Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Lest We Forget - Why wearing a poppy should never cause offence

In just under a fortnight, people will stop for two minutes at precisely eleven o'clock.  They will stop where they stand - in shops, in busy streets, or simply in their own homes.  These people will be of all ages.  These people may come from very different backgrounds.  Yet they will all stop and be silent as one, for the same reason: Respect and remembrance to those who gave their lives in war.  Many of those people will be wearing a symbol of that remembrance, pinned onto their coats, or tucked into the band of a hat worn to keep out the November chill.  A small, vivid red reminder of the sacrifices given so that we may live freely.  A poppy.

Yet every year, there is a small, but worryingly noisy chorus of people who feel that simple, red symbol, is somehow offensive.  That we shouldn't wear a poppy.  That to do so - and I find this possibly the most laughable thing I've ever heard in my life - is to "glorify war."

So I'm writing this not only to explain why I find that view not only wrong but deeply offensive, but also to try to give something of a background to the Poppy Appeal.  For a part of me can't help but wonder whether the cries of "wearing that shows you're pro-war!" are borne out of ignorance of what the symbol truly means.

One of the earliest mentions of a poppy in the context of war, comes from a poem called "In Flanders' Fields," written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrea.  McCrea was a Medical Officer from the 1st Canadian Contingent, who was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres.  Far from "glorifying war," McCrea was devastated by the loss of life all around him during the bloody, seventeen day battle.  He wrote his now famous poem, following the death of one of his friends.  The opening lines speak of the red poppy being the first flower to grow out of the earth beneath which the dead lay, bringing with it hope and new life.  The final lines read:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To You, from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
And if ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,
In Flanders' Fields."
McCrea's words were seen as a cry to men everywhere - do not let those killed in battle die in vain.  Continue to fight until the war is won.  This is where some poppy-opposers will immediately attempt to point-score by saying: "See!  It's a poem about wanting people to go to war!"  But ask yourself this question: If you have never lived through a battle, the likes of which were fought during WWI, can you really claim to understand the emotions of those who were there?  Many of those young men had been conscripted to fight.  We're not talking about lads who just fancied a bit of a scuffle, here.  We're talking about many who were barely out of boyhood and were thrown into the most frightening situation they had ever experienced.  They knew they could die and they didn't want to have lost their lives for nothing.  They wanted to ensure the war was won and freedom prevailed.
McCrea's poem was published in Punch magazine and received much critical acclaim.  Three years later, shortly after McCrae's death, a Miss Moina Bell Michael, secretary of the American YMCA, wrote a response to the poem in which she likened the red of the poppies in the field to the blood of men killed in battle.  She noted:
"...Blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders' \fields."
Miss Michael was so deeply affected by McCrae's words and by the idea of something so beautiful - the poppy - growing peacefully on the site of such horrors, that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war dead.  Note: Not to glorify battle.  Not to revel in the blood of men lost.  But as a symbol of remembrance.  In her own words, Moina Bell Michael wanted to wear a poppy to "keep the faith with all who died."
Moina Bell Michael began selling silk poppies to raise money for the ex service community in November 1918. In 1920, the red poppy was, thanks to Miss Michael's tireless campaigning, unveiled at a conference as the official symbol of the National American Legion. Madame Anna Guerin, secretary of the French YMCA, was in attendance and was deeply impressed with the poppy being used in such a manner. When Madame Guerin returned to France, she put forward Miss Michael's idea of the poppy being used for remembrance of those lost in war.  The idea was quickly adopted not only in France, but by other Allied nations.  Madame Guerin also furthered the idea that the sale of poppies could help those devastated by WWI.  The proceeds from the sale of the artificial flowers went towards helping restoration projects, as well as providing food and shelter for children orphaned by the war.  In 1921, Madame Guerin introduced the symbol to the British Legion and the UK's first ever "Poppy Appeal" was held to coincide with Armistice Day.

