Once a year (or twice if I’m feeling very energetic and can get the time off work) I volunteer to collect donations on behalf of the Poppy Appeal.* It’s something that I welcome doing as a small act of remembering a good friend (now passed away) who once organised the poppy collectors of Chelsea, and also as a way of making my own small contribution to the very necessary work of the British Legion beyond shoving a note in a tin. As something to do I’d recommend it unequivocally for the pleasure of giving time to a good cause at the temporary expense of a pair of shot knees. I’d also recommend it for giving a distinctive view of London going about its business. My beat is usually Sloane Square, one of the wealthiest parts of town and therefore not exactly the toughest gig on the poppy collecting circuit. Outside the tube or outside Peter Jones are the top spots but decent trade can be found down by the Saatchi or along the King’s Road if someone’s already bagged those.
Theoretically the poppy collector is the opposite of Baudelaire’s flâneur. The flâneur moves through the city, an anonymous observer in the crowd. The poppy seller on the other hand is usually rooted to a pitch and has to lug a collecting tin in one hand and a poppy box suspended off the shoulders. This box is a temperamental and cumbersome beast to the early-career collector, apt to tangles, spills and rain damage. And it makes you feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb.
However, the box, like any uniform, gives a certain amount of anonymity to its wearer. People tend to see the box and not the person, and poppy collectors are so ubiquitous from the end of October that they rapidly become part of the street furniture. So yes, I welcome my once a year standing in Sloane Square as an opportunity to observe, to scrutinise, to wallow in a quarter of the city that I rarely visit on any other occasion. It’s rather fun.
Of course the first to be observed are the poppy punters or poppy shunners. I like to feign indifference to the public until it’s apparent that someone is coming to buy a poppy. I’m not a hunter after donations, fixing people with a guilt-inducing beady eye to induce them to cough up some change. I also spurn naming a figure when asked how much they should give (against advice from my poppy hierarch) as it seems vulgar to begin some kind of morally tinged haggle. I know people often are unsure how much they should donate and in asking me are seeking approval for whatever amount they’ve already got in their palm. My advice is always that one should give what one can afford.
But while I feign disengagement with the public at large really I’m thoroughly scrutacious. Very few people don’t see the poppy collector at all and people’s reactions once they have seen you are to an extent categorisable. There are foreigners who have no idea what you’re doing and are not interested. There are a lot of these in Sloane Square, a magnet for tourists and with a significant residential population of non-British origin. There is the occasional foreigner, usually a tourist (or actually, more often a tourist child) who is curious and will ask you in great depth about the poppy and what it is. I like these people, it’s good to chat with them and talk about British culture and history.
So what of the British? You have people who already have a poppy but whose hand goes to where their poppy is just to check that it’s there and can be seen. Sometimes it’s missing (they do fall off if not secured properly with a pin (I put mine through the petal – it looks ugly but it’s very effective)) and you can see them considering how annoying it is to have to get another one. But they usually do. Or their poppy is on their other coat, the one they left at home, and they’re thinking about whether they should get another one for this coat when they could just transfer the one from the other coat when they get home. But they usually buy another one too. Good souls.
Of course there are people who don’t donate out of conviction. Arrogantly they look at you sometimes (I don’t like that) but more often obviously not wishing to be judged. I wouldn’t judge them – there are cogent arguments (I don’t subscribe to them) as to why the poppy appeal should be rejected by pacifists, or by those who feel coerced into a national act of mourning and remembrance with which they have no sympathy. Freedom of opinion is a good thing.
But the majority of British people that I see (and I would include people of the ‘British World’ in that) either have a poppy already or when they see you are already putting their hand in their pocket or their purse to find a donation. The most heart-warming of donators are the ones who already have a poppy but who give you a donation anyway. Often these people are (ex-) service personnel or people closely related to them. They’ll often ask me if I’m in the armed forces myself (I think they usually know that I’m not! I don’t quite have a military bearing) and will chat about their motivation for giving (I like that too).
So for a thing to do I would heartily recommend getting out on the streets for the Poppy Appeal, if I’ve sold you on it there’ll be an organising committee near you I’m sure.
If the charitable angle isn’t enough for you then let me add another motivation, an aesthetic one. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to visit one or two of the big galleries in London solely to look at one painting at a time. One of the frustrations in going abroad to look at art is gallery fatigue.** Canvas blindness is another way of putting it. You get it in blockbusters here too so every now and then I try and do my art viewing in smaller chunks of focussed time.
Standing in the street for a few hours forces you to look at the cityscape in the same way as you would study a great painting. I’ve looked at the fixtures of Sloane Square (the theatre, the war memorial, the buildings) until they’ve become old friends visited once a year. Sometimes they change but essentially they remain the same. Then there are the medium variable things that shift but keep a rhythm – the sky, buses and traffic gridlock – unfolding in predictable but erratic ways over the course of a morning. And then there are the variable variable things – the people. Over time you observe a whole society in operation, from the people with the wealth*** down through those who service them. Wealthy people (hedge fund managers, art collectors, trophy wives and husbands, gilded offspring, mistresses, little kids dressed like Ralphy models, minor royalty, oligarchs) wealth professionals (lawyers, financial advisers, art buyers), lifestyle facilitators (designers, restauranteurs, personal trainers), doers (builders, windowcleaners, personal shoppers, delivery men), providers (shopworkers, newsagents, guides, drivers) and askers (Big Issue salespeople, charity collectors, beggars).
Of the cavalcade of local humanity that passes before one’s eyes in Chelsea the one group that doesn’t fit into this scheme are the Chelsea Pensioners. They’ve earned their independence through serving the nation, rich and poor. That’s the motivation.
* British people (forgivably) assume that this time of the year is as well known outside the UK as it is within. Having had a regular group of Belgians in November for the last few years I now realise that this isn’t the case, even among people from those nations who were directly affected by the First World War.
So for those who have no idea what the Poppy Appeal is, it is a charity that collects money from the public in return for distinctive decorative poppies and other paraphernalia (badges, wristbands, stickers etc). It began as a way of raising money for the casualties of World War One and rapidly developed into a national tradition (with some dissenting voices) for remembering the sacrifice of those who have served in conflicts around the world. The money raised now goes towards supporting supporting ex-servicemen and women and their families in manifold ways.
** Last suffered in the Künsthistorische Museum in Vienna where there are TOO MANY BREUGHELS. I’ll probably never go back and aggh!! Ugh, want to see those Breughels properly.
*** Contrary to radical perception the 1% and their circle are not a faceless, hidden away group. They’re fascinating and they’re out there. The display of expensive lifestyle is a joy, a technicolour cavalcade of skin, teeth, hair, clothes and accessories. Although occasionally it’s ostentatiously monochrome.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).