When Shami Chakrabarti appeared on stage wearing a red poppy to accept her award as 2008 communicator of the year, she triggered flashbacks which trouble me every year. Why was a civil rights campaigner the only winner at the annual PR Week awards dinner (Grosvenor House, 21.10.2008) to wear a poppy? What was the director of Liberty trying to say two and a half weeks before Remembrance Sunday?
I am one of the lucky ones in life. At 66 I have never had to face either the horror of fighting a war or the terrible war-time dilemmas which so scarred my parents. I am only too aware of the sacrifices made by countless service personnel and I contribute to charities supporting the war wounded. But to wear a poppy is to make a statement.
My father was a conscientious objector . We had to move from the house where I was born in Abergavenny when the landlady feared it would be tarred with white feathers.
My childhood Sunday mornings were spent at Quaker meetings. During quiet contemplation my mind would often wander. Sometimes on Remembrance Sunday I would pick up the sound of a Boys’ Brigade band leading Air Cadets, Boy Scouts etc to join the local veterans at the war memorial.
I can still hear my mother’s voice telling me to think about what the poppy symbolised. As a pacifist she believed that the Remembrance Sunday parades with their marching, bands and uniforms entrenched a fighting spirit. She feared they were becoming a recruiting sergeant for the armed forces.In 1939 my father was sacked from his job as a journalist for refusing to report stories which supported the war effort and which he felt were
“a violation of principle”. After gaining an unconditional exemption from war service and a brief stint as election agent for the Peace Pledge Union, he needed to support his family. He had to put his principles aside and return to journalism. What hurt him most of all was the ostracism and abuse which he experienced when the other journalists returned after war service.Thirty years later I had a taste of the backlash which he suffered when a trade union leader thought twice before agreeing to a radio interview. I explained that my father had known him in those immediate post war years. “Yes, I know. Your father was a conchie. I’ll have to think about that interview”.
In an act of solidarity with the memory of my parents I did make a stand in the autumn of 1992 when presenting Scrutiny, a weekly political programme on BBC 2. A floor manager noticed that I was not wearing a poppy and stopped the recording.
I stood my ground arguing that I was merely a political journalist and not subject to the instruction that BBC presenters must wear poppies. After half an hour’s hoo-ha the editor gave way and recording resumed.
Perhaps it was a shallow, pointless gesture. I know that poppy day is said to stimulate patriotic feelings and does more than anything else to unite the nation. But in those war time years conscientious objectors and their families did feel apart from society and those memories linger to this day.
Nicholas Jones was a BBC correspondent for thirty years.