It’s that time of year when the poppy fascists go on patrol, hunting down and shaming any public figure who isn’t wearing one. God help anyone on TV who appears poppyless. They will be accused of disrespecting the war dead, of being some shade of immoral or heartless and, of course, of being unpatriotic.
The irony of bullying people into wearing something whose purpose is to commemorate those who died in pursuit of freedom from fascist bullies seems lost on them.
A couple of days ago when Danny Drinkwater purportedly said he didn’t want to play for England, the stink that was released into the football firmament was typically sulphurous, from the usual sort of people. Who was this traitor? Didn’t he know people had died for their country? This was an honour, how could he reject it? We’d all turn out for our country. Laughably, I even saw a tweet from someone who said our brave soldiers didn’t pull out of the war with an injury. I thought at first it was satire. It wasn’t.
Of course, given the shallow, provoke-the-stupids-for-money nature of much of our press, it was all deliberately reported in as negative a way as possible. It was ‘a snub’ his ‘future is in doubt’ and according to Chris Sutton “future England managers – never mind Southgate – will not want to touch him”.
‘Was Danny Drinkwater right to turn down an England call? Should you always turn up for your country?!’ asked Sunday Supplement on Twitter.
Considering the only reason the player didn’t want to meet up with England was for the entirely sensible excuse that he wasn’t fit enough to play, you can understand his subsequent anger at being painted as some sort of quisling. But even if he didn’t want to play for England, that’s fine; he shouldn’t be coerced into it. No-one should.
It’s often said some players in the past have dreaded getting called up for England because it was nothing but relentless grief from press and fans, that it was a free hit for those with an agenda. So they’d feign an injury to get out of it. That’s what this sort of bullying has achieved.
Look at all the blowhards in the press and on the terraces who, for years, have gone on about players not belting out the national anthem and how it showed they didn’t care about their country and that’s why they were losers. What a ridiculous notion.
England have played poorly in tournaments, we all know that. But why is there an instinct to extrapolate this to a lack of patriotism? It’s there all the time. For too long, England losing is not just losing a football game, it has gone hand in hand with some notion of national moral decline.
The Drinkwater situation, drummed up for maximum outrage by some of the press in the full knowledge that it will garner clicks, gives a flavour of what would happen if a player really did come out and clearly say “nah, playing for England isn’t for me”. Their life wouldn’t be worth living. They’d probably need police protection.
But there’s always been a wide streak of this sort of grotesque, bullying nationalism in England. A hundred years ago, people sent abusive letters with white feathers to conscientious objectors and their families in WW1. These were men whose crime was to not want to be co-opted into a war of pointless slaughter. Men who could see it was lions led by donkeys, men who felt that killing people was literally a dead end and that it was fundamentally immoral. With 18 million dead and 23 million injured, you can see the logic of their standpoint.
My dad fought in the north African desert against Rommel’s Nazis aged 18 and as a gunner was awarded medals for accuracy (he threw them away at the end of the war), in other words for killing countless men. He also lost three brothers in the RAF in WW2, slaughtered in the skies above the country they sought to defend. He told me that patriotism was a very dangerous thing. He told me that it led to wars and violence and that I should have nothing to do with it.
Common amongst his generation, he literally talked about his war to me just once in the 26 years I shared with him on earth. What he went through was appalling and scarred him for life.
Who am I to argue against his brutal experiences? Ever since, as soon as it rears its self-important, self-regarding, indignant, puffed-up little Englander head, it makes me bristle. I think dad would’ve wanted it that way. And that’s why the Drinkwater business was so infuriating.
But hey, it’s still supposed to be a free country. You don’t have to play for England if you don’t want to. You should have a choice. As Sam Wallace on Sunday Supplement said, it doesn’t make you a bad person. But to some, it does. The poppy fascists want to prescribe and police how we should feel about the country and want to be outraged if it doesn’t match their own poppy-sporting, chest-beating, flag-waving, face-painting standards.
When people say they’re proud to represent their country, I totally understand that. I would be. But any individual’s passion for, or commitment to, their country of birth is a personal thing. To dictate what it should be and how it should be expressed is fundamentally wrong and a blow against what people like my dad were fighting for.
But that is exactly what the so-called English patriots do. It’s what those who sought to put Drinkwater down for his supposed crime against his country do. And in doing so they are insulting the war dead far more than non-poppy-wearers. I remember my father’s words.
“There are no countries. Borders are artificial. We’re all just people who live somewhere and as soon as we forget that, that’s when the trouble starts.”
And as this week has well proved, we deserve better than cheap nationalism to remember and honour what he went through.