They appear earlier every year. Red paper petals on a green plastic stalk. Royal British Legion poppies. Who on earth let them out already?
The UK officially commemorates its war dead on the second Sunday of November - the Sunday closest to 11th November. This year that's the latest it can possibly be, on Sunday 14th November. Various very important people will lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, the country will fall silent, and everyone will be wearing a little poppy somewhere to pay their respects. But that's still three weeks away. Why on earth are people wearing these artificial scarlet flowers in mid-October?
I was wandering around London yesterday when I saw the first. Pinned to the coat of a middle-aged gentleman, strolling around the City with his conscience on his lapel. I thought he might be a one-off, but a few hours later I saw another on a younger bloke on the other side of town. Out shopping he was, and looked like he'd dropped some cash into a collecting tin somewhere earlier in the day. Only the two sightings so far, that's all I saw, but it appears the 2010 poppy season is suddenly underway.
On returning home I switched on the TV and caught the end of Final Score. Look, three more poppies, one for each of the gossipping pundits. As Mark, Matt and Garth discussed Chelsea's chances, I couldn't help but wonder why each of them had matching red accessories. Next came the News, with a prominent poppy on the newsreader's jacket and another when they cut away to chat to a reporter in the field. Last year the BBC's official poppy season kicked off on October 24th, which was 15 days before Remembrance Sunday. Which idiot decided to jump the gun this year and start twenty-two days early?
When I was at school, poppy-wearing season lasted one week. The trays and collecting tins would appear on the Monday before Remembrance Sunday, and it was pretty much expected you'd contribute and buy one. Back then everyone had relatives who'd fought in World War Two, plus there were plenty of WW1 veterans still around. OK, so someone at school would always try to use the pin to stab a friend, just for a laugh, but we'd only ever wear the poppies on our blazers for five days. Remembrance was something you did briefly but respectfully, leading up to the big two minutes at the weekend, and nothing more.
Over the years, the Poppy Appeal has launched earlier and earlier. In 1997, when the Spice Girls were conscripted to front the campaign, the launch was 11 days before Remembrance Sunday. By 2000 the gap had extended to 17 days, a full two and a half weeks in advance, and it's remained at that interval ever since. This year's Poppy Appeal launches officially on Thursday, after which presumably red charitywear will be everywhere. But a few regionallaunches have taken place already, which seems wildly premature, but explains how some poppies have started dribbling out into the mainstream.
I can understand why the Royal British Legion no longer think a week is long enough to sell its 27 million poppies. But there does seem to be increasing pressure from the media and wider society to 'expect' people to wear their poppy for longer than ever before. There are diktats for TV presenters, and unspoken accusations should public figures dare not wear one once everyone else has begun. It's not a competition, it's not a club to join, and it's definitely not a fashion statement. Donating money to war veterans should require no public show. And three weeks is definitely far too long to be swanning around with the receipt pinned to your chest.