The poppies for that very first appeal all came from France.  However, in 1922, a UK-based factory was opened, to produce poppies for future appeals and to provide employment for disabled former soldiers.  To this day, the workforce employed to make the poppies we wear for Remembrance Day is largely comprised of disabled former British military personnel and the money raised from the annual Poppy Appeal is spent on a variety of good causes.  Here are just a few:

  • Personnel Recovery Centres, which help wounded or sick service personnel to recover and either return to service, or adjust to civilian life.
  • Care homes for ex service personnel and their families.
  • Break services for current military personnel as well as ex servicemen/women and their families, providing an opportunity to get away from the stress of military life and spend quality time together.
  • Providing emotional support to service personnel as well as ex military personnel and their families.
  • Offering legal assistance, financial support and advice on benefits etc for current and ex service personnel and their beneficiaries.
So the origin of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from the peaceful sight of the vivid red flowers growing in and around the battlefields during World War One and the reminder that they brought new life in a place of death.  The symbol itself represents remembrance of those who gave their lives not only in that war, but in every one since. And the money raised by people offering donations in return for these symbols, goes towards genuinely helping those injured in current wars, those still suffering the after-affects of past wars and those who are left behind when their loved ones are killed.  What on Earth is offensive about any of that?

Many who oppose the wearing of a poppy will tell you that they do so because they are vehemently anti-war.  Ask yourself a question:  Do you personally know anyone who is actively pro-war?!  I certainly don't!  I don't wear my poppy in November because gosh darn it, I just love a good war.  Dictators and violent lunatics aside, I can't think of anyone who could describe themselves as "pro-war," thus making the statement "anti-war" in itself, rather ludicrous.  Aren't we all anti war, deep down?  Wouldn't we all rather there was never a need for bloodshed, or for innocent lives to be lost?  The trouble is, to suggest that some day war will just end and all conflicts will be solved with a bit of a chit-chat is painfully naive, however nice a dream it may be.  You may call me negative for saying that, but I'm really not.  I would love to live in a world in which there is no more war.  I just recognise that it's highly unlikely ever to happen.  Saying that doesn't mean that I'm pro-war.  It means I acknowledge the sad fact that conflict can and does happen.

Another argument against wearing a poppy is that to do so suggests that you view the military as heroes and those who are pacifists (because as I said, I don't believe in the phrase "anti-war") refuse to acknowledge them as such.  Taking away the extreme potential offensiveness of that statement (and speaking as a member of a family with a long and proud military history, that's not exactly easy), ask yourself how wearing a poppy suggests you view everyone in the military as a hero.  The poppy, as we've discovered, is simply a symbol of remembrance.  Wearing it makes ONE statement and it's not "I love war" and it's not even "every person in the military is a hero."  It's "WE WILL REMEMBER THEM."

That said, those who gave their lives in the two World Wars were heroes.  I will argue this point until there is no breath left in my body.  Without the sacrifices they made, you - yes YOU reading this right now - might not be here to read this or anything else.  The freedom the vast majority of us have (and take for granted) to do as we please, love whoever we want and believe in whatever we choose, would more than likely not exist.  It would be an entirely different world and whatever we may think of our current government, or the current social climate, I certainly know which world I'd rather live in.

Those currently serving are performing incredibly brave - indeed, heroic - actions every day.  They're entering situations which you or I wouldn't dream of going anywhere near.  They're still risking - and all too often, giving - their lives in the eventual pursuit of PEACE and freedom.  It's not about mindless slaughter, or violence without meaning.  Anyone who knows about the science of war will tell you how much careful planning goes into every military manoeuvre.  Can you put your hand on your heart and say you'd happily walk into a situation where you could be seriously wounded or killed?  That's what our Armed Forces are doing out there in places like Afghanistan.  On a daily basis.

