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I wore my red poppy today. It has been a long road.
It began one cold November at school in Scotland where we were all obliged to wear poppies. Donning it through crisply fallen leaves, it was only the tireless biology of the real thing – meaning it could flower all year long – that I admired. Death for me was the preserve of my early loss of parents.
It was the advent of poet Wilfred Owen in our English lessons which first introduced a kind of brittle pride. Lines such as ‘Red lips are not so red … as the stained stones kissed by the English dead’ – despite the absence of the Scots in it.
Alas, this did not last long. Upon leaving school I discovered ‘peace’ and set my store in questioning everything – from the building of a nearby nuclear power station at Torness to the stern disapproval of poppy-wearing professionals.
I spent several cold Novembers meditating on this theme on the non-violent island of Iona and one night remember feeling briefly foolish I did not have one.
Later I went to live in New York and one day picked up a poppy at ‘Myers of Keswick’ – a downtown British store specialising in Marmite, Coleman’s Mustard, and ex-pat sentimentality. I don’t know if it was homesickness or not but I remember wearing it that night in the Ear Inn on Spring Street and a Noraid supporter taking its presence on my lapel as an act of British imperialism.
He tried to punch me. I saw it coming and took evasive action, you could say thereby proving you could wear a poppy and still be a man of peace.
Settled now into a kind of long-distance annual rythmn of wartime remembrance, I embarked on a trip to Frankfurt where I was promised an interview with soon-to-be assassinated Deutsche Bank head Alfred Herrhausen. One night, in another bar I am afraid, a junior German banker approached in his cups.
He barked that I was postponing any chance of lasting peace by wearing such a thing and should be ashamed of myself. Not quite sure which of us was prolonging hostilities, I refused to take it off but did leave the bar.
It was shortly after this that the white poppy bloomed. I saw its sense but ignored its essential beauty, propped up I suspect by my lingering hostility towards the Irish-American and the German. I did not get it. This was all about me.
It was only during my four recent trips back to Afghanistan that this all changed for good. It was time spent with troops in Kabul, Kandahar, Camp Bastion, and Lashkar Gah, and their increasingly thankless task of trying to improve the quality of life for the Afghan at the same time as sometimes ruining their own, which did it.
The need to help members of the armed forces and their families – not just for today but for all of their lives – represents to me a key fact of nationhood.
It is not jingoism. It is not bloodlust. Or, as my 11 year-old daughter put it this morning: ‘Will you get me one? I want to show my respects.’
And, as it happens, in the predictive text of my daughter’s modern age, typing the word ‘poppy’ spells ‘sorry’.
Peter Bach lives in London.
Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
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