One Sunday afternoon, two or three weeks ago, Sheila and I went for a little trip into the City. We took the train from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street and then got on the first bus in Bishopsgate to go further. The bus was a mistake, a 78 which took us to Tower Bridge where we found ourselves among big crowds. The bridge opened and a boat came through, which I’d never seen before. The opening and closing were quick and undramatic and the pleasure boat, a kind of Mississippi paddle boat, seemed hardly big enough to warrant raising the bridge. Then we walked towards the Tower and were surprised to see the moat full of poppies, the ceramic poppies, nearly 900,000 of them, commemorating the dead of the First World War. The crowds were thick even then, though they’ve become thicker since. Notices at tube stations now warn you to avoid Tower Hill tube. Boris Johnston was headlined in the Evening Standard last week, calling for the poppies to stay longer – they’re due to be taken away and sold for charity soon – because they have become a ‘global attraction’. Criticism of the display in the Guardian led to their angry defence in the Mail and the Express. When I came back from Northern Ireland yesterday the Standard was leading again with the story, this time about people queueing half the night to see them. The poppies at the royal fortress had become a phenomenon only royalty, at the jubilee or the death of princess Diana could rival. They seem to conjure up the idea of a union between the people and their rulers. Since they symbolise patriotism and sacrifice, to mock the display, or even fail to be moved by it, becomes a kind of treason, at a time when the British, or the English, are waving the flag as never before. Oddly or not, I’m reminded of the words of the Red Flag:

The people’s poppies are deepest red,

They shrouded oft our martyr’d dead

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold

Their hearts’ blood dyed their ev’ry fold.


Then lay the scarlet poppies low,

Down to their moat we’ll humbly go,

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,

We’ll keep our poppies planted here.

Sneering cowards – that’s Guardian readers. Watch out for blood, and martyrs, so loved by Nazis, patriotic Brits, Ulster Unionists, jihadists and socialists. But it could be that the socialists are just pretending, and are not even socialists any more.

After our accidental visit to the Tower I put a few words on Facebook. There was some sneering.

‘Disturbing scene at the Tower of London where Kingandcountry has taken possession of the memory – I nearly wrote souls – of all those it killed in the First World War. And in the gift shop, pyramids of crowns.’

Then later I wrote in my diary:

‘…the symbolic heart of the state. The idea that the monarchy and its traditions are at the heart of it all.

We could have had poppies on the pavements, on the hills, in supermarket car parks,on the beaches, in derelict steelworks, on Hackney marshes.

In a couple of places, as if simply laying them flat in the moat were inadequate, the poppies were suspended in the air so that they seemed to be flowing in a wave out of the Tower itself, or rising up from the red lake and through a window to be held fast within the royal fortress, the souls of the dead possessed forever by the naturalised British royal family. As if 900,000 died to change the name of our monarchy from Hanover to Windsor.’

There was another episode yesterday. The excitement has grown as the poppies have gradually been planted over the last few months, and yesterday the last one was put in place by a thirteen year old, in military uniform naturally, which was they said appropriate, because he was about the same age as the youngest British soldier at the battle of the Somme. Doesn’t that make it, not appropriate for the boy to stand there in the moat under the wing of an old man dressed in colourful 18th century costume with big white feathers in his hat, but grotesque?

A sort of contagious hysteria seems to have taken over millions of people, there’s a louder and louder nationalist drum beat to the news – jubilee, UKIP, immigrants, immigrants, the growing invasion force at Calais, muslims, foreign criminals, contempt for human rights, every soldier a Hero, asylum seeker as a term of abuse. They say 4 million people will have gone to see those poppies. When did they become the november uniform? When did it become essential for politicians, newsreaders etc. to wear them? And why, an example picked more or less at random from the mess of news, did a reasoned study of the relation between drug use and the law evoke only cowardly sneers and an invocation of ‘common sense’ on the part of the government? The common sense of a three year old says that the earth is flat.

