The Heritage of Remembrance: Personal Poppies in the Service of the Nation

As the national print and broadcast media go into ‘poignant-reflection over-drive’, this week seems to be an appropriate time in which to reflect on the heritage of remembrance in general, and the heritage of poppies in particular. What with the Centenary of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the final withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, (not to mention the apparent ‘terror threat’ at the Cenotaph events on Sunday 9th November) this Remembrance Day period seems to have had a larger profile than ever. As usual, the ‘festival of remembrance’ seems to contain many of the standard set-piece elements; of the Queen at the Cenotaph (joined, this year, by the Irish Ambassador) together with the countless regional and local events that follow a similar pattern up and down the country. Such a consciously ‘national’ activity, repeated through thousands of local rituals has become one of the key uniting tropes of British national identity. The poppy has long played a significant part in these rituals, and this year it has taken on an even greater role through the incredibly popular artistic intervention at the Tower of London.

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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red: Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper. 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower of London’s famous moat since the summer. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war. As well as being a popularly well-received arts intervention, the exercise is also a fund raiser: the public have been invited to buy the poppies: £25 each, 10% of which will be shared between 6 military charities. While politicians and most of the press have been highly supportive of the exercise, there have been a few critical voices. Jonathan Jones, of the Guardian for instance, drew a good deal of venom from the right wing press, who called him a ‘sneering leftwing critic’ for having the temerity to suggest that the poppy installation was a little ‘toothless’.
See: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/31/world-war-one-poppies-memorial-cameron

It strikes me that the humble poppy has been given a lot of weight to bear. So what is the critical heritage take on this episode? The poppy installation seems to have been a resounding success in terms of public profile and interest, but what does it mean? How can this be seen as an example of ‘heritage in action’?

Taking a critical political-economic stance on this event, it strikes me as perhaps a good example of how ideas of heritage have been enrolled to raise money for essential services for ex-servicemen. One could argue that this installation invokes heritage as a NeoLiberal replacement of State responsibility with Third Sector activity, perhaps combined with a more general increasing visibility and acceptance of a Military Society. Whether one is broadly critical or supportive of the UK’s approach to military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, I find it slightly worrying that a more universal feeling of emotional debt, gratitude and reverence towards the dead of the First World War is being actively conjoined with contemporary military policy in the 21st Century. In other words, the near-Universal respect for the soldiers of the First World War is being used as a means through which to cement support (or even bully public acquiescence) for the wars of today. Rather than encourage reflection on the causes, consequences and ethical positions regarding the use of military power within any specific context, all wars are seemingly packaged together and aligned with a sense of deep reverence for those that fought in the First World War. Furthermore, the practice of using the individual soldier as the lens for all remembrance activity tends to deflect away any further critique – of why any war was being fought in the first place. A critique of any military action – the invasion of Iraq or the Suez Intervention for instance – is replaced by an all-consuming sense of general ‘poignant reflection’ on the lives and deaths of individual soldiers.

While the lens through which much of this activity takes place operates through the lives of individual soldiers, the wider ritual of Remembrance has become a powerful, and specifically NATIONAL event. This is reflected in the ‘Blood Swept Lands’ installation, in which the 888,246 ceramic poppies represent only British military fatalities during the war; not Commonwealth; not allied and certainly not including the enemy. Is this installation a prompt for reflection on the sadness, horror and futility of war (in general), or is it an exercise in the celebration of a specifically ‘national’ sense of identity? The sense of ‘pride’ that people might feel is indicative of the power of the nation, and this is a heritage practice that invokes a deep sense of national pride.

The increasingly ubiquitous omnipresence of the poppy implores us to take events into our hearts; their unquestioned significance seeping into our everyday personal consciousness. But at the same time, they prompt us to recognise the supposed stability and legitimacy of the NATION: their seemingly universal messages of vague ‘respectful reverence’ acting to crowd out other voices. Joining in with the poppy-filled reflection seems to have become a key aspect of celebrating the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. There is an imperative towards personal conduct (the wearing of poppies – particularly for anyone with a public profile); each one of ‘us’ has both a birth-right and a communal responsibility to act in accordance with a perceptibly ‘national’, yet specifically ‘everyday’, brand of common sense that is founded upon a supposedly shared heritage that ought to trump all other axes of identity. And of course the poppy provides a good setting for gratuitous Royal photo opportunities, involving a carefully chosen dress of a certain shade of blue can look so striking when seen against the sea of red.….

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As well as the Royal photo opportunities, the striking visual imagery of the red poppy has also been recently deployed by the staff of the GCHQ secret listening centre in Cheltenham, who formed a giant ‘poppy’ of colour-co-ordinated people in uniforms, which was only visible from the air (perhaps from passing spy-drones).

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These poppy-pictures are slightly banal, but that is the point of them: their banality makes them powerful. In her work on the heritage of bus shelters in Norway, Halldis Valestrand has recently written [International Journal of Heritage Studies, volume 21(1)] about the importance of taming potentially dangerous and ambiguous items of heritage by making them commonplace-and-predictable. In Valestrand’s work, every-day objects, which have potentially dangerous stories associated with them, are harnessed by the State through a process that is specifically designed to make them vague, general, predictable and banal – in her case to tell uncontroversial stories that support the idea of undifferentiated ‘Norwegian-ness’. It strikes me that the process of rendering potentially ‘difficult heritage’ (of the industrial-scale of war dead as experienced in the First World War) into something slightly banal, which the ‘nation’ can take pride in is occurring with certain elements of poppy remembrance. Once upon a time, it was peoples’ national duty to go and fight and die for their country: now it is our national duty to bow our heads in reverence to a sometimes undifferentiated militarism of ‘heroes-in-uniform’. Lots of potentially difficult articulations of the past can be made safe; made harmless – often through their ritualised predictability.

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2 thoughts on “The Heritage of Remembrance: Personal Poppies in the Service of the Nation

  1. Interesting read, David. Not sure if you’ve seen the Christmas advert Sainsbury’s have released recently (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM). It’s a stunning video in terms of cinematography, but seems to follow on nicely from what you say about the current trend of remembrance being a “means through which to cement support (or even bully public acquiescence) for the wars of today”.

    There’s the additional point of the advert promoting a consumption of cherry picked heritage- Sainsbury’s may be donating profits from the chocolate bar to the RBL, but anyone would be kidding themselves if they didn’t think Sainsbury’s are using a sanitised representation of WWI to increase footfall and profit. As you say, there’s a lot of focus on the individual brave soldier serving his country, without analysis of the bigger picture of why they’re there in the first instance- something I’m sure politicians aren’t too displeased to see.

    • This is quite a shocking advert – thanks for putting me on to it, Ed! … I think it would be possible to do an entire project just on that one advert; from the British person ‘initiating’ the ‘peace’, to the lack of shell holes and barbed wire (let alone any bodies!). Amazing!

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