Poppy Love

by Maria on November 9, 2015

E and I give money to the Royal British Legion every year. We sit down towards the end of the year and talk about who to support, which direct debits to keep and which to swap out. The Legion is the one item in our charity basket that stays in with no need for discussion. It supports serving and former members of the armed forces, and isn’t choosy about which wars the veterans fought in. Its appeal is based on the need to keep faith with a life-long social covenant, rather than the dangerous conceit that all soldiers are heroes.

But most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling. In its drive to sell as many poppies as it can for Remembrance Day, the Legion has allowed itself to become part of an increasingly nasty annual tradition of bullying of people who choose not to wear a poppy or are somehow ‘caught’ without one.

Today, the Legion announced an astonishingly tone-deaf campaign for celebrities to film themselves silenced by a poppy held across their lips, ahead of the official two-minute silence on Wednesday. The dark irony of using the poppy to literally silence people in public life seems to be beyond the ken of the Legion’s hyperactive communications team.

In 2013 and again last year, ITV newsreader Charlene White, fed up with being called a ‘black c–t’ by hordes of self-righteous Twitter trolls, felt the need to put out a public statement about why she chooses not to wear a poppy while doing her job. Last week, Siena Miller, whose job is to act in films and then publicise them on television shows, was subject to more manufactured and horribly misogynist outrage for the crime of not wearing a poppy while on a light entertainment programme, because the pin was tearing her borrowed dress.

It is no accident that women in public life, especially women of colour, are at the sharp end of the nastiest public abuse for failing to notice that wearing a poppy is no longer a choice.

Some of the most assiduous poppy wearers in public life are male politicians. The Prime Minister’s office was caught last week photo-shopping a poppy the size of an ostrich egg onto the PM’s lapel. Having failed to re-orchestrate the annual Remembrance Day ceremony to emphasise his own singular role, Cameron’s team made damn sure his virtual poppy was bigger than anyone else’s and even capable of time travel back to when the picture was first published in August.

Not that anyone really expects the appropriated symbol of remembrance for our war dead to translate into actually caring for the armed forces or veterans or their families. The current and previous governments have systematically hacked away at the things that make military family life possible; reducing educational allowances and inflation-adjusted wages, allowing housing stock to rot and privatising those responsible for it, farming out recruitment to a clueless private sector vendor, relying on charity to rehabilitate injured soldiers and house homeless veterans, and making about a fifth of serving soldiers redundant, even as some of them fought in Afghanistan.

The propensity of politicians to wrap themselves in the flag is in direct proportion to their eagerness to cut away at the quality of life of those who actually serve. As fellow Conservative David Davis puts it today, Cameron is exceptionally good at ‘being the Prime Minister’, rather than at anything substantive. Mere policies, including those that would help with current-day troops and veterans, are left to the tender mercies of the MoD, where ministers never last longer than a year or two.

Along with the hastily donned flak-jacket and tousled helicopter-hair, the poppy has been allowed to become a symbol of politicians’ lip service to the troops, an emblem of fake masculinity borrowed from forces men and women who often show real courage, the kind that comes with self-sacrifice. Service, that is to say.

The Legion is playing a dangerous game. It has allowed its main fundraising campaign to be aligned ever closer to party political PR games, while staying silent as people in public life are vilified for failing to conform to poppy-mania. The backlash has already begun, and the Legion risks being permanently associated with horrible behaviours that will harm both its fundraising and ability to do its job.

The poppy is both public and personal. That’s what makes it such a powerful symbol. On Remembrance Sunday I think about the tens of thousands of Irish men who left my great-grandfather’s army, the Irish Volunteers, and went to fight for Britain in World War I. I think of the thousands who deserted the Irish Army in World War II to go and fight against the Nazis, and suffered a lifetime of the peculiarly Irish flavour of public vilification and private punishment when they came home. I think of particular people I’ve known who didn’t come back from recent wars, and I think of the long but mostly silent kitchen table conversation with E, before his last tour, when we agreed that he wouldn’t write an ‘in the event of’ letter because there was nothing left for him to say.

