Poppycock!

PUBLISHED: 16:00 10 November 2017

Wayne Rooney wears a Poppy black armband during a World Cup qualifying match for England against Scotland

Wayne Rooney wears a Poppy black armband during a World Cup qualifying match for England against Scotland

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Being forced to wear one takes all meaning away from this symbol, says comedian, musician and writer MITCH BENN

Have you seen The Death Of Stalin yet? You really should. It’s marvellous. If nothing else it establishes the great Jason Isaacs as our most bewilderingly versatile character actor and should, if there’s any justice, afford Simon Russell Beale (who steals the show as Stalin’s vile, toadlike secret police chief Beria) the kind of respect as a movie actor that he’s long rightly enjoyed on the stage. Humour has rarely been more dungeon-black, and all the funnier for it.

You might think that there wouldn’t be much humour to be found in the vicious – and ultimately, murderous – struggle to inherit the throne vacated by a genocidal dictator, but what there is to be found in abundance in such a scenario is absurdity, and there’s always a laugh to be had at absurdity.

The film begins with Stalin alive (if not especially well) and still in absolute control over an empire of people whose every action is motivated solely by fear. Fear of putting a foot – a toe – wrong, in a society where the faintest murmur of suspicion could have you spirited away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

In the event (and in the movie), Stalin’s policy of ruling through terror contributes to his death (this is NOT a spoiler, this happens in the first ten minutes and it’s in all the trailers): when he collapses in his private chambers, the guards outside the door hear the croak and the thud, but are too afraid of the consequences of bursting in uninvited to investigate. Their fear of the leader vastly outweighs their concern for him, and thus the great man is left to expire slowly in a puddle of his own urine.

It must be easy, when you enjoy absolute power, to mistake obedience for loyalty, and fear for love. Perhaps guys like Stalin don’t care either way as long as everyone stays in line. Because there was only fear and obedience, as soon as he’s gone, Stalin’s legacy is dismantled and his chambers looted.

There’s a lavish funeral, of course, but metaphorically and politically his bones are already being picked clean as he lies in state. Nobody actually respected him; they just made damn sure to act like they did. Any gesture made purely out of fear of the repercussions of not making it is ultimately meaningless.

Which brings us to the good old Remembrance Day poppy.

Is it just me, or is the vexed question of whether failing/refusing/forgetting to wear a poppy is a gross insult to the memory of those who died to preserve our freedom, or a legitimate exercise of that freedom, rather more vexed this November than in previous years?

It’s customary for at least one or two public figures to incur the wrath of the tabloids (red and black top) by turning up poppyless at some event or on some TV show or another but the terms in which they’re being criticised this year seem harsher than I remember.

I personally have no problem poppying up in November; both my grandfathers served in the Second World War albeit in very different capacities; John Macleod was a soldier, Jack Benn was a fireman during the Blitz (John survived the war; Jack, like many hundreds of firemen, did not).

And I think it’s vital to defy that nasty canard that to show support for service veterans is to be ‘pro-war’ or indeed that the reverse applies. This is a horrid little straw man deployed by both sides of the argument; to acknowledge that we owe a collective debt of care and gratitude to someone who was injured in Iraq is not to endorse the Iraq War, nor indeed was criticising that war while it was ongoing a mark of ‘failure to respect the troops’.

That one made me especially angry at the time; surely the most effective way to ‘support the troops’ back in 2003-2009 would have been to get them the hell back home and not send them off to fight any more illegal, chaotic, unplanned wars.

But this craven orthodoxy that Thou Shalt Wear A Poppy, whoever you are (I read a Twitter post this week from an American academic who, before being interviewed on British television one November was mystified to find a red paper flower being forcibly pinned to his jacket before being allowed on camera) is, to my mind, depriving the gesture of all its meaning.

If one doesn’t choose whether or not to wear a poppy – if it is, in fact, not a choice – then the fact you’re wearing one says nothing, about you, about the armed forces, about their sacrifices and suffering. The little flower becomes omnipresent, but irrelevant. Scarcely a fitting tribute. Scarcely a tribute at all.

Perhaps it’s all tied up with Brexit again. As bits of the impact survey start to leak, and reports come back from Brussels of just how utterly forlorn the British ‘position’ is, and it becomes ever more apparent that our own leaders, for all that they huff indignantly about ‘the will of the people’ are planning to sacrifice the people’s future to save their own political egos… perhaps those leaders and their apologists have decided that unthinking adherence to orthodoxy is a good thing, to be vigorously encouraged, and that questions – any questions – can no longer be tolerated.

My only problem with Remembrance Day poppies is that they have a tendency to curl up and fall apart after a day or so. I’ve got one of those little enamel ones now which I guess I could recycle year upon year but that would be sneaky.

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