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Monday, 22 September 2014

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How a flower can make us realise what matters

When a big magic poppy appeared on the side of Carlisle’s Shaddon Mill, reality check kicked in.

The poppy has a way of doing that – putting everything into perspective.

Like a no-entry sign for trivia, it stops superficiality in its tracks; makes you stop, breathe and slap your own wrists for making an all-consuming fuss over nothing.

Reality checks are good for the soul, I reckon. Necessary but experienced all too seldom, they strike when fundamentals are the last thing on your mind.

Anything that holds a mirror up to your folly, or allows you to hear your own nonsense as you blather on about petty misfortunes, can’t be bad.

And if a picture of a pretend flower, beamed through darkness onto an old brick wall can do all that – well, it must be magic.

The appearance of that projected flower onto an otherwise unremarkable mill wall, marked the launch of Carlisle’s Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal – the city’s part in a campaign that, in itself, should give pause for deep reflection. But you do have to wonder how far it does, these days.

There’s nothing more certain about our poor human condition than its messy contradictions. We’ve been at war and in dangerous conflict for as long as many children and young people will be able to remember.

Week by week, day by saddened day, we learn from any one of our umpteen, hi-tech gadgets – necessary for insatiable insistence on information overload – of the loss of exceptional young men and women to hostilities.

But how easy do we find it to stop, be quiet, breathe evenly and make the poppy connection.

Not very, it would seem.

In Brampton, as the town’s annual poppy appeal gets underway, Legion members are pleading for more people to join them. Their numbers have dwindled to just five.

If more don’t come forward to lend support soon, the branch may have to be laid down, ending the town’s poppy appeal, which raises around £10,000 every year to provide crucial help for ex-servicemen and women and their families.

Anyone can join the British Legion, even those without an Armed Forces background. The puzzle is, why – when loss and sacrifice have become such weighty forces in our everyday lives – more don’t.

Perhaps it is that too many of us are deafened by the constant internal blather of what doesn’t matter, to hear the pleading call to what does.

Maybe we’re blinded by self-obsession, consumed by consumerism, overwhelmed by the daily drivers of jobs, money, shopping, a leaky washer, a clunky boiler, the grim state of Botchergate, the need to book next year’s holiday, to see need in the face of a maimed soldier returning from Afghanistan.

And it could well be, we’re just too plain busy to feel ashamed of ourselves.

A friend, who wanted to learn for herself people’s attitudes to the Poppy Appeal, volunteered with her daughter as sellers last year. Her late mum had been in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and had instilled in her two daughters a great respect for duty to country.

“And to those people in the country who couldn’t be bothered with duty,” she said. “Mum used to say – charitably – that they couldn’t help their ignorance, so we had to be dutiful for them.

“For Mum’s sake, I thought I’d try duty on to see how it felt for fit.”

It was hard work. Not the selling or fundraising bits – she’s used to those. But trying to convince some young people the appeal was actually as much about their generation as that of their grandparents was frustratingly depressing.

“Seems to me, some of them hook into a 24-hour TV news loop and hear not a word of what is being said,” she grumbled.

“In the end, my feet ached, my head ached – but my heart ached more. Perhaps that, in the end, is what the poppy is supposed to do – make us realise what matters.”

For her, for her daughter and those people she had managed to engage in conversation, as they dropped their contributions into her collection box, the poppy had managed to work its magic.

It had pushed the pause button on a fast flow of the meaningless and allowed a little space for deep reflection.

Life, death and sacrifice. A duty of care to the dutiful and suffering, honour and pride for the brave. Not so difficult when the volume’s turned down, is it?

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