The poppy – both red and white – is a broad and resilient symbol. It can accommodate my intent and my history, and those of many others. This year I decided to continue to buy the usual couple of red poppies, but only to wear one on Remembrance Sunday itself. I chose not to publicly declare on an overcoat my conformance to the ever longer season of official mourning. I don’t think I’m alone. It may just be where I live or the unseasonably warm weather, but there seem to be noticeably fewer poppy-wearers in London this year.

Those who sell the poppy to support forces families and veterans would do well to understand the poppy’s strength comes from its many meanings, and that aligning it with jingoism, bullying and officialdom will hasten both indifference and backlash, not just against forces charities but against military families. It is time the Royal British Legion acknowledged the darker consequences of its campaign and dissociated itself from them.



Luis 11.09.15 at 2:44 pm

I’m not British, so can’t comment on the worthiness of the specific group, but a friend has shifted his donation from RBL to Veterans for Peace. May be worth considering the same. (I first heard about this issue through a damning blog post he linked from from VFP.)


Metatone 11.09.15 at 2:50 pm

Well said.


andy 11.09.15 at 2:57 pm

I intend to stop buying poppies when the last enforced veteran dies. After national service, I’m not sure why I should feel pressured to support people who chose to join up, and fought in wars often of dubious merit. The premise that volunteer ex-servicemen are more deserving of my explicit support than ex-teachers seems a shaky assumption; didn’t they just take a job with obvious dangers at a particular wage?
The more charities step in to support veterans, the more it absolves the government of its responsibilities to look after its employees both whilst in work and afterwards, as you allude to above.


oldster 11.09.15 at 3:31 pm

Yeah, that video really is just weird and tone-deaf as you say.

They don’t even look as though they are spending their 2 minutes pondering the sacrifices of the dearly departed. If you wanted to show people meditating with a poppy in their hand, that would be one thing. But this just looks weird.


Anarcissie 11.09.15 at 3:42 pm

It seems to me the poppy upon the lips begs for a little anti-war détournement. For instance, a poster of a noted war pig, Tony Blair for instance, with a large stylized poppy plastered on his mouth, and the legend ‘HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS KILLED’ above and ‘NOW SHUT UP’ below.


Maria 11.09.15 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for the link, Luis. I hadn’t heard of that organisation. They seem very brave. It would not have been easy to march, but they did.

Andy, I agree with you that – taking the liberty to develop your implicit line a bit further – the state owes its armed forces adequate pay, conditions and support when they are injured or to their families when they are killed. And it also owes them a certain amount of honour or respect, since teachers and doctors etc. don’t sign up for injury and death in the line of duty as a matter of course. This is the actual military covenant, not the PR exercise covenant that’s accompanied austerity.

What is happening today, and comes into sharp focus around remembrance, is that the state is reneging on its material obligations, while also seeming ever less sincere in the honour/respect side of things. And worse, that the military charities who are now providing to ex-forces what the state should, are themselves colluding in the hollowing out of sincerity in order to make a quick buck. While also condoning the abuse of individuals who don’t toe the line by wearing a poppy. It’s not pretty.

There is also a whole set of arguments about remembrance condoning war, and the non moral equivalence of the UK’s recent adventures with the previous world wars. I don’t go into those in this piece, but they are certainly worth thinking about.


Lynne 11.09.15 at 3:55 pm

When I was growing up, Remembrance Day meant remembering the men who fought in the two World Wars. It has since been co-opted by people in favour of whatever combat the present government wants to send troops to so that buying a poppy is seen as supporting not only the soldiers, but the cause. There is a lot of pressure on people to wear poppies. I prefer my pin (which I can’t find at the moment!) which is black and white and says “To remember is to end all war.”


Lynne 11.09.15 at 3:57 pm

I should add that Remembrance Day used to be associated with the phrase “Never Again.” This has been entirely dropped.

Poppy sales here are brisk but I actually don’t know what the Veterans Association does with the money raised. It all seems to have become quite commercial and far removed from commemorating the fallen, except for the two minutes of silence at 11 am November 11th.


Salem 11.09.15 at 4:33 pm

@andy: I wonder what you think the poppy symbolises.

WW1 is the classic example of a war “of dubious merit,” and everyone who fought at second Ypres (where the poem was written), and just about everyone who fought at the Somme “chose to sign up.”


MPAVictoria 11.09.15 at 4:44 pm

Thank you for writing this Maria.


