This weekend all the elevens of remembrance are encapsulated in the 11th year of the century. ‘Legs eleven’ cried the tombola leader on board many a troopship filled with young men going overseas in defence of life itself.
Poet Louis MacNeice, in his allegorical play The Dark Tower detailing the quest of heroic youth in that Byronic parable, gave the lie to the tombola roulette of life, which we see still today when some soldiers return from Afghanistan.
Each harvest in summertime I search for poppies in the cornfields and often finding none, turn to the impressionists whose young and untrammelled ladies of the fields of France were themselves unconsciously part of that harvest of youth.
I also turn to Brahms’ superb and inevitable sweeping away of youth and beauty in his Requiem where in the second movement ‘... all the glory of Man is as the flower that fadeth’. Once, in the brief sunlit halls of youth, I sang in that masterpiece. Not that my voice was much good because it was straining not to crack open into manhood.
But under the arches vaulting to the sky were the marble tablets to old boys who had fallen in Flanders, the beaches of Normandy, the steaming jungles of the Far East or in the skies over Sussex. And it is these skies above us here and now which make me think of the fragility of the poppy that is the image of spilt blood.
The poppy is like a packed parachute, perfect and ready to burst open to preserve life. The crimson petals are folded up like silk. I once saw a half-burnt parachute at the scene of a crashed Beaufighter in Norfolk and was immediately reminded of the half-opened poppy flower.
The fleeting poppy flower, over in a day, burned deep into the imagery of civilisations as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Whenever the poppy bloomed, corn could grow, too.
Wherever man went, the poppy followed in his footsteps. Neolithic or Bronze farmers brought the poppy seed with the barley from the Middle East.
The flower became a symbol of fertility. Corn roses they were called, and the daughters of the field, ensuring rebirth.
Sorrow or hope, the poppy of all flowers, of all symbols, shows the duality of life. I wish we could see more of them in the Sussex fields.