If only it had been half as hard to volunteer for the army in 1914 as it is to volunteer for the Royal British Legion in 2013, we would probably now have no need to pin their poppies to our coats every November. For I have never known any charity make it so challenging to support their cause; lucky for them that for the sake of completing my own challenge I was determined to volunteer during poppy appeal for the first time if it was the last thing I ever did.
The briefest account of how I eventually came last week to be standing outside on two dark winter evenings, icy fingers frozen to the sides of my poppy box, runs thus: in the beginning, I filled out an online application form. When, after nigh on a month had passed, I had not had a chipolata of a response, I rang up poppy HQ in London. The smiley-voiced lady at the end of the line said my regional office would call me soon. They didn’t, so after another 10 days or so I hunted down the number of my regional office and rang myself. To be told by another smiley-voiced lady that who I should really speak to was the person who organises the people who organise the volunteers. She gave me her number. I rang, and although this next lady’s smiles were lost beneath the rumble of her car, I did at least hear her promise that the local town organiser would call me. Which he did. Over a week later, armed with the apology that he had been too busy breaking up with his girlfriend to call me any earlier. This was evidently a man without smiles – or, indeed, a memory, as when I rang him two days later to ask why he hadn’t turned up at the agreed time to give me my poppies and collection tin, he claimed to have completely forgotten who I was and what I wanted. So doing my best to supress any betrayal of irritation and déjà vu confusion I had to repeat verbatim the conversation we’d had only 48 hours earlier.
Be all that as it may: eventually I did succeed in getting a box of poppies, and did spend two cold evenings after work standing in a town centre as the light dimmed and the crowds, such as they were, diminished, in the hope that the day’s last shoppers would put enough pennies in my tin to make the loss of all feeling in my feet worthwhile. Whether that is the case I do not yet know, I am still waiting to be told what my final total was, but the time was well spent for at least one other reason: it allowed me to observe society, and myself, from a new vantage point. For it transpires that a cunning method for refreshing your view of the world is to assume a new persona within it – that, for instance, of a Royal British Legion volunteer.
Children and the elderly were my best clients. The children would drag their parents to me and through sheer stubbornness (a tactic I ordinarily find highly vexing in a child) guilt-trip the adult into buying a poppy. The elderly would approach stealthily from the side and empty their purses into my tin without taking a poppy, as they already had one or two or a dozen at home. People with poppies on their chests sometimes smiled comradely as they passed and twisted their torsos sideways that I might inspect them; one lady even held up her palm and shouted “already got mine!”. The majority however, the people who weren’t wearing poppies, tended to rush past, perhaps muttering that they “didn’t have time right now”, or perhaps frowning at me as though I were the dirty pile of laundry they had meant to wash days ago, or else assiduously avoided eye contact.
I found this a curious reaction, seeing as it was roused by nothing other than my simple presence. I barely said a word unless in thanks, and then only to those who approached me, as I was not there to sell poppies in a commercial, competitive sense. I was not harassing passers-by like a desperate apprentice, or browbeating them like an East End market haggler, or even winning them over with song – as tempting as it was during the quieter lulls to croak out a tweaked rendition of Who will buy my sweet red roses?
Given that I was making no effort to push my poppies, the evasive reactions of some can I think not be explained simply by a common exasperation with the ‘charity muggers’ we all dodge daily, but by associations drawn with poppy promoters. For it seems that simply by distributing poppies I had raised my banner in support of the media-government conspiracy that is transforming the wearing of a poppy from a voluntary act of remembrance to an obligatory – and thereby potentially devalued – ritual; I had unintentionally become an embodiment of that societal pressure which makes the poppy-less feel guilty for daring to step outside bare-chested on November 11th.
What is more, by taking such an active part in Remembrance Day I risked having people make quite false (yet quite understandable) assumptions about my personal politics and beliefs – about my whole character in fact. This is not mere speculation on my part. Several people did apologise to me for not buying poppies, as though I were some flower-wielding-tyrant holding them to account. My own grandmother fondly declared my actions “very patriotic”. And a colleague who stopped to chat and (thank goodness!) lend me her gloves explained her reluctance to wear a poppy by dint of being “a Guardian-reading lefty type”, an argument I felt compelled to counter with the claim that I too am a “Guardian-reading lefty type”, not because I wanted to persuade her to buy a poppy, but because I was desperate to disillusion her from the implication that I might be a “Mail-reading righty type”.
Besides which, I am a Guardian reader and my politics are left-wing. I incidentally also have no faith, and do not believe in a god. I have an instinctive fondness for “my” country but do not consider myself especially patriotic and regard patriotism as a superfluous – even dangerous – concept in an international world. And finally, I am anti-war, unless the cause is just beyond all dispute, which it only is in exceptionally rare cases such as 1939.
By this account I am not perhaps the most likely attendee of a Remembrance Service book-ended by prayers and national anthems; and perhaps the least likely person you might expect to see selling poppies.
So why did I volunteer?
Well, because, being a ‘lefty’, I believe a responsibility of living in a society is not allowing any part of that society to be neglected: for instance soldiers’ widows. Because I don’t believe in God, and having no faith I have no metaphysical source of comfort to reach to in those dark or tedious moments when one doubts if one’s made the right choices and wonders what all this getting up in the morning and going to work and watching TV is for. In Remembrance Day though I have a yearly reminder that I am darned lucky to have the freedom to make those choices, and to live in a place and time wherein my life is not determined by the evils of war. Because of this – and because I am not devotedly patriotic – I wear my poppy to remember all victims of war. Not just the British or their allies but their enemies too, including Germany, on whose side several in my family served in both world wars.
And finally, I volunteered because I am anti-war. This past century has been the bloodiest in human history. Yet I hope that if we continue to remember the fallen of historic conflicts we might be a little less quick to support war in the future. It is a faint hope, as whenever war is won by the young, old men make the peace and remake the world “in the likeness of the former world they knew” (to quote TE Lawrence). But, so long as ungodly, unpatriotic, Guardian-lefty-types continue to wear the poppy, it shall not be the moral retreat of politicians who send people to war one day and mourn them by monuments the next. Instead, for me at least, it shall be a poppy of peace, and a poppy of protest against all the Melchetts who ever sat snugly behind a desk and reassured the young dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.