Dan Hardie 11.09.15 at 4:52 pm

I regretfully agree with most of what Maria says. Someone in politics, or in public life more generally, needs to stand up and say that you have a right to wear the poppy and a right not to, and that honourable people can be found making either choice. I wear a poppy myself, buying several as they are so hard to keep on a jacket. It means something to me, but if it doesn’t mean anything, or mean anything good, to someone else then that is their decision.

This year there is, as Maria says, a definite undercurrent of bullying conformism to Remembrance- which has been coming for some time, but is probably strengthened by the way UK politics are going right now. I yield to no one in the strength of my antipathy to some of Jeremy Corbyn’s beliefs, but this manufactured ‘scandal’ about how low he bowed at the Cenotaph is revolting, as is- to a far greater degree- the racist abuse aimed at Charlene White. And I find more and more that much of the ceremony around Remembrance day has little to do with commemoration of the dead or with reflection on war and its survivors.

I attended the Remembrance Sunday service at Westminster Abbey in 2009, and the thing I will always remember is that near the end of the two minutes’ silence I heard a woman break down into loud, painful sobs and run from the Abbey. It wasn’t in any way exhibitionist- I would guess she was the mother or wife of someone killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But I’ve been to other services which were just disgracefully empty and casual and I no longer attend any services on the day.

It would be good if we could discuss, as a country, what role there should be for the British Legion and other charities in looking after the survivors of war and commemorating the dead. I think they should be involved in both roles, though of course the state has the primary duty to veterans. But I don’t think there’s any role for companies like BAe acting as ‘official sponsors’.

More and more, the Legion, like so many other charities, feels like a rather aggressive commercial organisation driven by its self-consciously ‘professional’ and ‘pro-active’ managers. I can understand that there are good reasons for wanting to maximise revenue if you are a charity, but there is a wider context to these matters. You don’t have the right to cheapen something that is so important to so many people and you don’t have the right to bully people who disagree with you on a matter of conscience. I feel it’s the press and certain elements of the Tory party that are making most of the running here, but some of what the Legion is doing is questionable too.


Stephen 11.09.15 at 6:16 pm

“most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling.”

Has this not always been so?If that is the case, what’s the problem?


Stephen 11.09.15 at 6:20 pm

Salem@9: WW1 is the classic example of a war “of dubious merit”

Of inadequate understanding of what the war would be like, and of inadequate preparation for it, certainly: for all the participants. Of dubious merit for, say, the French/Belgian/British components: what do you think the consequences of not fighting the war would have been?

Of zero merit, as it turned out, for the Germans and their allies, certainly.


Nick 11.09.15 at 6:56 pm

I’m an atheist who comes from a Mennonite background, and the consistent refusal of my entire corps of ancestors to serve in any military is the part of the religious tradition that I’m most proud of — but it raises a tough question on days like Nov. 11th. I don’t blame the soldiers of WWI for their service in the ranks, and I consider most soldiers on both sides of the World Wars to very likely be victims as much as the civilians who died. My family didn’t have a great time in either affair, as German-speaking pacifists in the States, but what was done to them wasn’t as awful as actually fighting. I think that those wars should be remembered, and the people in them too.

However, I can’t feel that soldiers in Western armies today are victims, our wars really are wars of choice. It’s always possible to look at what an army is doing in a foreign country and find something that makes it acceptable: the Canadians are building schools in some Afghan province, or supporting the local police who protect the women who want to study, and it’s true that if they do pull out, things will probably go downhill for those women. That doesn’t change the fact that they are over there with guns, trying to do something that doesn’t really have a good model, basically a form of violent international development. If I wear a poppy for them, and then after 10 years the country is tired of the effort and pulls out, and the schools are destroyed and the women studying in them punished, do I still wear the poppy? War in the West has become divorced from national survival, but we still grant the people who engage in it the same cachet as those who fought to preserve Britain a hundred years ago. Should the volunteer victims of a violent foreign lark use the same symbol as the very decidedly non-volunteer victims of the World Wars? If I wear the poppy, does it stand as well for the drone operators with PTSD? Not every damaged soul withstood the bombardment in a muddy foxhole — some of them signed up to bomb people from the air, using a computer screen on the other side of the world.


