The Historical & Social Impact of a Flower

By Matthew Leonard

Uniform Press, 2015

PoppygandaLast year ‘poppy fascism’ seemed to reach new peaks. ‘Celebrities’ criticised for not wearing them; newsreaders criticised for donning them so early; even the Royal British Legion itself came under fire for its range of poppy-themed goods and its online campaign showing celebrities holding poppies over their mouths, as it seeks new and novel ways to engage the social media generation. Yet on the streets it seemed to me that less people were wearing poppies; does this herald a decline in remembrance as we reach the crest of the centenary period?

Matthew Leonard’s short work takes us back to the roots of the poppy, examining how from humble beginnings it came to symbolise remembrance, a remarkable rise over the last one hundred years. The nature of the First World War and the impact it had on the landscape were inspiration for McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1915; a chapter examines how an American woman, Moina Belle Michael, was inspired by the poem and embarked on a quest to make the flower a symbol of remembrance. The first Poppy day was held in Great Britain in 1921, and by the following year over 30 million were produced by men who had been wounded in the conflict.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one – ‘The Future of the Past’, which looks at the conflicted status of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance to some, but a representation of industrial killing to others. Leonard naturally focuses on the ‘poppy fascism’ or ‘poppy politics’, which has really grown over the last decade. The growth of poppy ‘bling’ over the last few years is an almost ironic display of remembrance, as the Royal British Legion receives little or no benefit for much of what is produced and purchased. The argument over who should wear poppies also extends to sports teams and naturally politicians, with many taking to social media to lambast those who fail to ‘comply’ with the cultural norm, with some attacks verging on harassment. The irony of the very message that the poppy is designed to convey seems to be very much lost on some people.

Leonard refers to all this as the ‘corruption’ of the poppy, which seems an appropriate term; its use as a propaganda tool, depending on which ideology is followed, certainly not in the spirit of its conception. One wonders what Leonard made of the 2015 remembrance commemorations, with Cameron’s photoshopped poppy and the angle of Corbyn’s bow coming under scrutiny. For this reason alone the book is worth a reprint; one wonders how much attitudes will have changed (or perhaps been cemented even further) at the end of the centenary period. I for one hope Leonard updates this work to reflect any developments.

This is a handsome little volume, well-illustrated and with some great pictures. At just over 120 pages it is easily digestible, filled with fascinating insights (did you know ‘Haig fund’ was imprinted on the centre of poppies until 1995? That the Scottish poppy is a different design?) and a worthy addition to any bookcase.

Buy this book from Amazon here: