Over the last few weeks, I have noticed that some of my twitter-loving friends have been posting blogs and articles about something called “poppy fascism”. What on earth they mean by this frankly ridiculous term I’m not sure. It appears to refer to the ostentatious wearing of the poppy by politicians and public figures who are keen to link themselves to the memory of Britain’s war veterans. In some circles apparently, though not any that I am in, it is regarded as obligatory to wear a poppy and people who choose not to do so feel criticised in some way. Although as we mark the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War, we may just pause to remind ourselves that social death is not as bad as actual death.
I have never experienced any criticism myself. Sometimes I wear a poppy but usually it is trashed after a couple of hours and falls off whatever mud-spattered, dogwalking raincoat I have affixed it to. Sometimes people ask why I wear one; they never mention it if I don’t. Although, perhaps if I have faced a raised eyebrow I perhaps didn’t notice or put it down to something else. Most people I know never wear a poppy. That’s fine, it’s a choice. I’m not going to criticise them for that. They do however seem to have a pretty loose understanding of the meaning of the word ‘fascism’.
In the UK wearing a poppy is a social act, it indicates a sharing of the act of remembering which some people like to do at this time of year. Loss can be an isolating experience and it may be comforting for some whose pain is still sharp to feel that they are part of something that is bigger than themselves and their own individual experience. I have written before about my own family memories of my grandfather Alexander Shand. He was a member of the Highland Division the 51st, which was sacrificed by Churchill in an effort to persuade the French to fight on after Dunkirk. Arriving at the coast they found fog in the channel and no boats to rescue them. There was tremendous loss of life in the ensuing battle before 10,000 men surrendered into five years of captivity. (One of their commanders was the actor High Grant's grandfather. Shand would have been his chef.)
For Private Shand and many others, there was a long march across Europe to a prisoner of war camp in Poland, where many more died. I was told stories about how Shand survived. A chef, he always boiled the scraps of food he picked up before he ate them and saved himself much illness. How he was the only man who could tether the bull to the plough as they had to do.
In 1945, Shand took part in what became know as the death march across Germany when in the dead of winter, in blizzards and temperatures down to minus 25, thousands of starving, ill-clad, exhausted, prisoners, had to march hundreds of miles to the Stalags in Germany. My grandfather lost many of his friends.
The decimation of the 51st devestated communities across the north of Scotland. When the news came that Alec Shand had survived and was coming home, neighbours in the street in Aberdeen, all of whom had little enough food to put on their own tables, chapped on the door of my mother's home to hand in an egg, or a paper bag with an ounce of sugar, to welcome him home.
I heard often as a child how, as my six-year-old mum waited at the station as the returning troops streamed off a train, pestering her mother as to which was her dad, her Glaswegian mother joked: “Just pick whichever one you want.”
But then I learned how the man who came back was different from the one who went away. When the taxi stopped outside their house and he saw the balloons and the welcome banner he begged them to keep driving. He could not face a party.
Walking along the street with my mother, any crust in the gutter would catch his eye and the pretty, ringletted, well-dressed child would be mortified in case he would stoop to pick them up.
Although he never recovered in some ways, my grandfather was lucky to come out of five years of captivity alive. There are many who have family memories of suffering which are worse. As we mark 70 years since the end of the war against actual fascism, I guess it might be a cause for celebration that we have so forgotten the meaning of this term that we trivialise it in this way. But poppy fascism? Give me strength.