Dan 11.09.15 at 8:02 pm

“The premise that volunteer ex-servicemen are more deserving of my explicit support than ex-teachers seems a shaky assumption; didn’t they just take a job with obvious dangers at a particular wage?”

No. Nothing shaky about it. if someone else didn’t volunteer maybe you would have had to serve. I don’t give a damn if you war a poppy or not but a sincere ‘Thank you’ to current or former service people would be a good start. They don’t choose which wars they serve in, except to the extent of voting, which right they share with rest of you.


Dan 11.09.15 at 8:08 pm

“I’m an atheist who comes from a Mennonite background, and the consistent refusal of my entire corps of ancestors to serve in any military is the part of the religious tradition that I’m most proud of — but it raises a tough question on days like Nov. 11th. ”


For example, “If other people did not volunteer to defend our freedom to not serve, what would have happened to us?”

Have you ever thanked a veteran for allowing you to *not* be a veteran?


tony lynch 11.09.15 at 8:41 pm

Doesn’t take long, does it Dan.


Phil 11.09.15 at 10:01 pm

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the period I grew up in, but for me the ‘never again’ element has always been crucial; I’ve always understood Remembrance to be mainly about remembering the bravery, suffering & sacrifice of those who fought in the World Wars, thanking them for what they gave us and undertaking never to put another generation of young people in that awful position. I stopped wearing a poppy in the 1980s, when the message started coming through that we were commemorating British military dead in any theatre, the Falklands and Ireland included; at that point I thought a line had been crossed, from “we honour your sacrifice by swearing never to do that again” to “we honour your sacrifice by supporting you and those who came after you”, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the second message. (I might have felt differently if I’d had any personal connection with the armed forces. My father was old enough for the War, but not fit enough to fight; he worked in the War Office.) I’ve had poppy-wearing periods since then, but usually in times of peace and with the World Wars on my mind.

We’re officially at peace now, but the mood around Remembrance is odd and unsettling; it’s certainly not one of ‘never again’, or of being ‘between the wars’. It’s as if we’ve gone from honouring the sacrifice of those who fought in the world wars, to honouring the sacrifice of the armed forces in more recent (and continuing) conflicts, and into a third phase which is more like simply honouring the British armed forces, past, present and future.

Another odd thing that’s struck me over the last year or so is how much attention is being paid to the First World War and how little to the Second. The centenary is an obvious hook, of course, but the 3rd of September 2014 – the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of WWII – passed almost unnoticed. Nor has this been accompanied by any great re-evaluation of WWI. That’s a shame in itself, as the OWALW/Blackadder image is overdue for a bit of revision; it also means that the war we hark back to is a (stereotyped) war of futility and blind obedience in the service of imperialism, rather than the much more heroic story that could be told about the Second World War.


Maria 11.09.15 at 10:11 pm

Dan @16, in a thread about enforced and politicised tributes to the military, hectoring a pacifist commenter with ‘Have you ever thanked a veteran for allowing you to *not* be a veteran?’ is entirely inappropriate. Cut it out.


Nick 11.09.15 at 10:42 pm

Don’t worry, folks — Dan is making the point that I tried to, but perhaps missed. Some people see the poppy as a symbol of sacrifice; others see it as a symbol of ‘thanking the troops for their service’. Many Mennonites can wear it for the former, and I’m sure they do; many probably refuse to wear it the more it verges into the latter. It can be a pacifist symbol — but is it today? I think a lot of Maria’s point is that people aren’t being given that choice.

As an aside, if I was a troop and someone felt the need to thank me, I would feel deeply uncomfortable. I bet there are real troops who feel the same, and get very little pleasure out of being publicly accosted by open-carry advocates, high school football coaches, and their ilk.


Bartholomew 11.09.15 at 11:12 pm

‘my great-grandfather’s army’

Note to non-Irish readers – this is to be taken literally, he founded an army that had 150,000 members.


Bloix 11.10.15 at 12:11 am

“Have you ever thanked a veteran for allowing you to *not* be a veteran?”

If anyone wants a book about “thank you for service,” you might be interested in “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk,” by Ben Fountain. Seriously, take a look at a sample on your kindle.



oldster 11.10.15 at 1:03 am

I always thank veterans for allowing me not to be a veteran.

I also thank teachers for allowing me not to be a teacher.

I thank farmers for allowing me not to be a farmer.

