Traditionally, if you are about to receive an Honour from Her Majesty The Queen you get a telephone call, to ask if you will accept the honour (and advising you to tell no-one that you are to receive it, until officially announced by Buckingham Palace: it’s very bad form to leak). The telephone call is supposed to start with the magic formulaic words ‘Her Majesty has been graciously pleased…[to make you a Knight etc].
So, congratulations today for those people honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Inter alia, two names particularly caught my eye. Our Ambassador to Moscow, Anthony Brenton has been made a Knight (and, upon his investiture, will become Sir Anthony Brenton).
Although, two – wonderfully British – caveats here. One today isn’t actually, of course, the Queen’s real birthday; but the Official birthday. (a) it’s a nicer time of year for Trooping the Colour, the ceremonial celebration of the Monarch’s birthday and (b)…well…it’s convenient to have a second Honours’ List half way through the year: convenient for the Government that is. The Queen, of course, doesn’t choose who goes on the List – the Government which serves in her name does that.* [slightly rambling footnote @ bottom of post - Exile]
Mine is not a country short of honorific tags: that what 1,000 years of monarchy gets you. Brenton (you’re not supposed to call him Sir until he actually gets dubbed, until then he is still plain Mister, albeit HE) will be Knighted in the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael & St George. Traditionally, that’s the Order for diplomatic or other overseas (civilian) service to the Crown. Brenton is already a Companion in that Order (and has the letters CMG after his name); now he gets his ‘K’ – his Knighthood – and the letters after his name become KCMG.
In London establishment circles – which always like to laugh at the FCO – there is a little joke about the Order of St Michael & St George:
CMG = Call Me God
KCMG = Kindly Call Me God
GCMG – that’s terribly grand and the highest level of the order – God Calls Me God
Oh…the little things we Brits laugh at…
In the old days, Ambassadors were usually knighted either at the start of their stint (very grand postings) or at the end: the ‘rules’ are much more fluid now. I think it would be a very nerdy thing to be an Embassy-watcher – so I shan’t admit to it – but I wonder whether Brenton’s ‘K’ isn’t a sign he’s about to go.
Of course, this year he has had to put up with a lot: - those asswipes Nashi harassing him wherever he goes, for instance – but, let’s face it, Britain’s relationship with Russia, politically, hasn’t been this bad since Brezhnev. Actually, it might have almost been better then… Not a huge success for Brenton then (albeit probably bugger all he could have done about it). Orthodoxy says he should stay in his post at least another year (‘safe pair of hands Old Boy while the new PM settles in….see us through the Russkies' changing of the Kremlin guard and all that…'). I wonder if the FCO shares my view and thinks – lovely bloke that he is (ditto his wife, Susan, who is utterly charming and a rock) – it might be better to start afresh. 'New PM in London, new Ambassador – fresh start Old Chap…' You see there is nothing so Foreign Office as to make a chap a Knight before pushing him out to retirement.
If you’re still hanging in there with me on this post, you’ll recall I said that two names caught my eye. The other was Oleg Gordievsky. He’s been made a CMG! Astonishing! (a) It is bad form, IMHO, ever to give Honours to traitors, however much we’ve been grateful for their treachery. He betrayed his country so, res ipsa loquitur, he is not an honourable bloke and we shouldn’t honour him. Sorry old thing and all that. (b) Given the current state of Russo-British relations, isn’t this just sticking one finger up at VVP?
I know Blair is pissed off with President Putin, but I wonder if this honour for Gordievsky doesn’t mean Her Majesty hasn’t been put in the position of being graciously pleased to tell VVP: ‘Up Yours Volodya!’
* Big Exception to Rule. There are five Honours – since you ask, you didn’t? Oh well... – which are not the choice of the Government but the personal gift of the Sovereign:
o The Knights Garter – hugely grand, only 24 living at any one time
o The Knights Thistle – seems slightly Da Vinci Code I know – the 16 Knights Garter for Scotland, as it were
o The Order of Merit – think “Stalin personally wanted to make me a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union”-equivalent
o The Royal Victorian Order – gift for loyal palace servants, grand and not-so-grand
o Royal Victorian Chain – I know, sounds like something with which to flush the royal loo, but actually it's wildly über-grand: usually the Monarch’s quietly-dignified way of saying ‘thank you for being my friend’
Interestingly, I suspect aristo-chattering class London will be more interested in the Knight Grand Cross given to Sir Robin Janvrin; currently the Queen’s Private Secretary. Already a Knight of the Order of the Bath – very grand order this, technically fourth in the British Orders of Chivalry - he would I think have got it anyway in the New Year’s Honours List (he retires in September).
It’s the timing you see. In the strangely moving and rather good film, The Queen,
he is portrayed (no fault of the actor this, who is a fine English character actor) as something of an unctuous toady. People who know Robin Janvrin thought that characterization of him terribly unfair. And clearly so did HM. To get his ‘G’ right now (so having the letters GCB after his name, or God Calls Back) sends a subtle message, clearly understood, across all the right breakfast tables in town and country.
Odd. When I was a teenager I desperately wanted to be a diplomat and – slightly scary really – imagined myself, forty-something swishing around with my ‘K’, as Ambassador somewhere in a glamorous ‘hardship posting’ like….oh… El Salvador or Suharto-era Jakarta. Very Saigon, Year of the Cat etc. At Cambridge I came to realise that I was not the type. That, and the realization I was just not fiercely bright-enough ever to be a QC (so why bother with law at all, I concluded) were two of the three biggest disappointments of my life (the third, when I was at drama school – don’t ask, I did later go to a real school too – was being told “you don’t have the face to be Hamlet, but don’t worry sweetheart, one day you’ll grow into a marvelous Polonius. You have a character actor’s face!" I was fourteen).
Why did that thought crop into my head? Silly. Ended. Anyway, this afternoon I shall write a couple of congratulatory notes to a couple of other people I know on today’s list…funny old world.