Being a 'Poppy Person'

My shifts with the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal collectors

As we approach Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, many in the United Kingdom choose to buy a traditional poppy of remembrance. This year, in what will be the Royal British Legion's 90th Poppy Appeal, the organisation hopes to improve on last year's fundraising total of £35 million. It is, without question, the largest and most successful fundraising campaign in Europe. Since its foundation in 1921, the RBL has used the funds raised to safeguard the welfare, rights, interests and memory of all those who have served. To sell the poppies the Legion relies on a huge team of volunteers. Last year, after several years of equivocating, I became one of those volunteers. Here is my story.

When I was a very little girl, my Grandma, Beatrice Buckler, was a 'Poppy Lady'. Each year she would put aside the prettiest poppy, complete with leaf and silver foiled stem, which I would have …  in exchange for my 5p of course.
Ok, it may not have been the prettiest poppy -  boring adult commonsense has since shown me that they all look very much the same, give or take a crease or two. But because my Grandma gave that poppy, to me it might have well as been made of pure gold. Nothing on Earth could have been more precious. Please don't think that my childlike romanticism meant that I didn't understand the importance of the Poppy Appeal or what it stood for. 

All my family made sure of that. I'd had great grandfathers and great uncles that fought and a great family connection with the Royal British Legion. But it never really went any further than buying a poppy and watching the annual service from the Cenotaph.

Three years ago that changed. Since then, more than 30 years after Grandma passed away, I have been a 'Poppy Lady'. The poppies no longer have silver foiled stems, but the range of poppy-themed items on offer has extended enormously. There are now metal badges, wristbands, stickers, car tax holders and even, if you look online, sparkly 'designer' poppies.But just as our desire to wear a different kind of poppy has grown, our understanding of what war is has altered.


 With the wall-to-wall coverage of 24-hour news, embedded television journalists and service personnel with access to social networking, the immediacy of war and its awful effects have never seemed so acute or so chaotic. Officially they call conflict 'fluid' but no-one can now kid themselves that war is anything other than a confused, ever-changing mess. If anything, this knowledge has brought people together, not so much in whether they believe the wars we fight today are appropriate, but in their support for those fighting them. While out collecting I spoke with people who have participated or organised poppy appeal collections for many years and they all felt that recent years had seen a much broader range of people wanting poppies.

Over the 6 hours I stood with the collection tin I discovered that, despite the hoo-hah, some might say backlash, to large organisations, television networks and so on insisting that staff wear a poppy, most people still choose to do so without anyone telling them they should.  Over those hours, I met many people from all manner of backgrounds and all walks of life. From people stuffing tenners into the tin in exchange for a simple poppy to those managing to scrape together a few pence for something more elaborate. I heard countless stories, too, from people who served themselves and wanted to thank those collecting, to mothers whose sons were out in Afghanistan or about to be deployed. In fact it was quite humbling, and if I'm honest a little disheartening, to hear that theme so many times. There were plenty of sad stories, too, about uncle this and great granddad that who hadn't returned from the two world wars. There was a young lad who wanted a small wooden cross to plant at his cadet group's armistice service, and another who wanted a poppy to show off to his brother just back from Afghanistan. And there were, of course, many young girls who wanted something, as one put it 'a bit more Cheryl Cole', as they searched in vain for a glittery designer poppy like those sported by this year's X-Factor judges. But most people were just like the rest of us. No particular family connection with the forces. No terrible immediate loss to mourn. No brother to fear for. Just a desire to improve things a little for those that had, and a determination to show their support.

And even though I was only able to help for a short while, it felt good to lend a hand. To be a part of something so big and yet so important. And it was refreshing to find that there was not one voice of dissension for what we were doing. Unless you count the woman who wanted a free copy of the Metro, but that's another story …