An enigmatic figure, common to all great mythologies: the blue demon, the sower and reaper of blood.
Conspiracy theory: British imperial history, in its entirety, is the result of a dark and ancient plot on the part of the poppies; a Papaveraceaen pact ranged against humanity. For centuries they schemed in their hedgerows and pastures, dreaming up strange and cruel ideas in those ugly flaring heads of theirs, communicating their vegetable conspiracies through codes carried on unwitting bees (while the rest of us just innocently assumed them to be having sex), until the time came to strike. Wherever empire goes, poppies seem to follow: maybe we’ve got it the wrong way round. Our ruling classes have had their alliance with these plants for a long time now; in a state of opiate suggestion, it’s very possible that the flowers could do whatever they wanted with them. The poppies wanted China: we took them there, and forced millions into somniferous slavery. The poppies wanted to grow undisturbed, and our artillery obediently churned up the fields of Europe for them. Even this century they’ve reclaimed Afghanistan with British helicopter support. Now the poppies, and their puppeted politicians, are so sure of their angiospermic power over us that they can demand we peons each wear their plastic sigil every November, to remind us who we belong to. Now angry mobs will descend on anyone who insults our overlords by burning them in effigy, or else these iconoclasts will be legally imprisoned for crimes against the dignity of plants that (let’s not forget) grow in shit. Poppies have been a symbol of death since the Greeks; the fury of the pro-poppy partisans is the fury of death against life; it’s almost certain that the poppies are trying to lure us into a nuclear war, so that when the dust clears from the sky and all the humans are dead, the scorched scrublands of the future will flower with nothing but giant irradiated poppies, twisting happily in the wind as it howls an unheard threnody through the shells of ruined cities.
Even if all this isn’t true – and I don’t see why it couldn’t be – it doesn’t matter. Conspiracy theory is always true in a sense, in form if not content. We’re not being controlled by creatures from outer space (whatever kind of lizard the Queen is, it’s one autocthonous to this lump of rock), the Jews aren’t putting fluorine in your water and gay propaganda on your TV, and however you arrange the little clues you’ll never be able to make a complete and rational account of things – but at the same time our society functions by conspiracy: no actions are innocent, every meeting of a two implies an excluded third. We’re constantly told that this is a time of synoptic openness; nothing is further from the truth. It no longer makes sense to say, for instance, that you’re going shopping: you’re being made complicit in a conspiracy between yourself and the supermarkets against some poor indentured Guinean cocoa farmer. Reading a book is a conspiracy between you and the author, going outside is a conspiracy between the earth and the Sun. We’re all complicit, we’re all somewhere in the cold staring pyramid, and poppies are growing in straggly clumps all along its base.
So what: it’s just a symbol, it’s just a nice way of remembering the dead. The problem is that every act of ritualised remembrance necessitates a simultaneous forgetting. What’s remembered is the ritual itself, the po-faced charade of monarchs and prime ministers placing those sinister circles of poppies by the Cenotaph, a two minutes’ silence indistinguishable from a two minutes’ acquiescence. The process of memory and its transformations must be wiped out in the moment of remembering. Nobody now seems to remember that the whole red-poppy charade was brought to Britain by none other than one Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the brutal waste of millions of lives at Passchendaele and the Somme. He struts around postwar London with a fake poppy in his lapel, and by its apotropaic magic the teeming ghosts of his victims no longer impede his sight but can only claw ineffectually at his shoulders. If the poppy were just a symbol inscribed with unfortunate militaristic overtones it could be opposed without much effort, but in fact it’s much more subtle and dangerous than that. We’re locked in a struggle against dreams and magic. Wearing a poppy doesn’t honour the victims of war, it banishes them. As long as we can fixate on the narcotic solemnity of those two clean red circles, we don’t need to think about the mud and gas and rats, or the victims of shellshock tried and shot by their own officers, or the millions of innocents slaughtered before and after the war in Ireland and India and Malaya and Kenya and Iraq, or those ethnic and religious minorities who are even today compelled to demonstrate their patriotism by wearing poppy-patterned hijabs. It’s a drug, something out of a Philip K Dick novel; it produces a new reality and traps us inside of it. If we’re to start really remembering the tragedy of war, the only way is to burn all the poppies, wipe out their evil magic with fire, and look our ghosts squarely in the eye.
Faced by an onslaught of politicised remembrance, the instinct from the Left seems to be to depoliticise, to present the war as a purely human tragedy, one in which any imposition of political meaning is something like blasphemy. To actually celebrate a victory is crass beyond imagining. This is bullshit. The First World War was a class war, an organised assault against the European working classes on the part of the European ruling classes – and we won. It wasn’t a war for freedom or democracy: even by the standards of miserable contemporary liberalism Britain in 1914 was not a democracy (neither was France, or Canada, or Australia, or the United States), for the simple reason that women and the working classes were denied the vote. Our victory didn’t coincide with the Armistice; it was uneven and generally rolled back, and it came at a terrible cost, but it was real. Everywhere returning troops struggled to overthrow the forces that had sent them off to die. Votes for women and the empowerment of labour unions in the United Kingdom, a surge of civil rights militancy in the United States, workers’ uprisings in Germany, and the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. Still it’s not finished. Remembrance Sunday demands that we sit by passively and let the vague tones of history wash over us; our real history compels us – in honour of the dead, and in respect of their legacy – to fight.
This post is dedicated to the memory of those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect ninety-six years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could easily learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.