I’ll be wearing a poppy in my lapel. It will be a red one. You probably think that’s no big deal. It isn’t. I almost always wear one every year. Sometimes, I forget or mainly I lose the poppy. I wear the poppy for personal reasons and not because I think everyone who has ever been in Her Majesty’s Forces has always brilliant and heroic or any of that. Is anyone that naive?
I wear the poppy for my maternal Grandfather who fought in WW1, saw his brother blown apart and who was almost starved as a PoW. I wear the poppy for him and the stories of shrapnel being pulled out of his body 50 years after the conflict.
I wear the poppy for his three sons and my uncles, the beloved brothers of my mother. One of those Gateshead lads waskilled in a submarine in the fjords in what I can only guess was a terrifying end for him and everyone on board. I wear the poppy for another Gateshead lad, my uncle who was staggered to survive and remain (physically) unscathed in the invasion at Normandy and the fight through France, Belgium and into Germany. I wear the poppy for him and what he witnessed and his quiet dignity and reluctance to accept being described as a hero. I wear the poppy for a third uncle who manned a searchlight over an airfield in the south of England. I wear the poppy for the many thousands of other men and women like my Grandfather and uncles. I wear it for the men I came across in the early years of my working life who were nearing the end of theirs but who had served in the forces in WW2 and who were straightforwardly good blokes who helped me grow up. I wear it for the old fellas who sat in the club with their pints in retirement playing dominoes who had seen things I’m glad to say I never have.
My poppy is for my family, my community and my class.
I’m not sure when football found it had to weigh so much into Remembrance Sunday and the marks of respect around it. But I know I don’t like it. A few years ago when James McLean refused to wear the poppy I thought of the men of my family and felt affronted. I shouldn’t have. McLean isn’t disrespecting my relatives or those like them. He is respecting his own and he’s been forced to do it publicly because of this mawkish, look-at-me desire to compete to remember. I’m bewildered at the perceived need for Remembrance Day tifo-style displays in club colours as I saw on MoTD at West Ham or murals at Leicester City. I just can’t work out why Remembrance Sunday has spilled out across football in what looks like to me in-your-face gawdy attention seeking and one upmanship.
I don’t much care for Tony Blair, David Cameron or the royals who stand at the Cenotaph with their wreaths held in their hands and their money in the Cayman Islands. Those people say nothing to me of the respect I have for my own family and the pain war inflicted on a generation fading from our lives. I feel no desire to compete with others about how much respect I want to demonstrate to people I knew and whose experiences could only imagine.
I grew up in a family with a strong Irish-Catholic lineage. Our family table intermittently crackled with tales of discrimination and poverty our forebears had faced in less enlightened times. I’ve never been discriminated against because of my religious or Irish heritage but previous generations of my family have done.
McLean will have an altogether different perception of the British Army in particular given the recognised atrocities of Bloody Sunday and other wrongs committed by those in uniform. I’m not interested in balancing that out by mitigating those crimes with the murderous, callous atrocities committed by Irish Republican terrorists. That will get us nowhere. McLean has a different view of the British Army because he is from a different place to us and has a different experience.
There are those who see this as an opportunity to practice a peculiar form of poppy fascism and for some it has become politicised by the right-wing who misrepresent any different perspective to the respect of those who have fallen as disrespectful or insulting. I’ll leave you to assess the irony of some of these right-wing patriotic groups wandering around in marches giving it Sieg Heil and Nazi salutes and then on another day raging about the wearing of poppies. It’s an excuse for them to be on a hair trigger of outrage at some sleight they relish as it allows them to be able to let rip with their own peculiar suite of prejudices.
I heard McLean barracked on his home ground on Saturday gone as he had been previously as a Sunderland player and by their fans. He’s an easy target of those who have been led by the nose into believing he is disrespecting the war dead.
There will be players wearing a football shirt with the poppy upon it but they aren’t respecting anything. They are doing what they are told to do so by their football clubs and most likely not giving it a second thought. It’s an empty gesture. They will neither understand nor appreciate it. But somehow they are complying with this desire to show respect even when they have no idea about it. Not all of them obviously but I’m not convinced in our global game with managers and players from every corner of the planet that Remembrance Sunday possesses the same poignancy in that industry as it does in wider British society.
Wear your poppy if you choose and how you choose. Or not as you choose.
I’ll wear mine but the royals and the politicians with rehearsed solemnity mean nothing to me. And James McLean can do what he chooses.
Michael Martin. Follow Michael on @tfMichael1892