly not a combative symbol of ‘the left’ but a quiet, traditional pacifist one. Pacifism is a non-threatening minority belief, often faith-led (such as with the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers – from whom I learnt the history and significance of the white poppy).

That the red poppy has become so culturally ubiquitous makes no difference: I’m not being grandstanding or oppositional. I accept it is a non-conformist choice but I do not accept that anyone has an inalienable right to take offence at my different choice of symbol. And most importantly I do not want to just ignore this important week and wear nothing at all.

By the way, I don’t ‘oppose’ the RBL and I’m not making any criticism of that charitable organisation in this blog, however it is perfectly reasonable to choose not to support one particular charity. Most prefer the red poppy. That’s of course fine – and I agree that I too prefer to see people wearing a red poppy than nothing at all this week (although I’d never actually attack someone for not wearing a symbol, that would be ludicrous). But please do not be fooled by the current immense dominance of the RBL’s red poppy, into thinking that the other is somehow a lesser response, or that somehow one charity has ownership of the very concept of honouring those affected by war: it is simply not true. In truth, they grew together as they grow together in the ground and white and red poppies are different slants on the same desire to honour the fallen.

I honestly didn’t want to soapbox and I’m also aware that I’m the wrong person to write about it really, since I have such strident, politicised shouty opinions about other subjects; it ought to be someone else. I wish this was Judi Dench’s blog! Obviously, like most, I had family members who fought in the World Wars, though I shouldn’t have to mention this, to make it personal.

But this year I’ve read and experienced more aggressive opposition to the white poppy than in several years wearing one. And today I feel I must write something: the unpleasant straw that broke the camel’s back was this ignorant – non-explanatory yet idiotically, almost psychotically bullying – blog entry by The Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson, who asks that people actually make rude gestures towards those of us who’ve opted for the white poppy – or worse! I do think The Telegraph should be ashamed of such a malignant stance: to encourage assaulting someone for wearing a symbol of their belief is not only an act of cowardice but it’s an attack on exactly what previous generations fought to preserve. Mr Thompson, my experience of white poppy wearers is not of young, ranty or political hippie/lefty types at all: it is primarily of elderly (often with direct experience of war) Quakers. These are quietly some of the bravest, most stalwart and humble people we have in Britain. Furthermore their collective non-conformist, progressive thoughtfulness through our history has made great strides for our stumbling civilisation. If you doubt this, ask a descendent of slaves, or the grandchild of someone from the Friends Ambulance Unit, pacifist Quakers who went unarmed across the front lines of World War One to rescue the injured and reclaim the bodies.

If you truly can’t get over the appearance of the (occasional) white poppy in amongst the sea of red then, at least before sticking two fingers up at an ageing conscientious objector, or debasing your public forum with rude nonsense, please ask yourself this: what would you have us do? Would you prefer we wear no symbol of remembrance at all?

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9 responses to “Why I wear a white poppy.

  1. Just wanted to say – excellent and clear explaination of a concept that I’ve heard a lot about this year but which I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge of. Good to hear a respectful non-oppositionalist approach to this issue as well. Laurie Penny’s article in New Statesman on the same topic is also good if you somehow haven’t read it – more critical of the RBL but coming from many of the same ideals expressed in this blog.

  2. Great post – where do I get a white one? They’re not sold on the streets.

  3. Lovely post Chris. I don’t agree with you about the need for collectively wearing a symbol of some sort though. Personally I choose not to wear anything specific at all at this time of year – this is a decision founded on a rejection of mass mediated expectation; a rejection of what I feel has become, particularly in recent years and specifically in THIS year with regards the red poppy, a twisted version of the original meaning. I applaud all of the reasons behind the wearing of a white poppy, but still I prefer to express my thoughts and feelings in other ways – in year round actions for example, in the way I live my life and the way I interact with others. As you do. As many do… It doesn’t mean I’ve ‘forgotten’ anything.

    • Actually I do completely agree with you Alistair and I didn’t mean to include in the blog anything critical of those who choose to wear nothing. Everyone is (and should be) free to wear & do what they like (or not) for Remembrance without criticism. I was only aiming to put recent rude criticism of the white poppy in context.

  4. Thank you so much for this – I have worn a white poppy since my teens (although I have struggled to find one more recently), and had to defend what it stands for against open hostility almost all the way through.

  5. You can get a white poppy from a Friends House (a Quaker meeting house).
    http://www.quaker.org.uk/remembrance
    Or online:
    https://secure5.positive-internet.com/~janmel/buypoppy.html
    and here’s the a link to local outlets:
    http://www.ppu.org.uk/whitepoppy/outlets10.html

  6. I’m modifying the last sentence of this entry to remove an unintended criticism of those who choose not to wear any symbol at all.

  7. Enjoyed your piece, Chris – well put, balanced, moderate, rational, non-shouty! I was barely aware of this fsacinating (binary?) opposite to the red poppy. I would never wear a red poppy because I feel as if it is almost an attempt to justify the game of war, glorify its terrible machinations. Yet I do feel serious respect for those people who have to be on frontlines, at any time now or in history, who face terrors I will never (I hope) come within a thousand miles of. It always harks back, I suppose, to the debate about the justifiable war: where would any of us have been if Hitler had had his megalomaniacal way? The jackboot would have won and Robert Harris’s pseudo-history fictional recreations would never have despoiled the aircraft lounge paperback racks. Even a committed pacifist like Tony Benn can make war-like noises when the Nazis and their imperial aspirations of the 1930s are discussed. At least we in the UK have left behind those risible notions of a war backed by God – the kind of sentiments that Dylan lampooned on ‘With God on Our Side’ half a century ago but which probably chime still with many US citizens still and certainly continue to hold force with other more militant factions whose messages to kill are allegedly divine instructions. Anyway, if I see a white poppy available, I’ll think about getting one, and maybe, as you suggest, mark that concept of honorable memory of the military dead without pinning my colours to the mast of aggression.

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