Honours from the Empire

I think it’s lovely that Queen Elizabeth distributes her Honours in late December. It’s a point in the year when all of us feel a bit down, and while of course we can’t all receive an Honour from Her Majesty, we can warm our hands in the reflected glow that comes when someone we know gets theirs at Buckingham Palace. This year I’ll be warming my hands off Mark Carruthers. Mark works in the BBC in the News department, but the Queen says she’s awarding him an OBE, not because of how he’s handled the news in the BBC over the years (that’s the British Broadcasting Corporation). It wouldn’t make sense to give him an Honour for that because the BBC, despite its name, always handles news items in a balanced way, even over the period of our Troubles, when British forces were in conflict with insurgent Irish forces. Mark and all the other BBC people presented the conflict in such a balanced way, you wouldn’t have guessed they were a British institution. Anyway, all that has nothing to do with this. Mark is being made an OBE (an Officer of the Order of the British Empire – motto ‘For God and Empire’) for services to Drama (he’s the chairman of the board of the Lyric Theatre). When Mark goes to London to get his award, Queen Elizabeth will pin the award on his left breast – well actually his left breast lapel rather than his breast. It’s a big cross thing – the award, not Mark’s breast – and hangs from a rose-pink ribbon with pearl-grey edges. He’ll be expected to bow and walk backways after he’s had his breast decorated.

Mark naturally is pleased to receive this Honour, but you know it’s a funny old world. Not everyone is like Mark. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth wanted to pin an OBE on the breast of poet Benjamin Zepheniah, and instead of smiling broadly like Mark and ordering up his morning suit, Benjamin declared he wouldn’t take the OBE! Rejected it out of hand. Naturally, he was asked why he’d done such a thing and he said it was because the OBE reminded him of ‘thousands of years of brutality’. How do you mean brutality, the reporters asked. “It reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised” Benjamin said. Did you ever hear the like? Talk about ungrateful.

A shame he couldn’t have followed the example of the native American people, centuries ago. Then, native people, whether in America or Ireland were much less cheeky. They were grateful. Appreciative when an Honour was bestowed on them. Biddable. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon captures this attitude very well in his poem ‘Meeting the British’. Like Queen Elizabeth’s distribution of Honours, Muldoon’s poem is set at this time of year when people need cheering up.

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender,
And the snow, lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
The sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over).

The poem ends with a British colonel and a British general conferring their Honours on the simple native people:

They gave us six fishhooks
And two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

You could warm your hands off that account as well.

2 Responses to Honours from the Empire

  1. Anonymous January 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    A prod from Coleraine takes an honour for his voluntary work in the theatre. Shocking. *rolls eyes*

  2. Jude Collins January 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Ha ha, Anon. Pithily put. He's from Limavady, mind you…