The OBE ritual...the recipient's view
Regular blog-readers will know that I was awarded an OBE at the new year; they will also know of the dilemmas faced and conquered. (Since then I have come across Alan Bennett's discussion of his own dilemmas in "Arise Sir..." that you can find in Untold Stories: Bennett made a different decision, and at a rather higher level, from me <ie "No Thanks"> -- but the issues he talks about are much the same, and he's no less ambivalent.)
But this blog is about the story of what happened today, when I went to be presented with the medal itself. It's the inside story of my trip to the palace.
The instructions said we were to arrive between 10 and 10.15. Despite Beard's over-vaunted Republican tendencies, she was very concerned not to be late. So I got a stupidly early train and met the daughter at Kings Cross at 8.45 and reached the palace just after 9.00 -- feeling a bit embarrassed about our promptitude. We needn't have worried. There were already a good few people in their glad rags waiting by the appropriate gate (as you can see on the right), so we disappeared round the corner to bring "the hat" out of the plastic bag <yes, I had chickened out of wearing it in the Victoria Line> and afix it to the head.
When we got back from this little enterprise, there were a lot more people assembled, and the son and our S Sudanese friend Samuel had arrived. (The husband, in case you are wondering, is in Greece.)
Despite the claims that there would be no entrance till 10.00, in fact the gates opened by 9.45. and we did the security checks, traipsed across the big courtyard, and got to the main entrance with its lovely toytown soldiers, where we left our cameras and phones in the cloakroom (the palace is not stupid and knows that any smartphone could mean a bootleg video). After the loo break ( a truly wonderful ladies loo with <repro?> Edwardian wooden seats and pull up handles), the recipients were separated from their guests: recipients to the right, guests straight on to their watching seats.
We recipients, of my rank at least (the upper echelons were elsewhere), were gathered together in the picture gallery -- past the wonderful portraits of Victorian and Albert as Romans, and a frankly not very good sculptural version of Nydia, the blind girl from the Last Days of Pompeii. What followed was a rather endearing version of an upmarket school speech day, with a lot more staff being extremely nice to all us recipients ("congratulations" was the word spoken by almost everyone you met) -- combined with a dash of Ruritanian monarchical ritual. (If you want a more analytic version of this, try Edmund Leach's essay "Once a knight...", in the collection, The Essential Edmund Leach.)
Once in the picture gallery, I spotted a tv screen in the corner, showing Prince Charles presenting gongs to line up of people. My first reaction was that this was all a cleverly choreographed conveyor operation, that some people had been asked to show up at 9. 00 am, and they were already going through the system (rather like the crematorium principle, one service is finishing when you show up for yours). When I looked closer, however, it said that this was a video from an earlier investiture. It was, in fact, quite useful, as it only took two or three minutes of this to see how some things worked. In particular, when you had your chat with the royal, he (or she) made it very clear when the chat was over: the royal hand came out for the shake and off you went. No need to worry about blabbing on too long.
As I was watching this on my own, a nice lady came up to talk ... and she explained that she had got an award because she had Alzheimers and went round to talk to groups about what that was like. She was immensely good value and was quickly followed by more women (it being a somewhat blokeish group, and we ladies did congregate), including Linda Woodhead from the University of Lancaster, Muriel Robinson from Bishop Grosseteste University, and Eileen Bleasdale, a headteacher from Laneshaw Bridge (one of whose ex pupils is due for Cambridge Classics next year, all being well). And this educational huddle was soon joined by Jonathan Godfrey, who is now head of Hereford Sixth Form College, but whom I had first met in my first job, when I went to talk about 30 years ago to the classicists at Henley Sixth Form College.
By 10.45 we had our marching orders from an extremely practised courtier, with great style and friendliness (if slightly de haut en bas); we were told how and when to bow or curtsey (aaggh yes) and lined up in groups to get our gongs (we had already had a hook pinned on to make it easier for Prince Charles to afix the medal). At this point (after a great reconnection with Anna Watkins.. Newnham and Olympic rower) I fell in the military men who were due on just before me, and in ten minutes learnt more than I had ever known before about the coding of service uniforms (thank you esp. Adrian Bettridge for the lesson)... and even more amazing it turned out that one of the Palace staff, minding the queue, had been at the Leicester Square Theatre for the gig I did with Richard Herring the other week.
After that things went rather speedily. In our little encounter, Charles (well briefed I assume) mentioned my Pompeii documentary, and so I shamelessly trailed with him the up-coming Caligula documentary (in which I pointed out his Mum's corgis have a cameo role.. or are at least mentioned!). Then it was to the back of the hall, to wait until everyone else had got their medal. To be honest, it did feel quite a long time, and was accompanied throughout by a military band playing pop classics (but I did enjoy a bit of a gossip in intervals with my neighbour).
Overall verdict? Well, for kindly ritual, you couldn't really fault it. The Ruritanian bits (Gurkhas and Beefeaters, etc) were a bit hard to take entirely seriously, but every member of the staff was utterly charming, and there was a kind of buzz being thrown together with a load of other people whom you would never otherwise have met and who were all prepared to join in the fun -- just like you were.
What I will do with the damn medal (with the rather prominent inscription "For God and the Empire"), heaven knows. Lose it, I guess.