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Turning down the Queen’s honours

January 28, 2012

Philip Larkin, OBE decl. Benjamin Zephaniah, OBE decl.


Were you as chuffed as me to see Larkin on yesterday’s list (released under the Freedom of Information Act) of those who declined honours?  Poets include Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats, Robert Graves, AE Housman, Graham Green, and Benjamin Zephaniah.  A select list indeed!

According to Andrew Motion’s biography (p  383) Larkin didn’t turn down the OBE in 1968 because he was anti-royalist – he thought he deserved better! Over the following years he bantered with his “loaf haired secretary”, Betty Mackerath, about “anything from the palace?”, and in the 1975 birthday list a better offer, the CBE, came through. He went with Monica Jones to accept that in person.

He declined the Poet Laureateship in 1984 when Betjeman died, mainly because he couldn’t face the hassle and felt the muse had deserted him. In November 1985, Mrs Thatcher put him up for the big one, Companion of Honour. He accepted, but only by post; he was too ill to make the investiture and died a few days later.

Here’s what he wrote for a plaque celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1978.

In times when nothing stood
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one constant good:
she did not change.

Unfortunately he spoilt it for posterity by writing this unpublished verse around the same time.

After Healey’s trading figures,
After Wilson’s squalid crew,
And the rising tide of niggers-
What a treat to look at you.

Oh dear!  The best that can be said is he was a creature of his time.

But it adds spice to seeing Benjamin Zephaniah on the same list. He turned his OBE down in 2003. Here’s an extract from the poem he wrote at the time.

Bought and Sold

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It’s not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.

The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they’ve been told
They get their OBE’s.

Blimey! There’ll be sparks one day in poetic heaven!

Jim Thornton

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