Saturday, November 11, 2006

In Flanders Fields

The carp has never appealed to me as a fish. They don’t do much for me. Equally, it’s fair to say that I’ve never done much for them. Anglers seem to like them, but I notice they usually throw them back, and I suppose fish take this sort of rejection in their stride (or swim). Just very gratefully.

Next down the page in my dictionary is the verb, to carp. And this is a popular sport today, probably more so than fishing. Critics say I’m good at it, but I think it’s just jealousy on their part.

The sort of carping that really gets my attention is now filling the newspapers – well, I suppose they’ve got to put something in. You can’t have a blank hole on the front page, people will notice, and the stuff about the failings of various agencies in Britain is a bit repetitious. They’re running out of government bodies, in any case, and now only finding one that was efficient would be newsworthy. But the blather about the colour of the Remembrance Day poppy is, well, it’s just a lot of old poppy-cock!

A very dear friend of mine had a narrow escape from being named Poppy as it was her birthday on that date, but November the 11th. has been remembered (that’s why it’s called Remembrance Day, you stupid carpers) for many years as a tribute to the generation that died so needlessly in the First World War. And the red poppy was not a religious icon, a sales marketing tool or a symbol of anything that any sane person would object to, it was the object that so many of those at the front recalled in later life, those that were lucky enough to have one. It was the poppies that still bloomed in the shell-torn landscape of Flanders.

I suppose those that now advocate white poppies have never been to Flanders, where they must be the equivalent of four leafed clovers.

Time has tended to reduce the horror of those years, and it was an even more horrendous slaughter than the second. Few British families remained unscathed. In my family there was a maiden aunt and, as a boy, I often wondered why she had never married, as she was undoubtedly very good-looking. It was many years before I discovered that her fiance had died in Flanders. She was just one of the thousands who would not need a poppy to remind them – but many do.

Although there are many fine books on the events of that time, nothing to my mind evokes the period as well as the writing of Vera Brittain in her diaries, Chronicle of Youth. She owed a debt to society later on in life, since she gave birth to Shirley Williams, but one can excuse the occasional slip-up. Those who carp about remembering the dead of that war would do well to read her books.

And the sale of poppies is, for once, for a genuine charity unlike a good many others.

The manager of Hainault London Underground station saw fit to turf an 85 year-old lady off his premises for trying to sell poppies there the day before yesterday. Her husband had died during that war and for many years she had done duty collecting at this station for the fund.

To their credit, London Transport (or whatever they call themselves now) apologised and so she will be back with her tray of poppies.

I hope the station manager gives generously. In fact, he should buy the whole tray from her.

The poem that caught the imagination and made the poppy such a potent symbol of the war, was written by a Canadian Medical Officer, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, whilst serving in Flanders. It was first published in the magazine Punch.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

So give generously today. Even if you think the poppies should be white. You’re only carping if you think that’s so important.


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