Pop Culture


The new BBC adaptation of 'Birdsong' brings the First World War to our TV screens. (Photo: BBC / Working Title)

The big news in TV in Britain this week is all about a new adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much-loved novel, Birdsong. ‘Sherlock’, it seems, has captured the nation’s hearts, and established the BBC as “the home of must-watch Sunday night drama”. ‘Sherlock’ is certainly doing something right– I’ve had one student ask me about reading the original stories, he so loved the newest Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation. I eagerly pushed him on. There is almost no reading pleasure as purely enjoyable as reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries.

I’m hoping that the TV adaptation of Birdsong will have the same effect on other students at Southfields– to run off and get the original book, or at least be inspired to learn more about the First World War and its literature.

Here’s a confession, though. I teach AS English Literature; I teach First World War literature. Yet I’ve never read ‘Birdsong’. I feel vaguely guilty about this every year. It is apparently the 13th most popular book that the British reading public has: there has to be a reason for that popularity.

So, I’m hoping that Abi Morgan’s adaptation inspires me too. The reviews seem to be good. I’m hoping that it’ll be something more than your average romantic historical drama– something more than some First World War booms and busts. We’ll see! Birdsong begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9.00pm.

An England Shirt with Poppy Badge.

Who needs a calender when you’ve got the media?

You know you’re at the end of June when Tennis inexplicably hits the front pages of the red tops. When our supposedly paedophile-hating press publish front-page pictures of groups of pretty young schoolgirls celebrating exam results, it’s the end of August. And when the first appearance of a story about a council replacing festive decorations with Diwali lights appears in the The Daily Mail, you know the Twelve Weeks of Christmas are drawing to their end.

Just as the year has seasons, so does journalism. And, just as surely as the fall of the first leaf heralds the coming of Autumn, so the appearance of a poppy controversy in the press tells us we’re in the first week of November.

This year’s controversy at least seems to have a little more substance than last year’s desperate Jon Snow-baiting for not wearing a poppy whilst reading the news.

The England Football Team play Spain in a friendly football match at Wembley on Saturday. Friendly feeling towards FIFA– the world football governing authority– has been hard to find in the press, however. This year’s poppy controversy has revolved around the wearing of poppy badges, which the English FA proposed to have embroidered on players’ shirts for the game. The news broke last weekend, when it was reported that FIFA had refused the FA permission to do so. All hell broke loose as Fleet Street rallied to the poppy-wearing cause, and FIFA stubbornly stood by its position that the wearing of political and religious symbols is banned in international football (commercial symbols, it seems, being A-O-K).

By midweek, the government had got involved in the sporting spat, with the Sports minister writing a letter to FIFA stating “the British public feel very strongly about this issue which is seen as an act of national remembrance to commemorate those who gave their lives in the service of their country. It is not religious or political in any way. Wearing a poppy is a display of national pride, just like wearing your country’s football shirt.” To which FIFA, by letter, replied: “”We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardising the neutrality of football. Therefore, we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match shirt cannot be authorised.”

By today, a compromise between the FA and FIFA meant that poppies would indeed be worn by the English football team, embroidered onto the black armbands that the England team had already been given permission to wear. The Sun declared victory: ‘Prince William forces FIFA climb-down on wearing poppies’.

And yet, amidst the arm-wrestling, quieter voices were at risk of being drowned out. The director of the British Legion said, when it appeared that the key concession of the players being allowed to wear a poppy would not be made: ‘There are other ways to honour the poppy than by wearing it on a shirt… The Legion never insists that the poppy be worn or insists that others allow it to be worn. We are grateful when people wear it as a sign of respect, but the decision must be a free one – after all, the poppy represents sacrifices made in the cause of our freedoms.”

The issue has generated a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. To read some contributors to the Daily Mail making the case for the poppy being worn, look here. To find a different point of view, read Marina Hyde in The Guardian.

The central questions surrounding the poppy controversy are worth thinking about, however. FIFA refused to allow the poppy to be worn because it was, in its opinion, a political symbol. Many in Britain seem to think it is not.  

What is politics, though– and what is political? A broad definition of the political would be those thoughts and actions which are related to the state, the people, and the power weilded by both. The question is whether the poppy can be seen as a symbol of a political world-view, or whether to see it as such a symbol is to distort its meaning.