This is where pacifists will argue that a person who kills another can never be a hero.  And this is where I argue - what if nobody had fought back during either of the World Wars?  What if everyone had all sat back and announced: "I'm sorry, we can't fight against you; you'll have to just do whatever you want..." then even fewer of us would be alive now.  Mainly because so many of our ancestors would have been killed for their religious or political beliefs, if not for their sexual orientation.  Those who fought in those two wars, did so not because they wanted to kill (the infamous Christmas Day football match between the British and German troops during WWI shows that all the soldiers knew they were at heart, just people caught in an impossibly awful situation), but because they felt a duty to protect their country and the liberties they had.  I may not be around today if those people hadn't gone to fight.  I now live in a free country in which people of all sexualities, all religions and cultural backgrounds have rights.  Those soldiers helped to achieve that and they are heroes for that.  Our men and women out in Afghanistan and similar war-torn areas are fighting to provide those same freedoms for others.  That makes them heroes, too.

Modern battles are often cited as reasons for poppy-opposition.  But in truth, whether or not you agreed with the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan is irrelevant when it comes to the subject of the poppy.  There is - and I'm getting bored of having to write this, so Heaven knows what those reading it are thinking - NO connection between wearing a poppy and being "pro-war."  There is no place for politics when it comes to remembering our war dead.  It's not about saying "yes, I agree with the war in Afghanistan," or "I'm so pleased World War 1 happened," it's about saying "people have died and I wish to pay my respects."

When you attend a funeral, you wear black.  Are you "glorifying" death?! 

When you wear a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, are you somehow "glorifying" cancer?!

Of course not.  You're paying respect and taking part in remembrance or the hope for a cure.  Why is it that wearing a symbol of respect and remembrance for our service personnel who've given their lives is seen as being so different? 

There are three colours of poppy, nowadays.  The red one, with a long history and a peaceful, respectful beginning which has been taken by some and twisted into something it is not.  Then there is a white poppy, used by pacifists.  I must admit to taking some offence at that.  There is no need for a poppy supposedly representing peace, when the red poppy already had roots in a hope for peace!  The money from white poppies does not go towards any of the great projects The British Legion is responsible for, which help our ex service personnel, as well as those still serving.  The sentiments of the white poppy are already encompassed by the red and many veterans feel that a white poppy seems to undermine what they went through and what their comrades died for.

The third is a purple poppy, representing the animals lost in war.  Again, I believe the red poppy can easily encompass that, although as an animal lover, I do understand the desire to ensure animals aren't forgotten in war.

I would never tell another person what they can and can't believe and my writing this is not an attempt to force those who don't wear poppies to do so, however much I may privately wish them to.  But to be told, by angry voices, that my poppy is offensive is genuinely disrespectful.  It comes from ignorance of the poppy's history, a total disregard for the horrors suffered by those who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom today and a lack of understanding of how deeply, deeply offensive their protestations are to those left behind.

When I put my poppy onto my coat, I do so out of respect for those serving in wars today, those killed in active service throughout the years and with the hope that peace will ensue someday, however vain a wish I know that may be.  I wear my poppy to show the immense pride I have in our Armed Forces, who protect this country, keep us secure and put their lives on the line so that I don't have to.  I have my poppy on because I want to remember all lives lost in war, whether service personnel or civilian, human or animal.  I wear it proudly, because I know that it doesn't make me pro-war or anything ludicrous like that.  It doesn't mean I enjoy violence or I'm proud that there are battles raging in the world right now.

Every life lost in conflict is a tragedy.  But it would be a greater tragedy if we were to listen to the voices of those suggesting that to wear a symbol of remembrance is somehow wrong.  So I urge you:  Wear your poppy with pride and remember all the peaceful, sincere reasons why it's there.

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning...



Friday, 5 October 2012

This is late, but.. I went to Alton Towers and it ROCKED!

Everyone has a place they've always wanted to go.  Maybe you dream of hot, tropical beaches.  Or perhaps you've always fancied the hustle and bustle of New York.  For me, my fantasy place was right here in the UK.  It was a theme park I had grown up reading about, seeing on TV and hearing about friends visiting.  It was a place called Alton Towers.

As most of you who read this blog will know, I turned 30 last month.  Yep, pretty big birthday.  Time to do something special, right?  How about making a dream come true?!

