I’ll not wear a poppy.
I used to; in years gone by
I would blindly conform
To the conventions
Of society.

But now I notice
So many people policing,
Shaming the objectors.
I will not be coerced
And so I will remain
Poppy free.

Those who insist
That all must display
This symbol of past wars
Are denying others
The very freedom
That they say so many
Died to protect.

I need no paper flower
To call to mind
Such sacrifice. But
Foremost in my thoughts
Are those swept up
In conflict’s tumult.

I cannot help but think
Of other times and places
Where people were forced
To wear some symbol.

Or where refusal
To overtly demonstrate
Allegiance: wear the badge,
Join the Party,
Was cause for suspicion,

So I condemn those
Who would deny
Freedom of choice,
Freedom of conscience,
And I will go poppy-free:
A conscientious objector.

Duty and Responsibility

Duty and Responsibility

Sometimes I think about leaving this life with its burdens and responsibilities. No goodbyes; just go ahead and do it. There is no respite, no rest from labors. To even suggest it meets with accusations of selfishness and failure to care. Or worse. Threats, emotional blackmail or even violence.

I sometimes feel as if I am in thrall to a tyrannical master, whose every demand I must satisfy. I drive myself hard to meet the standards to which I hold myself. This infernal sense of duty – it compels me to carry on and on, grinding myself down, exhausting myself in the process.

I feel so tired. My defences are weak. The darkness inside finds its way to the surface, coloring my thoughts. Did you know it can take as little as 15 minutes to lose consciousness after slitting your wrists? If you hit the artery that is. Otherwise it could be hours. I looked it up – I wanted to know. Don’t ask why.

Change. Don’t like it at all. For somebody who has such difficulty relating to people I don’t half have a hard time when I am apart from them. I’m a walking contradiction. I like my own company and I cannot bear to be apart from people. I abhor loneliness. And I am feeling lonely of late.

I try to keep my feelings hidden, even from myself I suspect sometimes. Must be strong, never show any weakness. So I must be alone, so nobody can see my vulnerabilities. I must be alone to cry in the night. I must be alone to open my heart and reveal my feelings. So much pent-up emotion that is held in, bottled up, because I do not dare let it show.

Anger, the rage inside, flares occasionally but never lasts. Unlike the hurt that never really leaves me. Oh, I can push it into the background but it still lies there waiting for its opportunity to raise its head and reenter my consciousness. There is no release, no respite. No rest.

I am a caged bird, looking out through the bars and imagining how it might feel to fly free. The bars are of my own making, stronger than steel. Forged of duty and responsibility. I have no option other than to remain here – suffer the constraints on my existence. The constraints I accepted so long ago now. The burden weighs heavy on me but I said I would bear it, so bear it I must. Choice was abrogated all those years ago. However I might wish otherwise that remains true.

But the caged bird can still dream of open skies. The slave can dream of the day the fetters are broken. And I can dream of release.



Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.

Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.

Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.

Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.

Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.

I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?

Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.

Dream of Freedom

Dream of Freedom

Night has fallen; we are gathered round the fire. The old man who is the repository of our tribe’s history and lore begins to chant, slowly and softly at first, using the ancient tongue brought to this land by his ancestors. But we do not need to understand his words: we know the tales that he tells for the last time this night. Of how our tribe first came to this land, driven across the sea to escape persecution at the hands of our enemies. The desperate flight with the invaders at our heels, the anguish of leaving so many behind to face death or slavery, the razing of our homes and destruction of our way of life.

Our strongest survived the voyage across the unknown ocean, guided by the stars and the visions that our gods imparted to our spiritual leader. The gods were kind to us in those days and led us to a land of riches: plentiful animals to be hunted, fish in the rivers and sea, and fertile ground for our crops. We raised new homes and dedicated new sacred sites to our gods in thanks for our deliverance. Over many generations we grew in numbers and spread across this new land, but in all that time we never met other men: no other human tribes inhabited this place and we lived in peace.

But this soft life made us weak and complacent. We started to forget the old ways. We stopped visiting the sacred places and they were allowed to return to nature; we neglected our old gods. Like fruit left unharvested they withered and died, and we did not notice that we no longer had their protection until it was too late.

New people came across the sea from the North: strong, pale-skinned men in two long ships. At first we were fearful of them. It had been so long since we had had any contact with other humans that we had started to believe we were alone in the world. They were few and we approached them. They traded cloth and tools for food, restocking their provisions for their journey home. They did not linger on our shores and we thought little of their visit. Until they returned in their hundreds with fearsome beasts at the prows of their ships; ships filled with fierce warriors and iron swords.

They built a settlement by the shore where they had landed, using timbers from their ships to construct their halls and raising tall earth banks around to protect them. We realised then that they were here to stay. The returning traders had obviously told of the rich land across the sea and these Northmen wanted it for their own. We sent messengers to them bearing gifts and offering friendship; they demanded tribute and submission. Although we were many and they were few, we were weak and most of our tribe were afraid of the newcomers. We had abandoned our old gods, and they had now abandoned us, leaving us to our fate.

This small band now gathered around the fire is all of our tribe that remains free. The rest bent their knees and are ruled by the Northmen, worshipping their gods, obeying their commands, paying tribute to their lords. They are no longer free men. We stood against the invaders and many of us were slaughtered in battle or taken into slavery. Our warriors did not lack courage but could not overcome the strength and iron weapons of our foes. We survivors fled to the farthest reaches of this land, hoping that we could remain free. That was four summers ago.

Today we saw a band of Northmen scouting near our homes. We know it can only be a matter of days before they return in overwhelming numbers to destroy us in a final battle, so we are spending the time in recollection of our heritage, trying to summon back our old gods to support us. But few of us believe in the gods any more. The gods have forgotten us as we forgot them. We must face the enemy alone, and when we are gone none will remember who we were or where we came from: our gods and our tribe will be lost to the memories of men, and only the invaders from the North will remain here. It will be their land then to settle with their new gods and new ways. Perhaps they in their turn will be swept aside by a stronger people. That seems to be the way of things: either submit to those who are stronger than you, whether willingly or at the point of a sword, and become like them, or fight for your beliefs and way of life – fight to be your true self – and die proud and free.

Perhaps one day there will be a third way and all the different tribes of humans will find a way to live together in peace. But as long as the strong continue to simply take what they want from the weak that day will never come, and men will not be truly free: free from fear, persecution and harm. We will stand and fight to the death for our right to be free because we truly believe in it.