Ninety-eight years ago today at 11am GMT the guns fell silent and an Armistice was declared which effectively ended WWI. It was exactly a week too late to save Wilfred Owen, the most anguished and anguishing poet of his generation, who was killed crossing a muddy stream on 4th November 1918. I was born less than ten years after the end of WWII and my parents must have still been raw from their experience in uniform during that conflict. All the veterans of WWI are all safely dead and no longer hirpling around the streets without legs or coughing up their lungs in bed in the spare room. Called the spare room to spare the rest of the family having to listen to Pa trying to accommodate to the effects of phosgene. We tend, therefore, to romanticise WWI on the one hand and 'like' the poems of Wilfred Owen; and on the other hand agree that it was a monstrous thing to unleash upon the planet. I was brought up on a revisionist history of that global conflict which took the 'lions led by donkeys' approach that it was all a horrible mistake, driven by a false sense of national interest and a willingness to over-react to perceived diplomatic slights. Really, who gives a damn now about the Agadir Crisis? Was that a sufficient cause to lay down the keels of another half dozen battleships? My Grandfather lost a lung in WWI, frozen to necrosis above the North Sea, which seems a lot cleaner than chlorine and phosgene poisoning, but a rather brutal handicap nevertheless.
When I was growing up in England, everyone wore a poppy on Armistice Day and most people stopped what they were doing for 2 minutes on the knell of 1100hrs. Arriving in Dublin in October 1973, the absence of poppies was conspicuous the following month. The Irish just didn't Do Remembrance Sunday. Poppy denial was part of the forging of a post-imperialist national identity. I didn't miss the poppies. I was coming round to the idea that war was a mortal sin and wouldn't have worn one if I'd been back in England. The Vietnam War was in the news and being anti-war was a legitimate stance. From a distance, I get the idea that universal UK poppies are having a resurgence in the UK, which is a little worrying if true.
Today there are a couple of soccer matches going down Across the Water as part of the run up to the World Cup and the Scottish and English FAs have decided that their national teams will wear poppy arm-bands during their match this afternoon. FIFA doesn't think much of this because its rules forbid political or religious symbols on footballers' kit. Commercial symbols - Nike, Adidas etc. - are quite acceptable. The rhetoric of indignation about whether the English team should or may wear poppies sounds suspiciously like the shit-stirring bombast in the run-up to 1914. Affront is only two short steps from a [Western] Front.
One footballer in the British FA leagues doesn't do poppies. James McClean hails from Derry and for him the poppy has strong associations with the British Army and the Army has strong associations with Bloody Sunday, a massacre in his community perpetrated by 1 Para, the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, in January 1972. His 2013 Open Letter to Dave Whelan his boss at Wigan Athletic explained why he wouldn't, couldn't, wear a poppy along with his team mates. Predictably, this stand is met with outrage and indignation. I don't think those reasons are particularly coherent - bloody Sunday went down 20 years before McClean was born - but I'm all for him expressing them. His position gives us all a chance to reconsider our certainties about the matter of war and remembrance.
Whatever about poppies, in my head arm bands will forever be associated with brown shirts although I've never been to Nuremberg and was born 20 years after the Reichsparteitag der Einheit und Stärke rally at which Leni Riefenstahl shot her masterpiece of propaganda Triumph des Willens.
There, I don't feel clean any more. So let's read Rudyard Kipling's story of reconciliation The Gardener. It will take ten minutes - dis al.