Monday, December 12, 2011


Growing up in England, I always associated poppies with November 11, Armistice Day. When I was about 3, WWI had ended just a dozen years earlier, still much within the memories of all adults. On Armistice Day, one was expected to contribute to the British Legion in exchange for a red poppy. The larger the poppy, the more one gave. I recall we also contributed for a poppy to display on each of our cars. We were told that red poppies were features of the Flanders fields on which so many of our countrymen had fallen, during what we called the Great War.

The British have moved the commemoration to an adjacent Sunday, which is called "Remembrance Sunday". I am told that Armistice Day is still observed, but that the emphasis now falls on the Sunday.

Whereas the Flanders poppies are an attractive shade of red, our State Flower in California is the golden poppy. In many areas, these grow profusely, but an early lesson for me was that there is a state law against picking those beautiful poppies..

We think positively about those red and golden poppies, but there is another poppy which usually elicits a negative reaction: the opium poppy. I had often read about fruitless attempts to eradicate this important cash crop, and so I always had a very negative feeling about opium poppies. Recently, a good friend told me about the time (towards the end of the 19th century) in which the attitude towards opium was far more benign. A lot of paraphernalia is needed for opium smokers, and in its heyday this drug had many admirers, who became collectors of expensive equipment used by opium smokers. I was told that, although opium can be addictive, and those who abuse the drug often become very "lazy", for most smokers the effect is not harmful or lasting. They become very relaxed and carefree. My informant told me that it was commonplace for friends to share a pipe after a dinner party, much as smoking a cigar (after the ladies had left the dining room) was normal, during the years when I was growing up.

I seldom see poppies now: the opium poppy is illegal, I mustn't pick the golden poppy, and there aren't many red poppies around my home.

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