Armistice : Why The Poppy has never been more important.

I read with surprise (and heartfelt disappointment) Harry Leslie Smith’s account in The Guardian of why this year will be the last he wears a poppy (8 November 2013). As a 90 year old war veteran, Smith argues that the significance of Remembrance Day has been eroded by modern politics and corporate institutions, that wealth is now confused with wisdom, and that the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers is now being used to justify conflict.
He explains that next year he will ponder Remembrance Day in private. Not only is this a travesty for those of his generation that share his horrific experiences of war, but for future generations who will never know the scale of the horrors he has survived.

My grandfather, Richard John Booth (aged 93), volunteered for the RAF in 1940 when he was just 19. A Bedworth-born only child, he had never been abroad prior to taking up service. He trained at Cheadle as a Morse Code Operator, and many of the messages he decoded were forwarded to the world-renowned Bletchley Park for use in operational intelligence. In 1942 he was deployed to Egypt, and there began a three and a half year period abroad which also saw him serving in Syria, Benghazi, Italy and Austria. Throughout his time at war, my grandfather kept a diary. Transcribed recently by my Father, the memoirs within his notebooks depict a lonely, deprived, and fearful world.
During the war, my grandfather had only sporadic contact with home, spent Christmas Day sleeping in a port susceptible to bombing, and was forced to wash in the sea due to lack of clean water. He recovered in makeshift hospitals from broken bones and dysentery, survived severe weight loss and jaundice, slept beneath lorries where they could not erect tents, spent days sleeping with 14 other men in ship cabins designed for just 2, and worked in the desert with no protection from mosquitos or stifling sun. He tolerated torrential rain and winds during lengthy tours of duty, with little provided in the way of nutritional sustenance. He was promoted to Corporal in 1943 and notes in his diary on 6 June 1944 : “Invasion starts in France. Things going well”. The significance of the understatement could not have been comprehended at the time.
My Grandfather returned home from war in January 1946 having lost much-loved friends and comrades and witnessed unspoken atrocities. He had travelled in unthinkable conditions around areas of the globe that endangered his life on a daily basis. He spent over three years cut-off from friends and family and enjoyed none of the simple luxuries that typified his life at home. Yet his diaries contain nothing but hope and humour. My grandfather was of a generation willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in, without recognition, for themselves and on behalf of others.

The poppy represents the establishment and promotion of these values and the acceptance of an existence that to young people nowadays would be not just unacceptable but unthinkable. To wear it is a demonstration of thanks to those who suffered and gave up their lives without complaint or question. It is not about modern political policy, or the fighting between left and right wing. It is about the ULTIMATE fight that young men like my grandfather took on with unfaltering courage to afford myself and my family the comfort of living without fear or suppression. It is a symbol of honour, of success, and of freedom. A symbol of a better, brighter future. A symbol of respect for service men and women still being deployed on tours of duty to places like Afghanistan.
The struggles of Harry Leslie Smith and his comrades ought to be recognised, and their survival celebrated. By not wearing a poppy, he is contributing to the erosion of a legacy other surviving veterans strive so hard to uphold. By lamenting the passing of soldiers in private he is missing an opportunity to educate our children about the significance of war. For it is only with an understanding of what was lost before that we can be truly thankful for what we have now.

Today my family attended the Remembrance Day parade in Whitehall. My 7 month old daughter wore a poppy on her coat in acknowledgement of the sacrifices made which have enabled her to grow up in a world so very different to that of our war veterans.

And as for my grandfather……he watches the Remembrance Day coverage on television each year. Quiet but contemplative, he speaks nothing of the sadness and loss he experienced, only of the happy memories. He remains the most positive, inspirational and kind-hearted man I have ever known. He takes nothing for granted, and exudes gratitude and positivity. He is a man who has seen the most ugly side of humanity, yet harbours no resentment, fear or bitterness. He has a beautiful, gentle nature, sees the best outcome in any situation, and never has a negative word to say about anyone. He is the reason Remembrance Day will always be special to me. I am blessed that he lived long enough not only to share his tales with me, but to meet his great granddaughter. Because for my grandad, she represents a future in which anything is possible. And that was the future both he and Harry Leslie Smith fought so very hard to secure.

