As Armistice Day draws to a close for another year, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts on what the day means to me and on the increasingly sensitive subject of how the fallen should be respected.
Most people will be familiar with the excruciating pressure that television presenters and public figures are put under to honour their forebears in the ‘right way’ without cheapening the message by starting too early. One had only to witness the usually unflappable Gary Lineker desperately scrambling to clutch his poppy to his chest after it fell off during Match of the Day to realise that perhaps we’re starting to miss the point. After all, Lineker really can’t be blamed; he foresaw all too well the scathing tabloid condemnations that lay in wait for a respected presenter who, even through no fault of his own, failed to show ‘enough’ respect for Britain’s war dead.
But this uneasy pressure to be seen to be showing enough respect in the right way isn’t just restricted to our TV studios and public offices, it permeates all the way down to our streets and workplaces. Every year there emerges yet another ‘fuming cashier banned from wearing the poppy by shameful supermarket bosses’ or ‘war veterans livid at being refused permission to sell poppies in private retail outlet’. Those who choose to pay their respects to the war dead in a certain way get angry at those who don’t subscribe to their way, until the latter is invariably ‘shamed’ into a ‘climb-down’. In my own office, my meeting was abruptly hushed into silence at 11am and my attempts to quietly continue scrawling a few notes were met with disapproving ‘shush!’s and the frantic tapping of poppies and watches.
Is this really what we mean by respecting those who have gone before us? Does this tense, nervy atmosphere laced with a fear of being seen to be lacking in gratitude capture the Armistice day message we want to convey? I believe not. For me, honouring those tragic men and women who lost their lives in one of history’s greatest atrocities does not necessarily mean wearing a certain artifact or doing a certain thing at an agreed time. I don’t wear a poppy, but I have nothing against those who do. That’s their choice entirely. I feel like I respect Britain’s war dead by doing simple things like exercising my right to free speech or just by taking the time to learn about their lives through history books or elderly relatives. I appreciate the sentiment of collective observances like wearing a poppy or observing a silence, but when joining in with them becomes less of a privilege and more of a chore then the outcome actually runs counter to that which is intended. On a day which is meant to be all about respect, why can’t we simply respect the rights of individuals to honour their ancestors in whichever way feels right for them? After all, such freedom of expression is surely what those men and women laid down their lives to ensure.