The Gong Show
A couple of days ago I had a mild go at the British Honours system.
I'm not a rabid republican, but I do feel that the monarchy is an outmoded institution and that its various offshoots should be less remote from the populace. They are a clan cult of celebrity with little relevance, a class apart from the lives of we lesser mortals. (One might say the same thing about most politicians in this country who enrich themselves at our expense whilst doing bugger all.)The Independent newspaper has always opposed the British honours system. Efforts by the present Prime Minister to open up the nomination process have had little effect, and towards the top end of the scale no perceptible effect at all. The system remains one of mutual backslapping, where the great and the good patronise their own and senior civil servants are rewarded just for having attained a particular grade. It is a pernicious anachronism that has defied modernisation and should have been abolished long ago.
It is only right and proper that various worthy citizens should be recognised for their contributions to society, rather than, as I wrote earlier, for doing what they are paid to do. Although we may question choices, they are 'vetted' by juries of their peers in particular fields of endeavour. Eight committees make recommendations to a main committee which sifts, sort and vets before making recommendations to the Prime Minister. He then informs good Queen Bess in whose name, as the notional head of a non-existent empire, these awards are given.
Twice a year, New Year and the Queen's (official) Birthday in June, the names are announced, the press goes gaga over certain choices and thousands of 'ordinary' citizens quietly celebrate with their families that their honest toils have been recognised as being of societal benefit.
Naturally, the arts and sports awards receive the greatest publicity. Some honorees, such as Dames Judi Dench
and Maggie Smith
are really the 'Best of British'. Others, such as singer Joe Cocker
who was awarded an OBE last week, leave one asking why him rather than, say, her. (I'm a big fan of Joe, incidentally, but that's an anecdote for another time.)
Twenty or so years ago, I spent three months in Ladakh, Kashmir and Rajastan in north-west India. One of the books I travelled with was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children,
about children born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the precise moment of India's independence from Great Britain and Pakistan's formation.
It appears to be an allegory, spiced with satirical commentary, on the political course of modern India and the in-fighting of its various social and religious factions. It is an endlessly inventive book with a cheeky sense of humor and wild, exotic imagery, but it does not eschew somber moments.
I found the book of great value in helping to understand something about the land I was travelling through and its peoples; I also found the book to be dense and somewhat difficult to digest - definitely not a 'plane and train' read.
Some 18 years ago, his Satanic Verses
was published. This was purportedly an attack on Islam so fundamentalist Muslims, who, of course, hadn't had the opportunity (or the literacy) to read the book, issued a fatwa, a death threat against Rushdie. But, as he told Time magazine
, the book "isn't actually about Islam but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.
"The sad irony, he said,
"is that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I myself am a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it's about -- people who might find some pleasure and much recognition in its pages.
Inevitably, the book was banned here in Indonesia.
In 1989, Son no.1 and I travelled through Sulawesi and ended up for a night in Gorontalo. We met a retired doctor in a cafe and he invited us back to his house for breakfast. He told us that he had been sent to Sulawesi as a military man, part of a force intent on quelling a separatist movement. He had never, somewhat to his regret, been 'repatriated'. Amongst the other topics we discussed was Satanic Verses, which he said he wished he could read as he wanted to make up his own mind. I thought that was a brave statement to make in a Suhartoist and Muslim community.
Of course, he was right. That inflammatory statements are currently being made by Iranian and Pakistani envoys
about the award of a knighthood
to a novelist in another country, can only mean that there are severe problems within those countries and, whoopie, here's a tired old excuse to divert attention from them.
I cannot comment on the honour given to Rushdie; I don't have any of his books on my shelves and, as I said, I find his writing difficult to penetrate. Others are more able than I in assessing his contribution
The current controversy is as much about sovereignty as it is about culture. Britain professes to be a multi-cultural country. If it were to kowtow to ill-considered protests from other sovereign nations about someone deemed to have contributed to that multi-culturalism, then the world is much more dangerous for the rest of us.
Labels: bigotry, pluralism