The poppy, of course, began as a badge of remembrance for those who died fighting in the First World War. It has, however, become a more complicated symbol since then. Different people and different groups, often depending on their politics or worldview, apply different meanings to its wearing. So that for some it represents a remembrance of those who have died for Britain abroad; for others, all who have died in armed conflict, no matter what the country; some wear it with pride, some with regret. Some marginal groups actively seek to turn the wearing of the poppy into a political issue, like the racist EDF, or Muslims Against Crusades. The majority, however, probably prefer to leave its meaning a little fuzzy: to see it as an inclusive symbol, and live with the contradictions. Seen in this way, the yearly controversy about the poppy often seems to be a battle to establish just exactly what the poppy means– who should wear it, and why.

What do you think? What does the poppy mean to you? Is the poppy really politically value free (this vote in the left-leaning Guardian suggests not)? Is the act of remembrance of the war dead removed from politics– is it in some way higher than politics? Or is wearing a poppy an inevitably political act– a symbol that can represent a view of the world that others might reasonably reject or object to?

Here’s a popular song sung by British soldiers during the First World War. I love it, though it can seem a little obscure today. It goes a little something like this:

We are Fred Karno’s army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We’ll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.

It takes the tune of an old Christian hymn- ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, sung stodgily here on YouTube- and irreverently switches that song’s worshipful lyrics for amusing self-deprecation. The soldiers who sang this song were celebrating their own inefficient humanity, caught as they were in the European war machine.

The song mentions Fred Karno and ragtime. For years I didn’t know who Fred Karno was. I knew what ragtime was, however: in fact, it was listening to a ragtime song that prompted me to write this post. Stick with me for a few more sentences and you’ll get to hear some ragtime yourself.

Fred Karno was Britain’s most famous talent spotter and impressario in the twenty years before the First World War. “Karno was the star-making Simon Cowell of his day”, Tim Brooke-Taylor says, and he’s right: Karno found comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and made them stars before either went on to Hollywood and became global entertainers. There’s a nice article about Karno on this site dedicated to his birthplace, Exeter.

Karno ruled music hall. Music hall was popular theatre and the chief form of entertainment in Britain from the 1850s until at least the 1920s and 30s. It was the form of entertainment many of the British soldiers in the First World War knew best.

Music hall took its name from the music halls all around the country where the popular entertainment shows played. The music hall show consisted of a variety of performers: singers, comics and speciality acts like magicians, memory men and the like. Karno was famous for his touring troupe of entertainers: a motley crew who were known as ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. This group of balladeers and clowns became proverbial for chaos and disorganisation, hence ‘We are Fred Karno’s Army’. Imagine our soldiers in Afghanistan proclaiming they were ‘Simon Cowell’s Army’ or on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ tour abroad, and you get a sense of the bloody-minded pride and sarcastic mockery of the British Army going on here (and indeed, in other versions of the song the impresario’s name is replaced by Kitchener’s).

So what, then, was the ‘ragtime infantry’?

Well, ragtime was the popular music of the age. Ragtime (along with Blues music) lies at the very beginning of modern pop: ragtime is at the roots of a tree that leads to the Beatles and Motown, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Janelle Monae. Ragtime took European music– jigs and marches played on piano– and mixed them with African American music, with its syncopated or ‘ragged’ rhythms. What was produced was a new form of dance music, played mainly on piano, pioneered by black artists like Scott Joplin and his ‘Twelfth Street Rag’.

Scott Joplin, Ragtime star.

Here are some links to Joplin’s music, so you’ve got an idea of the kind of ragtime that was popular with the troops during the war. Some of his songs you may have heard already: like ‘The Entertainer’, perhaps; or another, his ‘Maple Leaf Rag‘. Last of all, I’ve found a clip of the Jazz king, Louis Armstrong, playing ‘Twelfth Street Blues’ many years later, in 1961. When Armstrong plays you really get a sense of the kind of pleasure ragtime gave, played live.

This feeling of fun is sometimes absent, understandably, when we think about the First World War. It can seem sometimes like all this happened to people from a dismal black-and-white world. Yet ragtime, and the happy sarcasm of the soldiers in their uncensored songs allows us a better understanding of the happier lives and better times of the ragtime infantry.