Friday, 16 November 2018

Of poppies and remembrance: Sue Purkiss

It can hardly have escaped anyone's notice that last Sunday was the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. (A hundred years would have seemed an unimaginably long time to me when I was a child: now, not so much!) There have been poppies everywhere - but apparently, not quite enough of them...

In Cheddar, where I live, there has been some murmuring, because there has been no civic display of poppies. Other villages, it is claimed, have HUGE poppies attached to lamp posts. (It seems that there weren't enough of these to go round - Cheddar asked, but did not receive.) Outside every shop in Winscombe, a neighbouring village, there hangs a flag with that iconic image of exhausted soldiers stumbling through the hideous desert of the battlefields.

It has to be said that Cheddar has form here. When it was the Millenium, all the villages for miles around - tiny, many of them - suddenly acquired boundary stones with the village name carved on them. Not Cheddar. We got two raised beds, which are known as 'the village green' - even though we have two huge quarries nearby which could surely have provided any number of magnificent boulders. (You can tell this is still a sore point.)

Outside Cheddar Catholic Church

However, as others pointed out: even if the lamp posts lacked poppies, there were numerous displays in shops and outside churches: there was even one in a telephone box, which has been adopted by a group of local artists and used for mini-exhibitions. For Remembrance Day, they filled it with poppies in different media - fabric, ceramics, glass. And next weekend, there will be a theatrical performance scripted by brilliant local dramatist Gill Scard, who specialises in researching local history and then creating a performance piece from her discoveries, using local people as actors.

Inside the phone box (photo Ellen Grady)

So Cheddar, like everywhere else, has in fact found its own ways to remember, and to remind. And the vehicle for this is the poppy. It's not a universal symbol; it was adopted after the First World War, and its choice was inspired by a poem called In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, who noticed that poppies were growing in the scarred battlefields, and saw them as a symbol of hope and revival. In 1921, the Royal British Legion first sold poppies to raise money for wounded and disabled servicemen. In France, the cornflower became the symbol of remembrance. The white poppy, which has become more popular in recent years, was actually first promoted in the twenties by the Peace Pledge Union, who felt they wanted something which symbolised peace: perhaps they felt that red suggests blood.

Red and white poppies on the beautiful thirteenth century steps to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral

Symbols are powerful things. This display, at Wells Cathedral, on the well-worn steps which lead up to the Chapter House (one of my favourite places in the world), surely testifies to that.

Incidentally, I wasn't at church at 11am on the 11th. I had popped into my local branch of Sainsburys, and, stupidly, hadn't even noticed the time. I wondered why all the staff were standing at the front of the store: someone quietly told me. And at 11am, we all stood in silence for two minutes. And there was something intensely moving about that, and about the way that afterwards some people spoke softly about those they had been remembering. It didn't matter that we weren't in a beautiful church, or before some imposing monument. It did matter that we were a group of human beings, sharing in an act of remembrance. And it doesn't matter which village has the best poppy display. What matters is that we remember, in whatever way suits us best.

Displays by children from local schools in the Chapter House


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Sue - that photo of the ancient sweep of stairs at Wells Cathedral is so wonderful!

Donna S said...

Thank you so very much for your post. I am in Canada and every year there are moving tributes on 11th November and everyone buys and wears a poppy. Every year I get angry because anyone from the U.S. barely acknowledges that it is Remembrance Day and no one wears a poppy. They call it Veteran's Day and leave it up to individuals to pay tribute. Even our hockey players had a poppy on their helmets, for Pete's sake!!

abigail brieson said...

AT 11AM on Rememberance Day I was at the American World War One Museum. While they did have a small ceremony, I must agree with Donna S that there appears to be far more reverence and respect for the Great War outside the US. I did see a spattering of military representatives from Canada, the UK, two Aussies and even one French officer and one German officer; but far from the representation I would have expected.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hm - well, the President seemed a bit underwhelmed, didn't he? Don't think he has much of a sense of history.