Poppies are providing an excellent annual opportunity to take our nation's temperature. Or at least, our nation's media's temperature. Every November, the imagined community of 'Britain' receives a ritualised cultural audit, by an unholy alliance of the tabloids, advertising agencies, the monarchy and - this time round - the England football team. Somewhere in amongst all of this, ex-soldiers get a look-in, though the results aren't very pretty.
This year it's been especially gruesome. How's this for a clash of illegitimate powers: Prince William and David Cameron have been arguing with FIFA as to whether or not John Terry, Ashley Cole, et al, should be permitted to wear poppies during the hiding they are due to receive at the hands of Spain later on this afternoon. A less appealing bunch of unwanted oligarchs it would be difficult to imagine. If Fred Goodwin were mud-wrestling with Rush Limbaugh over which of them had rightful claim on an old lady's dropped purse, it would be a more dignified and worthy form of political argument than this.
Last year, I felt that the British Legion's advertising campaign was actively re-engineering what was involved in national mouring, reducing it to a form of sympathy and sentimentality, which was locked in the present. The images contained in those advertisements obliterated the past, rather than remembered it. This might help explain how it is that poppy-fever is experiencing a crescendo, at a time in history when the First World War (from where the symbol of the poppy was originally taken) is just fading from living memory. For a teenager today, the First World War is the equivalent of what the Crimean War was to the baby-boomer generation. This is no longer something that one's grandparents can report on.
This enables the symbol of the poppy to acquire a form of timelessness, that enables it to be used in a mildly fascistic fashion, to represent various sentiments and forms of nationalism, independently of any relationship to history. Nationalism always depends on sufficient forgetting, such that a relationship to the past can be reinvented for the purposes of the present and the future. Accurate history or empirical remembering, is an obstacle to nationalism. So how is our imagined community progressing? Here are this year's offerings:
Helen Mirren and Andy Murray are presumably employed here as famous and successful representatives of Britain. Mirren glitters at the Oscars. Murray nearly wins various major tennis tournaments. They are offered as international envoys we can feel proud of. What grates about these posters is the fact that the advertising creatives behind them have entirely failed to eschew their brain-numbingly repetitive tool of choice, namely the pun.
Advertising successfully gets under the skin through double entendre. Every leading slogan has a duck-rabbit element to it, whereby it changes meaning inside the mind, producing a form of psychological tinnitus which continues to reverberate enfuriatingly. 'Enjoy More' (McDonalds), means more enjoyment or more food. Extract any sensible grammar from a sentence and the opportunities only escalate, hence the grammaturgical jingle 'Every Little Helps' (Tescos), whose efficacy is testimony to the psychological power of total nonsense, and which turns its target into a form of idiot consumant.
The problem with performing this trick on behalf of the fallen and the wounded is that it generates some rather horrific forms of equivalence. The statement that 'Our troops are the real stars' only works in this context, because it assumes that the reader already knows that Helen Mirren really is a 'real star'. If a member of the public were depicted saying 'Our troops are real stars', this would carry a single meaning, namely that our troops are real stars. The only reason they have put these words in a Hollywood actress's mouth is because, that way, they're not entirely true. In all honesty, Helen Mirren is a real star, while our troops are anonymous working class boys. It is only because we all, ultimately, know that to be true, that the advertising slogan works at all.
The Murray advert is more absurd. The pun here - and someone in Soho must have hit the Columbian marching powder a little too hard the day this one was invented - is that, ahem, tennis players sometimes 'don't return' a serve. In case this is too awful to fathom, lets be entirely explicit about this: that advert, the one with Andy Murray in it selling poppies, is making a play on words, which compares our feelings towards a tennis player who's just been beaten by an ace, with our feelings towards a soldier who has been killed in Afghanistan. 'Those who don't return'. Oh yes, I get it! Oh, actually, no, I don't get it at all.
So here we are, the proud British of 2011, parading our chosen Hollywood crumpet, alongside our embarrassingly Scottish Wimbledon semi-finallist, in the hope that we'll all join hands and applaud a series of rituals that are being lifted out of history, and plonked into the middle of a football match, thanks to the intervention by an unelected and a sort-of elected political leader. Yep, that's us. See you next November.