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on the sort of person you think I am...), it wasn't me who suggested a trip to Alton Towers.  It was my lovely friend Lizzie who first suggested it - on my 29th birthday when discussions about the big 3-0 first began - backed up by the fabulous Lydia until we all decided: "YES!"
My face then looked like an older version of this. For a whole year.
There's excited and then there's me when it comes to this sort of thing.  Every time I went to the supermarket, I saw things I wanted to buy for our "hotel party" the night before we went to the theme park itself.  At the mere mention of the word "rollercoaster," I would instantly become 12 again and start getting nervous jitters.  I couldn't wait to fly on Air, I wanted to travel ridiculously fast on Rita and I wanted to stare at Oblivion and tell everyone there was no way I would be going on that.
A vertical drop?!  Into a BLACK HOLE?!  ARE YOU MAD?!
The days and weeks and months dragged until finally, the day arrived.  You know that feeling you get when you see a place on TV and think: "I would love  to go there?"  Well as I drove my car to Alton Towers that sunny, Saturday morning in September, all I could think was: "It's going to become a real place.  It's not going to be on my TV, or in a picture on my laptop.  I'm going to see that sign and it's actually going to be right there in front of me..."  The phrase "like a kid at Christmas" doesn't do it justice.
When we parked, I was overjoyed to see that my sister Michelle, another Alton Towers virgin amongst our group (Kirstie, Lizzie, possibly Kim, if I remember rightly and Lydia had all been before), was pretty much wanting to leg it all the way across the carpark to the monorail, shrieking as she went.  Getting over-excited at the thought of theme parks is obviously a Tofi trait...
Sitting on the monorail was almost excruciating; like standing at the entrance to a party filled with all your favourite celebrities, waiting to be handed your VIP access-all-areas badge.  As we trundled past Air and began seeing the park itself, I genuinely pondered whether crying might make me look a bit pathetic, such was my sheer excitement.  I'm not even sure the girls I was with that day know how much I was looking forward to it.  I'm not even sure I can convey it in words.  I was essentially about to experience the one place I'd dreamt of visiting since I was a child and I was beyond happy.  I was finally there.
That's me - the one struggling to contain ridiculous levels of SQUEEEEE!
Over the next few hours, I did almost all the things I'd spent the last year (and then some!) dreaming of.  I was swung all over the place on Nemesis (amazing fun, but made me really, really dizzy), I did roly poly flips and got soaking wet on Ripsaw (a ride I didn't expect to love as much as I did, but it was absolutely awesome!) and I flew on Air.  In fact, Air was the ride I was most excited about going on.  The ability to fly has always been the number one super power I'd like to have and experiencing it...  WOW.  I loved every second of it.  In fact when I disembarked at the end of the ride, for the second time that day, I felt bizarrely emotional.  When you've built something up in your head for ao long and it lives up to all of your expectations, it makes you happier than words can adequately describe.  The feeling was sensational and I adopted the "Superman" pose throughout my flight.  Flying along, suspended from the track, helped to dry me off, following my ride on ripsaw too!
Did I mention I got REALLY wet on Ripsaw?!
Queuing for Rita, having decided to use my Fast Track pass and ride alone, I was a bit miffed when it suddenly broke down.  WHAT THE...?!  Thankfully, since I'd used my Fast Track, I was handed a Priority Pass for later, which covered not only me, but one extra person, too.  It meant that, much later on in the day, I was able to go on with Lydia.  Travelling from 0-100kph in just 2.5 seconds with your best mate?  I'd definitely recommend it!
I rode on Th13teen with Kim, Michelle and a random guy who was at the park celebrating his birthday with his family.  He told me his wife had never been on a rollercoaster, so Th13teen was her first one.  She screamed.  A lot.
I experienced Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and I checked out the aquarium (nice, but by the time we left I was hankering for some serious rollercoaster action!) and then we rode on the Congo River Rapids and The Flume.
My sister and me... Prior to our second soaking of the day!