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My grandfather in his military uniform.

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My daughter, Isla and I at The Cenotaph. 10 November 2013.

The ultimate conundrum: Children or career?

Like many young women of my generation pondering their life choices, my ambition was always to establish myself within a career before breaking temporarily to raise a family.
I graduated from Southampton University in 2005 (having therein met my husband). I joined the Metropolitan Police and invested considerable time and effort in attaining the rank I aspired to; that of Detective Constable.
Policing is not a career choice befitting the lazy or faint-hearted. It demands physical fitness. Resilience. A thick skin. Good communication skills. An ability to analyse, evaluate, articulate, plan efficiently and multi-task. In spite of the thrashing police officers get in the press, we are fundamentally good people who go to work each day not knowing when, or (in extreme circumstances) IF we will come home. I feel proud of the organisation I represent and how hard I have worked to find my role within it.

Then in March of this year I had our first child; a much longed-for baby girl we named Isla Mai. Now 7 months old, she continues to grow into a blissfully contented and curious little person, relentlessly exploring the world around her and trying to understand her place.

Isla is not the only one searching for her identity.

With Isla’s arrival came a new status for me and a period of time away from my workplace. I now find myself contemplating whether I should return to work, or remain at home full-time to raise our daughter. This is a dilemma faced by thousands of women. Whilst one view purports “proper” mothers put the needs and desires of their children ahead of their own and stay at home to care for them, stay at home mums are also represented in the media as being dull, one-dimensional and offering no valuable contribution to the economy or society.

I think your view of what is “best” can stem from your own upbringing. My mother gave up a job in banking just before I was born and did not resurrect her career until my younger brother was at school. As a result, the thought of leaving Isla to return to work (even part-time) leaves me wracked with guilt. Yet the monthly cost of nursery, for just three days a week, is in excess of £900. My husband is often abroad with work and I would have to tackle the stress of balancing childcare with working an unsociable shift pattern. I worry that sending Isla to nursery would erode the bond I have spent 7 months nurturing. It would mean sacrificing precious time together and missing some of her significant ‘firsts’.

But there is a part of me that is reluctant to abandon the job I have worked so hard for. I can’t pretend there aren’t days when I crave some adult company and humour, an uninterrupted lunch break, and the buzz of a busy office. I miss the intellectual stimulation provided by complex cases, and the sense of achievement when tough court cases go my way.

I wonder whether nursery could enhance a confidence and independence in Isla superior to that which I can instill? Does it offer educational and social benefits that children of stay-at-home Mums miss? Does spending time with new people in a different environment complement the happy and fulfilling home life it has become my utmost priority to establish? And does placing Isla in such a situation also offer me the perfect complement to my new life as a Mummy – the opportunity to thrive in a job I love?

Never have I found a decision so difficult. With the support of others I hope I can work out what is best for us as a family. But for the time being my maternity leave is in tact, and whilst the sirens continue to wail around me, I glow with pride at my most significant achievement to date. Creating Isla.

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9 months. 10 frames.

It is difficult to sum up your first pregnancy in a few words. The remarkable changes you go through as a person during that short period of time affect you physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially……………………

Being pregnant for the first time is like being strapped into a roller-coaster. You know at some point the ride will come to an end, but cannot predict at the beginning how you will feel as you hit each bend and loop. Your experience of the journey is unique, and although that roller coaster will be taken on by countless others, none of them will ever replicate your adventure.

The initial elation, excitement and overwhelming pangs of protectiveness towards this being I had never met were quickly blended with anxiety about our future and this mysterious new life that was growing inside me. The physical changes were reassuring and thrilling, but often painful at the same time.

This collage of my first pregnancy represents 9 months in just 10 frames. 

A hidden heartbeat. Endless excitement. Numbing nausea. Flourishing flutters. Consistent cravings. A pullating presence. Mind-blowing movement. Straining skin. Astonishing anticipation……….and limitless love.

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