To the grey November murk the vibrant red of the poppy adds a splash of incongruous colour. Pupils widen against a washed out world, hearts open as evenings close, and memory finds hope even in the long shadows of a pale sun. Each poppy carries the sacrifice of millions of souls cradled within the gentle fold of its petals. In choosing to wear the poppy, the individual becomes an army, destined not for the killing fields of Flanders, but for the rituals of the school drive, work, or a football match. The responsibility to live the life denied to others courses through the mundane spaces where the line between war and peace is most fragile; here, on your own doorstep, where there is most to lose, the poppy brings it home. The unwilting red bloom of history confronts the world with the silent testimony of the dead, drawing minds to the places where they were quietened, and asking what was it all for?
The grey November palette isn't merely a dolorous backdrop for it too is suffused with its own truth, a truth told as history's weeping watercolour of black and white melts into time. For some the poignant scope of the poppy's sorrow is blinkered by an uncritical interpretation of history, wherein the actions of the British armed forces are considered as spotlessly heroic. This manifestly isn't the case, their legacy, like that of any defence force, is blotted by shameful episodes such as the events which unfolded on, Bloody Sunday, January 30th 1972. On this date the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry and murdered 14 civilians. Society ruptured from within as peacekeepers slayed the peaceful, as British troops trained their guns on British people, and as the inviolability of trust was lost. Bullets chased protestors through bloodstained streets with the indiscriminate zeal of impunity, for even as they fell the dead weren't just robbed of life they were robbed of truth also. An establishment whitewash blamed the victims, the bereavement of loss redoubled as history was rewritten to recast murder as justice and lies as truth. The perversion wasn't corrected until 2010 when David Cameron issued a formal apology on behalf of the British state for what was an "unjustified" and "unjustifiable" dereliction of duty. The delay of 38 years stretched history through time as without justice the crimes of Bloody Sunday were replayed over and over again on an interminable loop of despair, grief, and anger. This daily repetition cast a psychological pall over the city which by lingering not so much in memory as in life became almost a culture.
It was into this culture, with its deeply ingrained distrust of the British armed forces, that James McClean was born. A product of the Creggan estate which was home to 6 of Bloody Sunday's victims it is out of solidarity with the shared experiences that inform this culture that he refuses to wear the poppy during football matches. The vitriolic reaction to McClean's stance illustrates that when the poppy is placed at the collision point between competing histories, it becomes contentious and even divisive, more a political symbol than a human one. Transformed into a totemic hate figure McClean is routinely subjected to sectarian abuse, to having missiles hurled at him from the terraces, and to receiving death threats. Through all of this the FA have sat idly on their hands, stirring only to rebuke McClean for his use of an expletive in an instagram post even while admitting that he hadn't breached any of their rules. His own club, Stoke City, in choosing to reprimand him for confronting home fans over their abusive behaviour, elevated footballing allegiance into a moral code defined by self-absolution. The prevailing culture of official indifference suggests that the intolerant bigotry McClean suffers is somehow permissible, as if his exercising his right to choose is a transgressive act pregnant with immorality. This gives birth to the high farce of "fans" abusing McClean for not wearing a poppy, even while many of them aren't wearing one either.
Away from the pitch, the invective streams through online channels flowing from willfully provocative headlines like "Poppy Shame" to the keyboard warrior's battlefield of the comments section. If you peel back through the layers of anger, past allusions to IRA sympathies and accusations of hypocrisy for working in Britain, at the nucleus of the outrage seems to be the charge of disrespect. This feels like a fallacious non-sequitur where the argument states that since wearing a poppy is respectful it follows that not wearing a poppy is inherently disrespectful. Such absolutism is roundly rejected by the British Legion, the charity responsible for the poppy campaign. On their webpage they clearly state that "wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories" . The trend toward poppy conformism is the antithesis of this ideal, and marks the point where choice becomes illusory, a vacuous act akin to attending church as a non-believer; something you do because you feel you have to. The apathy born of obligation is more than a step toward meaninglessness, it is a step toward forgetting and it is through forgetting that society disrespects the ultimate sacrifice made by too many.
While we are most intimately acquainted with the histories we as communities tell ourselves, with their almost folkloric solipsism tending toward subjectivity, and the comfortable truths they enshrine, it is the universal truth of life's inevitable end that acts as the historic thread tying humanity together. What the poppy tells us is that this shared truth shouldn't divide us.