Okay, so it’s 2017 at last; and rather than dwell on the most recent and sadly predictable terrorist atrocity on European soil (one I seem to recall I hinted might happen in the last post of 2016), let’s instead try to avoid beginning anew with the same old depressing developments. We can always opt for a lighter touch by taking a look at the perennial opener to the year that tends to receive disproportionate attention in that dead news week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Yes, come the New Year, come the New Year’s Honours List.
The familiar faces from the world of sport and entertainment have grabbed the headlines as per usual, including Knighthoods for Great British sporting heroes such as Andy Murray and Mo Farah (the immigrant it’s okay for Daily Mail readers to eat between meals without ruining their appetites), while Jessica Ennis-Hill becomes a Dame and other Olympians Jason and Laura Kenny are handed CBEs. Ken Dodd’s dalliance with the taxman a few years ago clearly hasn’t affected his standing, as he also garnered a Knighthood, as has renowned thespian Mark Rylance at the same time as good old Mrs Bouquet Patricia Routledge is elevated to a Dame. Actors lower down the scale like Naomie Harris and Helen McCrory received OBEs, as did Wales football manager Chris Coleman.
Kinks frontman Ray Davies was the most notable winner from Pop, being made a Sir; personally, I believe if Bob Dylan can be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Davies should have become Poet Laureate; but I’m sure he’ll gladly take the Knighthood. Ex-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham used to be a singer (allegedly), though her OBE is in the post for ‘services to the fashion industry’ rather than for the considerable achievement of staying married to her husband for almost twenty years.
We are informed over a thousand individuals were named in the Queen’s latest roll-call of winners (presumably dictated from Brenda’s sickbed), but the media is only interested in the stars, of course. The majority of New Year gongs are handed out to those whose achievements amount to improving the lives of people within their respective communities on a small scale, acts that nevertheless render this otherwise anachronistic system of honours still worthwhile. As David Cameron’s loathsome retirement honours list demonstrated, the tendency for cronyism when Her Majesty’s name isn’t attached makes that branch of the awards business especially despicable and deserving of abolition, though one wonders why celebrities who have already established a reputation within popular culture, and have also been made financially secure as a consequence, require additional recognition in the New Year.
The first official New Year’s Honours List appeared in January 1890 during the latter era of Queen Victoria’s reign, though these gongs were restricted to politicians, military men and colonial civil servants. Marie Lloyd, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley were notable by their absence. It took a long time before a popular household name who’d emerged from ‘humble origins’ without entering politics or treading the boards received a major honour of the kind that were routinely dished out to the ilk that constituted the inaugural New Year’s Honours List; one of the first ‘people’s choices’ was footballer Stanley Matthews, who was knighted whilst still a player in 1965 (even though he was approaching 50 at the time). He remains the only footballing Knight to take to the pitch.
Since the Wizard of the Wing was dubbed Sir Stanley, the showbiz aspect of the New Year’s Honours has come to almost act as a justification for the system’s continuation by the media, though many famous faces refused to accept their proposed nominations: David Bowie, Alan Bennett, Albert Finney, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Humphrey Lyttelton, Peter O’Toole, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, John Osborne and Ralph Vaughan Williams, to name just a few. Painter of matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs LS Lowry holds the record for turning down the most honours, with an impressive five rejections. Others, with John Lennon perhaps being the most well-known, have reluctantly accepted an honour only to later return it.
I suppose either accepting or rejecting an honour of this nature depends on issues such as one’s political standpoint, one’s opinion of such a seemingly archaic policy for recognising achievements, and possibly the company one might keep as a result of being made a Sir, a Dame or a Member of the British Empire. However, I’m sure there are plenty of lollipop ladies this week who are overjoyed at being given an award with so much history attached to it, so maybe we should in future reserve it for them. Otherwise, what’s the real point?
JOHN BERGER (1926-2017)
Back in the day when media Marxists were actually proud of their political beliefs instead of living in public denial, art critic, painter and novelist John Berger, whose death at the age of 90 was announced yesterday, wore his chic radicalism with pride, famously donating half of the proceeds from his Booker Prize in 1972 to the British wing of the Black Panther party. This characteristic gesture came the same year his seminal arts series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, aired on the BBC; a deliberate contrast with Kenneth Clark’s more universally-celebrated ‘Civilisation’, ‘Ways of Seeing’ was one of those occasional arts essays on television that invite viewers to see the familiar through a new pair of eyes, and succeeded thanks in part to the flamboyant panache of the presenter.
Berger was an intelligent and charismatic communicator as well as one of the first TV arts presenters to eschew the donnish approach of his headmasterly predecessor; whereas Clark came across as an old-school authority figure who one felt might hurl a blackboard rubber at the viewing public if they weren’t paying attention, Berger was the groovy polytechnic lecturer who preferred to sit amongst his class and address them by their Christian names. The book that accompanied ‘Ways of Seeing’ has outlived the contemporary popularity of the rarely-screened TV series by becoming a set text for art history, and though Berger went on to pen many more books, he never returned to television as the presenter of a regular series, which was television’s loss.
© The Editor