The colour of peace

IssueDecember 2006 - January 2007
Feature by Jeff Cloves

There has been a Saturday morning peace picket in Stroud's High Street since the build-up to the Iraq war. This is my pitch for selling PN and seasonal white poppies but I've only just discovered -- to my chagrin -- that the picket predates the arrival of our family in Stroud and has been going on since the war in Kosovo.

The picket is small but, as I've lately been made aware, admirably persistent. It has become part of the street furniture so to speak and this year our white poppies ceased (perhaps permanently?) to be provocative.

In the past, we've been berated by British Legion poppeteers claiming we had no right to “sell” in the street and promising to report us to the appropriate authorities. So far, the appropriate authorities have been silent and invisible and, on Remembrance Day, a red poppy seller even requested a white poppy from me. She was a remarkably dramatic presence on the street; black coat, black stockings, red shoes, red scarf, red hat, pale white face and a gash of red lipstick. She pinned our white poppy next to her red one and floated off in a gently theatrical whirl. I didn't reciprocate. I've never bought a red poppy and never worn one. I was brought up in a culture which regarded red poppies as a patriotic endorsement of “our glorious dead,” and that's how I still feel.

A call to pacifist arms

It is extraordinary that, after 70 years of their existence, people come up to the picket and ask what the white poppies “mean”. This is when the little background information leaflet that the PPU provides with the street sellers' kit proves to be a very useful educational tool.

Because my birthday is on 12 November, and because my Uncle Bert was a CO during WW2, the red poppy debate has always been a live issue for me. I long for the day when those compliant TV presenters, newsreaders and football pundits who parade our screens during the first two weeks of November, break rank and refuse to wearred poppies. Better still, wouldn't it be marvellous if even one of them wore a white poppy? I remember in the 60s Paul McCartney appearing on Top Of The Pops (or Ready Steady Go perhaps?) wearing a CND badge. It seemed, at the time, to be an extraordinary breakthrough, and it wasn't long before that potent symbol (what the Americans call a “Peace Sign”) began to appear on guitar bodies and straps. They still do. Though whether they've become an acceptable part of the iconography of the cool, rather than a call to pacifist arms, remains debatable. Whatever, it's a sight better than clocking a swastika in the same context.

For survival's sake

I wear my white poppy throughout November and find its whiteness a significant talking point. I've seen quite a few people this year wearing both poppies and fancy they find this acceptable. Somehow, I suspect they wouldn't wear a white poppy in preference to a red but the wearing of both suggests, maybe, that the idea of non-violent conflict resolution (“jaw jaw instead of war war” as even that old warmonger Churchill put it) has at least gained some ground.

Meanwhile, I suspect warfare remains the biggest contributor to global warming we have ever devised. In all the current debate about air miles, tax on aircraft fuel, gas-guzzling four-wheel drives, coal and nuclear power stations, and our general profligacy with energy, it's odd that this seems to be ignored.

All warfare is motorised, all weaponry releases CO2 and the earth and water over which wars are fought becomes corrupted and polluted. I wonder if anyone has properly evaluated this yet and why it hasn't become a major plank in our anti-war/anti-arms trade platform.

Never mind the Greens, where are the Whites for heaven's sake? Forget heaven: for survival's sake rather.

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