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?