I thank lorry drivers for allowing me not to be a lorry driver.

I thank dentists for allowing me not to be a dentist.

I pretty much broadcast my gratitude to everyone who makes society function as it does.

Strangely, they do not always seem grateful for my gratitude.


Ronan(rf) 11.10.15 at 1:18 am

I guess I’m stuck in two minds, (1) if it raises money for and/or (2) provides comfort/ solidarity for veterans their friends and families, then who am I to object. But I woukdnt wear a poppy anymore than an Easter lily because of what these traditions do (to a significant degree) represent in their public manifestations, militarism , atavistic nationalism , tribalism, emotional appeals to historical nonsense.
I think there are better things to celebrate or remember, collectively.


F. Foundling 11.10.15 at 2:46 am

@Dan 11.09.15 at 8:02 pm
>>“The premise that volunteer ex-servicemen are more deserving of my explicit support than ex-teachers seems a shaky assumption; didn’t they just take a job with obvious dangers at a particular wage?”
> No. Nothing shaky about it. if someone else didn’t volunteer maybe you would have had to serve. …

And if someone else hadn’t volunteered to be a roofer, maybe you would have had to risk falling to your death every day – although it seems that logging and fishing are unsurpassed in deadliness nowadays, if Google is to be trusted. Certainly, even though all these people are paid, all of us ought to be generally grateful to anyone doing a good and useful job in any field – as long as the job really *is* mostly good and useful.

>For example, “If other people did not volunteer to defend our freedom to not serve, what would have happened to us?”

Defence certainly is necessary in the abstract, but as of 2015, the likelihood of a British or American serviceman ending up being involved in a war effort that could be fairly described as ‘defence of Britain’s/America’s freedom’ seems roughly comparable to the likelihood of engaging in combat against aliens. And this has been the case for decades.

>They don’t choose which wars they serve in, except to the extent of voting, which right they share with rest of you.

Context is decisive. They do choose by volunteering during a war of a certain type, such as the Iraq war, or in a period involving a series of wars of a certain type. All societies need policemen, but volunteering to be a policeman during certain regimes can be deemed an objectionable choice. And desertion during an unjust war is ethically superior to service. I see no reason to thank someone for doing work that I don’t think anyone should have done in the first place.


F. Foundling 11.10.15 at 3:52 am

To clarify the above – in countries that *haven’t* systematically engaged in aggression recently, military service need not be an objectionable profession per se. If the military is subsequently commanded by the politicians to organise an unjust war, the most blame lies with the politicians and the least with ordinary soldiers who have enlisted before the political decision. Desertion may be the right thing to do, but it is also a very difficult choice, as it entails both severe punishment and public condemnation and disgrace; so it is difficult to *blame* people strongly for not having deserted during an unjust war – but one certainly shouldn’t *thank* them for not having done it either. In any case, the US-style troop/veteran worship that has been gaining foothold in the UK as well is harmful and serves primarily as a means of enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent.


ZM 11.10.15 at 4:57 am

We have poppies for Remembrance Day in Australia as well, but I have never heard of controversy over whether a public figures dons a poppy or not. Not observing the silence would probably be more notable here.

In the small town I grew up in one hill that overlooks the town entrance and shops used to be called Vote No Hill as there was a vote in World War I as to whether young men should be conscripted to enlist or not, and people in the town made a Quartz rock billboard spelling out Vote No in big letters like on the Hollywood Hill.

One of my grandfathers served in World War I I think and when he returned home he was given a solders settlement in Sea Lake, a flat cropping area. One of my grandfather’s served in World War II and got shell shock then was sent out to serve again. When the war was over the government said returned soldiers could study at university, and he wanted to study law, but the bank he had worked in before the war had supported his parents financially while he was at war so he returned to work at the bank. He didn’t go to the ANZAC Day services usually, and after the war he stopped going to church even though his father was a Presbyterian elder. My mother said he did not talk very much about the war, except about the places he travelled to, making the war into a travelogue of sorts.

When I was seventeen I was at my friends house, and one of her brother’s friends was leaving the house and called through her bedroom window to us that he was going to sign up to join the army.

