Eighteen years ago this month my Dad died. He was born on the 7th of November 1932 and died five days and sixty-six years later, on the 12th November 1998. I, therefore, remember my Dad particularly in November. I wear the poppy for my Dad.
He saw active service in Cyprus and Korea with The Highland Light Infantry. The H.L.I. were based at Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow – nicknamed ‘Hell’s Last Issue’ because of their reputation for toughness. Their symbol was the elephant: tough and strong but also intelligent and kind.
Dad was also active in the Parachute Regiment as a young man and remained involved with 15 Para at Yorkhill all his life. As an older man he went from bar-to-bar all across Glasgow in hail, rain and snow delivering and collecting Poppy Boxes to raise money for the war disabled. He enjoyed a pint, it’s true, and he liked bars, but there were times he was really worn out and didn’t want to trudge round the streets of Glasgow collecting boxes, but he did it anyway. He’d seen the men get their legs blown off. He was there. He never glorified war. He never spoke to us about the details, but you could see in his eyes that he had witnessed great suffering.
His army training never left him; he was proud of that. Although, he deeply resented the forced National Service, and made that quite clear to Princess Margaret when she came to inspect his platoon. She said to him, “Your men are beautifully turned out, Lieutenant.” He broke protocol, spoke to her directly and – shock-horror! – looked her in the eye, “That is because they have no choice, Ma’am.”
I imagine she never forgot him in a hurry.
However, that little bit of rebellion did earn him 30 days in Orderly Officers peeling potatoes. Ah, the irony – almost insulting; an Irishman named after the blighted potato being punished by the potato. (Still, at least there were potatoes to peel unlike in 1845.) My Dad didn’t care; in fact, he was amused by it all. And, the pièce de résistance; it gave him a great story on which he dined for many a happy year.
18 years ago this month we stood in Rutherglen Cemetery on a torrentially rainy November day and buried my Dad as his old army mates – gay few – played The Flow’rs O’The Forrest on the bagpipes as the rain drenched them through. My Dad wore the poppy practically all year round and those old boys were all wearing the poppy that day because it meant something to them.
I wear the poppy for my Dad who represented the fight for freedom for me – all kinds of freedoms: the freedom to rail against protocol, the freedom to question the social order of things and the freedom to live our lives in whichever way we choose. And that includes the choice to wear the poppy – or not.
Forcing people to wear the poppy devalues it. Forcing people not to wear the poppy takes away their freedom. The money in the Poppy Boxes goes to help those who were injured in the wars and who fight on. It’s not a fashion statement. And, love them or hate them, the sparkly ceramic poppies were created in order to raise more money for veterans and cost around £15 rather than the £1 or £2 suggested donation towards the plastic ones. So, whichever poppy you choose to wear, please make sure that the money you spend on your personal choice of poppy is being sent to help the wounded veterans and their families. And, sadly – despite our peace protests and anger at our corrupt government – there is a whole new generation of veterans who need this support. Just because some people exploit the meaning of the poppy doesn’t mean that it is now useless. It means we need to reclaim it in the spirit in which it was intended: to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom and to raise money to help the injured veterans.
My father, his old comrades and all those who illuminated the suffering of our forefathers and foremothers took practical action to help. They trudged around public spaces dropping off and picking up Poppy Boxes and ensuring that the money was delivered directly to those for whom it was intended.*
My Father in Peacetime.
The poppy is a symbol of remembrance, a mark of respect and yes, it has become political, a symbol of pro-war and even a self-gratifying emblem for do-gooders. And some are now attaching it to their lapels just because it’s ‘trending’.
I wear it for my Dad. I remember for him because he can’t. And in so doing my attention is drawn towards those who, with the best will, fought and died for peace – and for those who live on.
Put your money in the box if you so wish. Wear the poppy for your own reasons – or don’t. But please respect each others’ choices.
Thank you Leo Linus Patrick Aloysius Murphy. We will never forget. So you may Rest in Peace.
*More on money here: Where Does The Poppy Money Go?