I originally published this post here back in November 2009, talking about the crusade to try to shame all Premier League clubs into attaching a poppy to their playing shirts, but the current furore around FIFA's refusal to make an exception and allow the English football team to display the same emblem on their shirts in this week's international match against Spain is essentially the same argument being repeated again. The reaction to this "refusal" (actually a refusal to break a rule that applies to ALL emblems - a more commercially motivated version of what we might call the Jon Snow defence) has been widespread, including the Prime Minister and Prince William as well as the luminaries and reknowned patriots of the English Defence League.
It is an entirely predictable outrage, and we have the same tired old reaction around the poppy every year with tedious regularity... and in fact, the outrage itself really proves FIFA's point that the poppy clearly IS a political symbol.
The FA might have now reached a compromise with FIFA that enables the team to wear poppies on black armbands, but the whole incident does nobody any credit and certainly does not indicate to me any greater respect for Our Brave Troops.
Anyway, here's my rant again. Still sadly apt. I fully expect more tiresome and predictable criticism of Jon Snow for his refusal to bow to "poppy fascism" and wear one as he reads the news. You can set your watch by it.
Anyway. Here's the 2009 post.
There's a bit in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" where Captain Black runs something he calls the "Glorious Loyalty Oath Campaign", where everyone in the squadron finds themselves forced to sign oaths pledging their loyalty in order to get absolutely anything or everything:
"Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that "The Star-Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again"
Of course, anyone refusing to sign one of these oaths is immediately branded as somehow being disloyal to their country, to their flag and to their cause:
"Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to."
Captain Black's rival, Major Major, is actively prevented from signing any of these oaths, even if he wanted to:
"What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?"
"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don't see him signing any of our loyalty oaths."
"You aren't letting him sign any.""Of course not," Captain Black explained. "That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade".
Thus does Joseph Heller neatly skewer empty patriotism.
I was reminded of this when reading about the Daily Mail's latest campaign to try and get every Premier League football club to display a poppy on their matchday shirts during November.
[did you notice that most Premier League clubs - but not all - had poppies in place on the shirts last weekend, in the last round of fixtures before Remembrance Day 2011? In the Blackburn v Chelsea game, the home side had poppies and the away side did not... although there was a wreath and a solemn silence and apparently that was enough to avoid comment. Perhaps people were saving all their anger for the International game?]
As a result of their bullying, there are now only three of the twenty clubs holding out: Liverpool, Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers [Bolton ended up wearing poppies in 2009, and as you'll notice from the picture of Super Kev above, taken last weekend, they didn't bother putting up a fight at all this year]. As a spokesman for Manchester Utd not unreasonably said:
"We don’t think it’s particularly necessary. We sell poppies around the ground and all our officials wear them and we work with Armed Forces charities in a lot of other ways throughout the year."
Not good enough, apparently, and the Mail is continuing to try to bully them into changing their minds. Obviously, their readers are full of considered opinions on the subject. Here's lazzruss:
"Yes Yes Yes!!! It is beyond my capacity to put into words how this 'government' has ruined our once Great Britain by sytematically [sic] attacking our spiritual and historical heritage and culture and we have had enough! Banning poppies is the final insult to our nation as this shows a complete disregard and contempt for our Glorious Dead who gave everything including their very lives for the sake of the future of our Nation and every football team owes them their success and privileges - to display a simple poppy proudly on their shirts should be a moral imperative for anyone who loves our Country and what we (not the inept and shameful Labour Government) stand for."
Let's leave aside the fact that the majority of the players in the Premier League aren't even English, eh? Why let that get in the way of a good rant about WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?
Um, perhaps it's a statement of the obvious, but if you try to force people to wear a poppy, aren't you restricting our freedom to choose not to wear one? Isn't that the same freedom that "Our Glorious Dead' (note the capitalisation) fought for? Like it or not, that's the same freedom that allows a student to get so paralytically drunk that he urinated on a war memorial in Sheffield. Not very nice, for sure, but surely more a story about binge drinking than it is about any calculated disrespect for the dead, whatever the Daily Mail try to make of the story (flogging too good for him, naturally).
