In a week following the Paris attacks, when every State feels under threat from Islamic State and the whole question of national identity is under close scrutiny, I had the luck and the pleasure to be part of a very British experience: I went to Buckingham Palace to receive an an OBE.
This is not a discourse on the merits or otherwise of the Honours System. For those who disapprove, perhaps skip this until I return to my more familiar blog territory of networks etc. I had never given the idea of receiving one a moment’s thought until six months ago I opened an envelope so bland and brown I assumed it was a boring bill. The Prime Minister was minded, it said in a slightly tight-lipped way, to recommend me to Her Majesty The Queen to become an Officer of the British Empire. Would I, it enquired levelly, be inclined to accept? If so I should tell no-one, more or less swallow the evidence (very James Bond) and wait for it to become official six weeks later.
Well reader, I did not hesitate. Yes, I had to tell my inner Imposter Syndrome Monitor to pipe down a few times but mostly I felt dazed that such an inauspicious start to my career thirty years ago this year had ended up here. A recognition I had not applied for. I set about planning what I would wear and who I would bring with me with the precision I brought to my wedding day.
WE IDENTIFY WITH IDENTITY
I am now able to put ‘OBE’ after my name just as I put the prefix ‘Mrs’ in 2005 and ‘Professor’ in 2011 and the internal label of ‘Mum’ since 1998. The Indian Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen wrote in The Argumentative Indian that “each of us invokes identities of various kinds in disparate contexts. The same person can be of Indian origin, a Parsee, a French citizen, a US resident, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, an anthropologist, a university professor, a bird watcher…”
The very plurality of British identity is on display writ large in the Honours system Investitures. Eighty five of us lined up by the Ballroom to receive medals for Services including “Festival Arts in the North East”, “Interfaith Relations in Merseyside” “Tourism in Banffshire”, “Folk Music” ,”Heritage to the community in Fife” or in my case, “Business”. Highly decorated soldiers walked alongside council leaders, firefights, charity chiefs. The distinguished publisher Ernest Hecht was there and although we knew of each other we had not met. But everyone else was from a refreshingly wide British network of do-ers in society of one kind or another. It is not a tight network where everyone nods knowingly at one another (all the better for it, in my opinion) and not a lot of crossover before you meet briefly on a day such as this.
THE GREAT BRITISH CEREMONY
Before I went, I could not imagine it. Despite Central London being on understandable security edge, the policemen at Buckingham Palace flagged our car down to check for explosives before calmly waving us through to check our ID at the gate. “Who is the Recipient”? queried an officer. “Me” I said anxiously from the back. “Well, Congratulations” he said, and ushered through the arches, along the gravel, to park in the inner courtyard alongside the horse and carriages and cars.
One the one hand, it is terribly grand and imposing. Sofas are made of velvet and are six or seven feet long. Simply huge nineteenth century paintings with gilt edged frames line walls whose edges are broken up by twenty foot columns and the kind of ancient ceramic urn you beg yourself not to trip over. The Ballroom itself – complete with five members of The Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of The Guard, Four Gentleman Ushers and the Corps of Army Music String Orchestra playing a medley of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Purcell, Handel and, incongruously, Gershwin, is a bergundy-and-gold riot of royal spendour.
But the process itself is entirely ungrand, warm, friendly, human. The physical granduer and formal grandness – we stand for the senior member of the Royal Family, in this case HRH Prince Charles, whose entry and exit is bookended by The National Anthem being played – is broken up by very bold stark organisational signs to cloakrooms which have been fashioned out of recesses whose walls are covered in priceless paintings. “Recipients” go one way up a big staircase and their family and friends go the other (you can take 3 people with you).
There is an army of hospitality footmen, women with clipboards, reassuring sheaves of schedules and names, people in uniform to usher us fast through velvet-roped cavernous corridors with the kind of deftness which in itself is a British national treasure: top notch Event Management. Surely the TV series “Behind the the scenes at Investitures” is not far off?
THE COURTESY OF THE CURTSY
In an ante-room the marvellously imposing, jovial but deeply forbiddingly title Comptroller, Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Andrew Ford, KCVO brought us together to run through the order of play. It has a comic feel: Here was a six foot gentleman in lots of yellow braid and iron bits sticking out of the back of his shoes showing us how to walk, wait, bow or curtsy (basically a little knee bend which is OK going forwards but rather wobbly in reverse). He relaxed us and made soft jokes and we tittered, but we also paid the kind of attention you would to John Cleese if he stared hard at you.
Then you are nearly on. The lapel pin they have pinned on you is checked by the side of the door looking out on to the room full of guests. A little tin marked ‘Anne’s spare pins’ is there whilst someone only called Melissa checks you are ready and as the person in front is presented, you step forward to a midway point in the room, feeling about as exposed and tense as it is possible to feel.
I remember once sitting on the floor at Assembly in primary school where I wasn’t the most popular and I wasn’t the most clever and I wasn’t the most comfortable and I heard my name called out in a raffle and had to get up and collect a beautiful bowl which sat on our kitchen table for the next thirty years.
That moment came back to me today as I pushed myself forward, did the pivot and curtsy Sir Andrew Ford had taught us, and came to collect my award. My modern day raffle bowl. The convention is that they have a little chat with you as they pin the medal on and then when you see their handshake, it is your cue to go. Speaking into someone’s face while looking for their hand at the same time is like rubbing you head and patting your stomach. I had what I can only describe as a nice little chat with Prince Charles, and then I backed away, bobbed, and walk offstage feeling like I had run a marathon.
“Oh Congratulations” said a jolly uniformed person. And took my medal, unpinned it, and put it in the box where it will stay, a part of my Britishness, my culture, my identity – whatever that means.