My friend called back to him she didn’t believe in the army; I held my tongue and thought but you can’t not believe in something that is so real.


engels 11.10.15 at 9:14 am

if someone else didn’t volunteer maybe you would have had to serve

Especially doubtful when army forces are looking at large-scale job cuts. If you want to thank someone for occupying a role within British capitalism which someone has to fill, and which carries with it a high likelihood of injury to mental and physical health, let it be the unemployed.


Vanya 11.10.15 at 10:38 am

@Stephen – Of dubious merit for, say, the French/Belgian/British components: what do you think the consequences of not fighting the war would have been?

Hmm, worst case Serbia falls under Habsburg rule and the German Empire grabs a chunk of Russian Poland and maybe the Russian Baltic. I think most French and English could have lived with that, especially since neither the German Empire nor the Habsburgs would have benefitted long term from acquiring more unhappy ethnic minorities. Best case all three Empires bloody themselves badly and the English and French reassert their dominance over Europe. There was no good rationale for the French and the British to get involved in a squabble in the Balkans, particularly not to protect the Tsar and his interests.


kidneystones 11.10.15 at 1:27 pm

Thank you for this, Maria. I volunteered and served briefly in my youth and agree completely that nobody but the self-interested are being served by the current campaign. Compelling people to join ‘volunteer’ is never a good idea, irrespective of the cause. Few, I expect recognize that the campaign is much closer in spirit to the White Feather campaign, than the spirit of the White Poppy campaign.

For my part, I volunteered to ensure that my fellow citizens could proudly ignore or sneer at celebrations such as Remembrance Day, sit during the national anthem, stamp on the flag if they choose to, and to make rude remarks about the royal family and the national church.

These freedoms surely are worth defending.


Ian 11.10.15 at 3:02 pm

A public re-branding of the poppy is certainly ongoing as the surviving veterans of both World Wars dramatically reduce in number and the armed forces reduce in strength. Coupling those factors with military culture and a general hardening within British society would partially explain the apparent invisibility of the paradoxical censorship message generated by the advertisement.

Having attempted to keep a battery candle alight from the outbreak of the first world war until the end of it, and failing because the wax the candle was made of and the battery holder/contacts fell apart making it unserviceable and unrepairable it personally became apparent that remembrance day itself was fated to fade, which raised the question would/should it expire with a huge victory of some kind, or fade away like an ageing rock star, although from the evidence of the attempted re-branding it looks as if that question has been answered, so the ageing rock star continues to perform. Is history really more important than the present?

Personally I will wear my poppy over my heart this year, in remembrance of the all the fallen and those survivors who each fought for freedoms and liberty in their own way, and have now passed on. May they rest in peace sounds trite, as we see the things they fought for given away by their descendants, but it remains valid none the less.


Dipper 11.10.15 at 5:03 pm

“… that remembrance day itself was fated to fade”

Its still going strong in my local town. Roads closed, hundreds of people attending a large ceremony. This may be due to the presence of various cubs, scouts, guides, air-cadets etc and their parents, but its a big day in the calendar of these organisations and judging by the numbers of people attending getting bigger not smaller.


TM 11.10.15 at 5:38 pm

Is that why a pretty nurse in “Penny Lane” is selling poppies from a tray?


TM 11.10.15 at 5:52 pm

“In any case, the US-style troop/veteran worship”

Yes, it really is a form of worship and the extent to which it is effective (in the US, can’t speak to UK) in enforcing political conformity is truly frightening.


Phil 11.10.15 at 8:09 pm

“And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway”
Paul McCartney discovers phenomenology, possibly with a little help from Dr Hoffmann; nothing is real. But yes, that’s why poppies are (or were) sold from a tray; I think most British listeners ‘get’ that reference without thinking. Mind you, at the time of the song – and for some time afterwards, probably up until the 1980s – several different charities and appeals would sell artificial flowers and small paper flags* on pins at different times of year; I think the BL poppy is the last survivor.
*Hence the Housemartins’ song “Flag Day”.