By the time we'd clambered out of our bath tubs at the end of The Flume, we knew we didn't have much time left at the park.  I'll be honest; I was probably more upset than I should have been.  I wanted to spend my life at that place and the fact that the day was drawing to a close when I just wanted to go from fast ride to fast ride, pushing myself to my limits, letting the adrenaline rush take over time and time again, was pretty devastating!  There was so much I still wanted to see and do.  I wanted to take a slow walk through the gloomy woods and see all the statues that talk to you.  I wanted to ride the SkyRide again.  I wanted to visit the towers themselves and wander round the gardens for a while.  I wanted to go on Blade with Lydia, as that's the ride she remembers with enormous fondness from her childhood visits.  But in a funny way, I'm slightly glad (as much as I wanted to do everything on the day and kept wishing time would stand still so that I could) that there are things I still haven't done, which I'd like to do.  It gives me more of an excuse to go back...
Even though I had no intention of going on it (I've mentioned the vertical drop into a black hole, right?!), I wanted to see Oblivion.  Michelle was adamant she wasn't going on it, either.  Kim was open-minded.  We dashed to X Sector and there, suddenly, seemingly growing out of the ground itself, was Oblivion.
It was very tall.  And very vertical. 
I don't know if it was just the culmination of a day of adrenaline, but something came over the three of us and the next thing we knew, we were in the queue for the one ride I had sworn I would not be going on.  With the rest of the girls waiting around the black hole, Michelle, Kim and I took our seats and began the agonisingly slow ascent to the top of the lifthill.  Slowly, slowly, we made our way around the bend until the track began to disappear before our eyes.  It looked like we were about to plunge off the edge of the Earth.  As we tilted over the edge, looking down at a terrifying, vertical drop, I somehow managed to shout (well, no, scream) "hello" to Lydia, waiting down at the bottom with her camera.
Yep.  One of those terrified people up there is me...
Then gravity took hold.  Over the top we went, plummeting towards the cavern below us, with me screaming all the way.  In fact, I was practically still screaming when we came to end of the ride.  It had been terrifying, but the sheer adrenaline rush made it worth the fright a million times over.  Facing what was one of my ultimate fears, with my sister and sister-in-law (to be!) beside me was amazing.  I don't see them often enough and if there's one thing that's bound to bond you together, it's screaming your head off as you rush towards the ground at breakneck speed... ;-)  I was determined not to go on Oblivion, but as it turns out... It's one ride I'm actually desperate to do battle with again...
Everyone rushed off in different directions once Michelle, Kim and I had made it safely back to the other girls (I may or may not have screamed: "I FUCKING DID IT!" at Lydia...).  There was perhaps time for one more ride, if we rushed.
That was when Lydia and I decided to go on Rita, using our Priority Pass.  I thought I knew what to expect.  I thought it would just be a case of "oh, that was quite fast..."  But seriously.  That initial acceleration is so fierce that it literally takes your breath away!  In spite of the ferocious speed, Lydia grabbed my hand and we rushed along the track, with our arms aloft.  Hand in hand with my best friend, travelling at goodness only knows how many miles an hour... What a way to end the day.
That building I'm obscuring?  That's Alton Towers... Honest.
Sometimes, you hype something up so much in your head that the real thing can never compare.  But Alton Towers was everything I thought it would be.  The rides were amazing; fast, scary, well themed and above all, fun!  There was something there for everyone; from the quiet, gentle rides that please kids of all ages, to the beautiful gardens and ancient ruins (they're on my "to do" list) and of course the rollercoasters - great metal monsters, sending adrenaline coarsing through your veins at every drop and turn.  There's always something to see, always a place to sit if you want to chill out and the SkyRide is a stunning way to travel. 
So would I recommend it?  You bet your ass.  I recommend spending that little bit extra and getting a Fast Track pass; who wants to go all the way to Alton Towers and spend the whole day queuing?!  And get Early Ride Time by booking online; you beat the queues that way, too. ;-)
Thank you so much Lizzie for suggesting it.  Thanks to everyone for agreeing to it!  Thanks to Alton Towers for making a 30 year old woman feel like a child again. 
I knew I would love that place, with its thrills, spills and excitement at every turn. 
And I'm definitely going back...