A third of young people don't feel comfortable wearing a poppy – but we should all remember the history that came before us

Many of those who are reluctant to wear a poppy say it ‘glorifies war’

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 03 November 2017 17:18
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Knitted poppies and yellow ribbons placed outside Holy Trinity Church in Wavertree, Liverpool
Knitted poppies and yellow ribbons placed outside Holy Trinity Church in Wavertree, Liverpool

This weekend it’s time to find a quiet place for pets, before gathering around a bonfire – but how many of the kids waving sparklers and chucking bangers understand what we are celebrating?

The story of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic plotters who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 is a key moment in British history. It has recently been turned into a timely drama series by the BBC. But critics have complained that Gunpowder glamourises terrorists and sanitises religious bigotry, with some viewers finding the scenes of torture (a noblewoman stripped and crushed to death, for example) highly upsetting.

This show is the latest example of a fashionable dramatic genre; history-lite – where colourful periods in the past are presented in a highly selective way, with glittering actors and expensive special effects and posh people sounding thoroughly modern.

This way of explaining history as armchair entertainment is much more ratings-friendly than documentaries with old paintings, talking heads and middle-aged experts. Are we in danger of ironing out all the complicated bits that don’t suit modern storytelling for a generation with a short attention span?

The start of November also marks poppy season, where the wearing of simple paper poppies (to signify those fallen in battle) sold by the Royal British Legion raises money for the armed forces. This act of respect culminates in two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11 November, the exact moment when the First World War ended 99 years ago.

Gunpowder - trailer

All over the country, we stand still, in offices and factories, in schools and in banks. But how many people under 25 have any idea what the two world wars were about?

I am 70, and my father fought in Burma, but he never spoke about his term of duty. He was a difficult man who did not display much emotion. I see now how the ghastly experience of war blighted him for the rest of his life. For me, growing up in the 1950s, war seemed very distant, until the IRA brought their bombing campaign to mainland Britain and offices where I worked in the 1970s.

The other day, I read an astonishing article in which an “expert” argued that the so-called “snowflake” generation of millennials (derided for their sensitivity and the popularity of “safe spaces” on campuses) were seriously affected by growing up throughout the years following the 2008 recession!

It’s a good job they didn’t have to cope with the Blitz or rationing. These days, both world wars have been turned into big-screen dramas starring actors like Tom Hanks or consigned to a storyline in the lavish setting of Downton Abbey, as if we cannot really cope with the grisly reality; the slaughter of millions of men and women sent to their deaths by their leaders in the name of democracy.

And yet, night after night, footage of brutal bombings and devastation in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are beamed into our living rooms, with footage of innocent babies and women caught in the crossfire, part of the news alongside stories of lorry parks and sex pest MPs.

The lessons of two world wars seem to have gotten lost. We even use the word “war” to talk about fighting obesity, drunkenness and sexual harassment.

Since George W Bush announced a “war on terror” in 2001, the word has become virtually devalued.

Not surprisingly, young people, by far the most idealist section of society, are not committed poppy-wearers. Researchers found that a third of those aged between 18 and 24 were reluctant to wear one, some saying it “glorifies war”.

Three quarters of those not wanting to wear one say it is because they feel “compelled” to join in against their wants. I have some sympathy – working in television, the competition to be seen wearing a poppy earlier and earlier in October gets more ridiculous every year. Now on-screen presenters are issued with a diktat that poppies must be worn on screen at all times.

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As a student, I joined demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and Ban the Bomb marches; protested long and loud about nuclear weapons and apartheid. When the IRA started their letter-bomb campaign I was on the front line, working for a radio company in London who would not buy a bomb scanner until the staff threatened to walk out. I don’t believe that violence works, I loathe war – so should I wear a poppy?

On balance, the answer is yes, because I want to thank the people who have died in battle. But I do not want a single war fought in my name, so I completely understand why some young people are reluctant to buy a poppy.

Let’s not demonise them, but make sure that their generation understands our history properly, not just the airbrushed version – all the times when people were unspeakably cruel to each other in the name of religion or power.

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