Bloix 11.10.15 at 11:04 pm

“Since the song was released in 1967 the identity of the “pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray” has remained a mystery. In his childhood memoir Penny Lane Is In My Ears and In My Eyes, author Stan Williams claims the lyric was likely to have been inspired by Beth Davidson, a girl who grew up with Williams around the Greenbank area of Smithdown Road and later married John Lennon’s boyhood friend and fellow member of the Quarrymen, Pete Shotton.
According to Stan the inspirational moment came when Miss Davidson was selling poppies on Penny Lane, dressed in a cadet nurse’s uniform. Stan, intending to visit Bioletti’s vividly recalls being drawn across the busy street to find out what Beth was up to and some boys, including John Lennon and Pete Shotton joining them. At the age of thirteen Beth was part of the Woolton boy’s social circle through her blossoming romance with Pete.
It is recognised that Paul McCartney wrote most of the Penny Lane lyrics, but Mr Williams is convinced that Lennon contributed the nurse reference. As Paul freely admits, John helped him with the “third” verse. The song says: “Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the pretty nurse is selling poppies from the tray, and though she feels she’s in a play, she is anyway.” Mr Williams says: “In my mind’s eye, I still like to visit that special October day in 1954 when Beth had her image trapped within the lens of Lennon’s creative imagination.”
Through her marriage with Pete, Beth became part of the Beatles’ social circle, mixing with their wives and girlfriends at parties such as the one pictured above taken at Lionel Bart’s house in 1965. From left: Patti Boyd, Beth Shotton and Cynthia Lennon.
I’ve always assumed that the song’s lyrics were describing events occurring around Penny Lane during the course of one day but maybe not. “Beneath the blue suburban skies” suggests the summertime, but when the fireman rushes in to the barbers shop it is to escape the pouring rain and the nurse selling poppies would surely be doing so in the run up to Remembrance Day (November 11th) which would be the winter.
Commenting upon this in his excellent book “Revolution In The Head” the late Ian MacDonald wrote “Seemingly naturalistic, the lyric scene is actually kaleidoscopic. As well as raining and shining at the same time, it is simultaneously summer and winter…. Despite its seeming innocence, there are few more LSD-redolent phrases in the Beatles’ output than the line … in which the Nurse ‘feels as if she’s in a play’ … and ‘is anyway’.”



dsquared 11.11.15 at 12:44 am

of course, if you think that the British Legion had the level of politicisation, dubious corporate sponsorship and soft intimidation about right but only errs in the sense of confining its big push to the first half of November rather than getting its war worship on all year round, there is now “Help For Heroes”


Tom Hurka 11.11.15 at 3:42 am

About assiduously poppy-wearing male politicians:

The defunct Canadian satirical magazine Frank (a Private Eye imitation) used to monitor and then announce which Canadian politician was the first to sport a poppy each fall; as I recall, it got earlier each year.

They also sent cheques for something like 74 cents to various celebrities and then announced who was the quickest to cash it. There’s a contest to win!


Eszter 11.11.15 at 4:08 pm

Thanks for sharing, Maria.


TM 11.11.15 at 9:13 pm

Thanks Bloix.


Roland Nikles 11.13.15 at 12:41 am

Does it matter what the provenance of this poppy love is? In Canada, anyway, it’s clear it relates back to John McCrae’s poem. This poem was published in December 2015–still in the grip of war fever. It was a pro-war poem: handing off the torch to kill and maim and gas to volunteers yet to come. It was picked up by the CEF recruiting folks. It’s not wistful and melancholy and grateful–it’s jingoistic and nationalistic. The fact that it now is being picked up by the Lords of War in a commercial manner is not corrupting: it’s consistent with the original purpose and message of the poem–and the symbol.


Ronan(rf) 11.14.15 at 12:44 am

I liked John Hewitt’s take:

“Bear in mind these dead:
I can find no plainer words.
I dare not risk using that loaded word, Remember,
for your memory is a cruel web
threaded from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble, heavy
with pathetic atomies”.


Sasha Clarkson 11.14.15 at 10:13 am

“if someone else didn’t volunteer maybe you would have had to serve”

If we still had conscription, I suspect that Blair would not have got away with the Iraq War. In any case, many would have refused to serve.

I’ve always admired Robert Heinlein’s thinking on war, given in his fictional future history For Us The Living.

He postulated a future in which if the United States wished to engage in armed conflict with any other country, a War Voting Act required a national referendum to be held. Voting on a war was limited to citizens eligible for military service and not currently in the military. In the event that the article was passed and the country was to go to war, those who had voted for war were the first to be enlisted in the armed forces, those who did not vote were the second group conscripted, and those who voted “No” were the third group.

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