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‘Knighthood? No thanks, Ma'am’: why royal recognition for writing is not always an honour

Alan Bennett felt that accepting a knighthood ‘would be like wearing a suit every day of your life’.
Something of the knight … Alan Bennett felt that accepting a knighthood ‘would be like wearing a suit every day of your life’. Photograph: Jane Bown for the Observer

Should writers accept gongs from the Queen? Michael Morpurgo, who did so in the new year’s honours, whimsically told Radio 4’s Today programme that he felt as if he were joining King Arthur’s round table and was thinking of changing his name to Lancelot. He added that it would help him to support causes, including refugees.

Honours are, of course, awarded in recognition of significant achievement or service and there can be no cosier embrace from the establishment. So when an author kneels down in front of the Queen and receives a royal pat on the shoulder, have they compromised their independence? “Have I become soft or become corrupt?” Richard Eyre wrote in his diary in 1997 when tussling with the dilemma of whether to accept a knighthood. Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Salman Rushdie have not stopped speaking out since they accepted theirs, but many authors have turned down honours – some out of republican principle, others because they were holding out for a higher award. They include: Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Graham Greene, JB Priestley, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Leonard Woolf, Seán O’Casey and Evelyn Waugh.

WB Yeats, who rejected a knighthood, told a friend: “I do not wish anyone to say of me, ‘Only for a ribbon he left us.’” Bennett felt that accepting one “would be like wearing a suit every day of your life”. Doris Lessing, who declined an OBE and a DBE but ultimately agreed to be Companion of Honour, said it was “all a bit like a pantomime”. But perhaps the most eloquent refusenik was JG Ballard, a republican, who turned down a CBE in 2003. He poured scorn on “all that bowing and scraping and mummery at the palace”. Ballard saw the honours as part of “the whole system of hereditary privilege and rank, which should be swept away”. He hoped ambitiously that his refusal alongside other illustrious figures might help to bring down the edifice – of honours, if not perhaps everything else that is wrong with society.

This article titled "‘Knighthood? No thanks, Ma'am’: why royal recognition for writing is not always an honour" was written by Jo Glanville, for The Guardian on Friday 5 January 2018 09.00am

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