Richard Worth 1st January 2019
Somehow, we made it to 2019, and same as every year the Queen is set to acknowledge the best and brightest of the Commonwealth with the New Year’s Honours list.
No offence to anyone who gets a shiny little medal for doing so well (okay, a little offence) but it is a little like being a prefect at school. Yes, the teachers like you, but it’s very, very uncool and you are a dork and you have to live with that. Plus it’s a little like an award for participation, which apparently has ruined this generation. With that in mind, here are some anti-authoritarians who are — or were — the best in their fields, who gave two fingers to the honours system.
The class clowns
Comedy is inherently anti-authority and a comedian with an honour is just wrong, like a scouse Tory or those strawberry ones in a box of Roses. They’re disgusting and if you like them you are a monster.
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders turned down OBEs on the grounds that they didn’t think they deserved them. That’s kind of crazy considering their contribution to comedy, but Saunders said that making people laugh was too much fun and not comparable to the charitable work that other candidates had done.
Arguably the most successful solo Python — but not the sexiest, hello Michael Palin — John Cleese is at his best playing contemptible figures of authority and making them look uptight, archaic and stupid. Which is probably why he thought the idea of accepting a CBE was silly, and that a peerage would be unbearable because of the UK’s shitty weather.
But the best refusal from a comedian comes from Kenneth Williams in 1969. Williams, who made his name on Round The Horne in the hyper-camp Julian and Sandy sketches, said: “When offered something which obviously isn’t worth the price… we still have the right to say ‘No thanks’.” It’s not funny but it is brutal.
We wouldn’t want to speak for Williams but it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Britain’s sexuality laws — being gay was illegal up to 1967 and even then people weren’t thrilled about it — might have played a role in his decision.
The art freaks
The comedians might compromise their laughs (and morals) if people have to call them sir. But the arty kids can really get philosophical and stubborn about remaining on the outside of the system.
Artist and Lancastrian, LS Lowry, best known for his miserable, yet entirely accurate depictions of crap northern towns, holds the record for most honours turned down. Ghosting the Queen five times. Player gotta play. While fellow miserabilist, director, Ken Loach said: “I turned down the OBE because it’s not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it.”
Glasgow School of Art alum, Oscar-winning director, timelord and excellent swearer, Peter Capaldi trailed off when offering up why he turned down an honour (“Well, I don’t know that that’s the proper…”) but let’s face it, the guy has fought enough alien reptiles in his time to know a trap when he sees one.
David Bowie didn’t do to badly, and turned down three honours saying, or probably languidly singing, that he didn’t see the point and if Mick Jagger — his rockstar buddy and apocryphal one-time lover — accepted one then that was up to him. Turning down three honours seems impressive but it was split across several personas. Having said that, one of them was the Thin White Duke, an emotionless, Germanic fascist and you’d think a tip from the Royal Family would have been right up his street.
Musicians who aren’t Bowie
Butter salesman and former punk John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon may have utterly sold out but he didn’t accept an MBE so he gets points for at least being semi-consistent. Paul Weller turned one down too.
Still, Bowie eh? How cool is that?
The clever clogs
Everyone points out that Stephen Hawking didn’t accept a Knighthood but he did accept a CBE, so while he is one of the best people to have lived — think about telling your grandchildren that you were alive at the same times as Hawking, it would be like saying you knew Turing or Newton — he doesn’t qualify for our list.
Mars enthusiast HG Wells apparently turned down an OM and Brave New World author and drugs fan Aldous Huxley turned down Knighthoods. Everyone’s favourite sad, sapphic writer Virginia Woolf said: “Nothing would induce me to connive at all that humbug,” while socialist playwright JG Ballard called the honours system “a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up the top-heavy monarchy”. Get fucking told.
Alan Bennett turned down two honours and probably had a long and winding explanation as to why, and CS Lewis rejected his because he thought accepting one would get him tied up in politics. But the most damning statement has to be Benjamin Zephaniah‘s. “I get angry when I hear the word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
The popular kids
A bunch of TV and movie stars didn’t fancy kneeling in front of an elderly woman waving a sword either. Jon Snow — the news reader not the fantasy bastard — rejected his after he investigated the entire honours system and found it to be less than honourable.
Nigella Lawson wasn’t up for it either. Probably more interested in baking Black Forest gateau in the middle of the night in just her negligee.
Lovely old Jim Broadbent rejected his because he is a very nice man. So was Alan Rickman, though he probably rejected his in a terrifying way and, let’s be honest, he doesn’t deserve one after what he did to Emma Thomson in Love Actually.
Roald Dahl is an interesting and confusing man. He wrote loads of great books and taught thousands of kids that adults are untrustworthy contemptible individuals (yay) but also thought that beards were evil (nay). He fought the Nazi as a pilot in World War II (yay) but was troublingly antisemitic (what the fuck?).
Dahl turned down an OBE (good so far) because he instead wanted a knighthood. But, apparently, he wanted the knighthood for his wife, so that she could have the privilege of becoming Lady Dahl. Which is romantic. I think. The antisemitism thing has really thrown me.
And a dishonourable mention has to go to John Lennon. Again, a talented but problematic guy, Lennon, along with the rest of the Beatles was given an MBE in 1965 — but Lennon sent his back in 1969 writing: “I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”
It’s a little too after the fact to be a baller move but it’s better late than never.
Richard Worth 1st January 2019