This "Poppy fascism" seems to be everywhere at the moment. Apparently the BBC are under pressure because the dancers on "Strictly..." weren't wearing poppies last week. All of the judges were, but none of the dancers. Not good enough, apparently, as everyone on the X-Factor was wearing one.... The BBC initially (and not very bravely) hid behind "Health & Safety issues" as the reason why the dancers weren't wearing poppies, but have now apparently changed their minds in the face of all this public outrage.
Where does this oneupmanship and assumed moral authority stop? Why are we only displaying our poppies for a couple of weeks of November? Does that mean we're being disrespectful and unpatriotic for the other 50 weeks of the year? Should we all be dyeing our hair red and tattooing poppies onto our cheeks so we can be displaying our gratitude and support for the sacrifices made on our behalf every single day of the year?
Of course, you can trust the good old Guardian for an alternative view, and Marina Hyde today has a good rant about this "phony poppy apoplexy":
"So on Saturday, know that every late challenge, every sending-off, will be in the memory of those who fell in battle. Then accept the fact that media campaigns to foreground the poppies that are not being worn, as opposed to the ones that are, serve not as a memorial to the sacrifices made on our behalf, but as a reminder of our hard-wired one‑upmanship and infinite capacity to find ways to divide ourselves."
The commentators are even more strident:
"Forced wearing of the poppy to commemorate a fight against tyranny? Britain seems to get sillier and sillier, and more and more irrelevant every week."
It seems that the spirit of Captain Black is alive and well and still busily hunting out people who won't sign his loyalty oaths.
"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?"
Think on that if you leave your house without a poppy this November.
Two years on, and the same tired old arguments and outrage are very much in evidence again. Depressing, don't you think? Perhaps we should be spending our weekends on a pilgrimage to the Cenotaph via Royal Wooton Bassett instead of watching a game of football?
Enjoy those armbands on the England side on Saturday, and let's think again on Marina Hyde's words from her 2009 article:
"So on Saturday, know that every late challenge, every sending-off, will be in the memory of those who fell in battle".
Paul Hayward writes something similar in this year's Guardian:
"You either buy a poppy or you don't, you either wear it or you don't. You can buy one in October if you like, though you shouldn't have to, and if you are occasionally seen without one it doesn't make you a bad person. Because surely the whole strength behind the poppy's symbolism is that it is the most understated of statements. It is a quiet, gentle reminder, not a shouted command. Above all, as a gesture it is personal and private, and ought not to be forced to go public".
If we follow the logic of the poppy fascists further, if it's disrespectful to our brave troops not to wear a poppy, is it not also disrespectful if we don't play a full-strength side and if John Terry doesn't start? An insult to the memory of their sacrifices? As LB said last night in the pub, what would our reaction be if the game on Saturday was against Argentina and they insisted on wearing a memorial to their Falklands dead?
Quite how this annual farce shows any respect for the people who have sacrificed their lives fighting for their countries is beyond me.
As a reminder of how quickly football can change, the first game of Sven Goran Eriksson's reign as England manager was against Spain in February 2001. A Spanish side including Iker Casillas, Raul and Pep Guardiola lost 3-0 to goals by Nick Barmby, Emile Heskey and Ugo Ehiogu. The start of the side hailed as a "Golden Generation".
England's line-up that night?
James, Phil Neville, Powell, Butt, Ferdinand, Campbell, Beckham, Scholes, Andy Cole, Owen, Barmby.
Subs: Gary Neville, Martyn, Brown, Ehiogu, Phillips, Sheringham, Fowler, Heskey, Lampard, Carragher, Wright, Ball, McCann.
Spain are, of course, now World and European champions. England, meanwhile, have won chuff all.