It’s scary, and all the more so because I thought it was generally accepted that the First World War was a horrible waste, that all the Empires were as bad as each other – that, if anything, poor little Belgium was worse than the others – that if it were up to the soldiers themselves they would have happily gone on playing football long after that first Christmas, that we all loved that last serious moment of Blackadder, that the poets had won. (And is it just the Brits? I must have a look and see what I can find out about war commemorations in Germany and France and Italy. In Germany of course it’s also the 25th anniversary of reunification.) And why are those symbols of the dead thought to be safe and secure in the moat of a royal fortress when surely most people know that it’s a place of fabulously valuable jewels and horrible torture, that our monarchs have been greedy, corrupt, murderous; exploiting and sacrificing the poor, behaving like assholes in night clubs, driving princess Di to her death – but no it’s not like that – after all the queen parachuted down to the Olympic opening ceremony and she’s above politics.

I thought a bit more about the Tower of London and looked up a book by Raphael Samuel, ‘Island Stories’. There I learnt that:

  1. It is reputedly the oldest royal palace in the world, and was believed to have been built by Julius Caesar.
  2. It served as a defence against enemies within and without, and soldiers from its garrison put down the Spitalfield weavers during riots in 1771.
  3. Even in the 18th century the uniform of the beefeaters was thought anachronistic.
  4. The Imperial Crown is a replica: the original was melted down as a fund raiser by Parliament during the civil war.
  5. Striking dockers formed the last great crowd to gather on Tower Hill, in 1912, when Ben Tillett asked them to raise their hats to God and pray that he strike dead Lord Devonport, the chairman of the employers.
  6. For centuries, until the animals went off to Regent’s Park in 1834, one of the main attractions was the royal menagerie, with eagles, lions, tigers, boa constrictors etc.
  7. In Elizabethan times the moat was used as a rubbish tip and tanners washed their skins in the water, poisoning the fish. Space beside it was leased to tradesmen anxious to escape the closed shops of the City guilds. In the 19th century it became a place of ‘ill repute’. After it was drained it became a military parade ground, but also a children’s playground. During the Second World War vegetables were grown there.
  8. The Tower has long been celebrated for the bloody acts that have taken place there, the murder of the two little princes, the execution of Lady Jane Grey etc. Lord Macaulay wrote that it is associated with ‘whatever is darkest in human nature … with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends….Thither have been carried, by the rude hands of gaolers, without one mourner following, the bleeding relics of men who had been captains of armies… there has mouldered away the headless trunk of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester…. those two fair queens who perished by the jealous rage of Henry etc etc.
  9. A French visitor in 1850 wrote that ‘the historical monuments of this country are popular in proportion to the horrors committed within their walls.’ (See the London Dungeon.)
  10. There are no dungeons in the Tower.
  11. Most of what you see today was built in the mid nineteenth century as part of a conscious ‘medievalisation’ after a disastrous fire which brought to an end what had been the main function of the Tower for two centuries, as a powder magazine and arms depot.
  12. The enormous collections of the Royal Armouries Museum were sent up to Leeds in the 1990’s. One of the more recent additions to the museum included the sword of Lord Kitchener and his famous appeal to the Nation for recruits.

So it’s complicated. Everybody knows that it’s a terrible place. We love it because we love horror, and celebrity jewels. (But few people know that it’s associated with what became one of the most famous – it’s well celebrated at the Docklands Museum of London – trade union victories.) And in spite of everything, people love our monarchy, which is one of the enduring mysteries of British, or English society, and contributes greatly to the aggressive smugness of the Mail, Express, Sun, etc. We’ve got you where we want you!

One man executed in the Tower who does not figure in the popular pantheon of the dead is Roger Casement. As a British civil servant he spoke out courageously and persistently against the crimes of colonialism; he refused the knighthood with which they tried to gag him. As an Irish patriot he tried to smuggle arms from Germany to Ireland during the First World War. He was hanged immediately after a cursory trial and his body thrown into a pit of quicklime. I wonder if there’s a poppy for him?

This entry was posted in and the city, history, politics, in the City and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to poppies

  1. Joel says:

    Hi Jonathan, what a terrific post. I spend quite a lot of time in the Tower whilst in my teflon tour guide alter ego, spinning the Tudor yarns to cornfed midwesterners. In this guise it’s not done to offer opinions but I have to say that seeing the sea of poppies thicken over the last few months has made me feel ever more uneasy and it’s galling to hear my punters in thrall to the same mantra of collective uncritical acquiescence. Great to read some proper original thinking. Agree that the establishment taking posession of the memories as you put it is a most wicked abuse and I have to admit I guffawed in a guilty way at the idea of the war as process to change the royal name. Poem is ace.

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