Get away from me with your puny gongs

Satie remarked that `M Ravel has refused the Legion d'honneur, but all his works accept it'
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The Independent Culture
I LOVE the New Year's Honours list, and can happily spend hours poring over the small print. It's pleasant to imagine the pleasure given by these harmless awards. Civil servants who never got quite as far as they might have hoped being consoled by a pre-retirement CBE; ladies who have spent their lives in unhistoric acts and unspectacular goodness opening an envelope and finding that someone, anyway, has noticed their patient attendance on the committee at the hospice.

An end-of-term prize-giving; My Bloody Efforts for the boxers and the lollipop ladies, Other Buggers' Efforts for supervisors at the Inland Revenue; up to diplomats, retiring with a Call Me God, a Kindly Call Me God, or - for the very grand - God Calls Me God.

The honours list is a useful sort of incentive for the state to keep up its sleeve, encouraging people by the dream of eventual recognition. It used to be the Whips' secret weapon in heading off a backbenchers' rebellion - God knows what threats they have to use these days now that MPs don't get knighthoods and they've done away with the little black book of backbench indiscretions.

And civil servants put up with relatively low levels of pay in exchange for two things: the near-certainty that they are safe from the threat of downsizing, and the hope of the eventual KCB which, when retirement comes, will allow the new Lady Buggins to make a perfect ass of herself around the village.

All the same, the recipients of honours fall into two categories: those who would kill for another one, and those who frankly wouldn't really know what to do with one. The most conspicuous example of the latter sort of honour this year was the thoroughly well-deserved but somewhat curious award of a damehood to the Duchess of Devonshire. Universally beloved and admirable as she is, one can't help wondering what on earth she is going to do with it, or how exactly she is supposed to be addressed now - Duchess Dame Deborah, perhaps.

The existence of a category of people who wouldn't know what to do with a state honour explains, perhaps, why writers never make much of a showing in the honours lists. It's quite striking that, though writers are at the forefront of our national consciousness, and present one of the most conspicuous faces of Britain to the outside world, they are very rarely accorded any kind of recognition by the state in the honours lists. Peerages are generally given, not for literary excellence, but, as in the case of P D James and Ruth Rendell, for devoted public service; knighthoods and damehoods are rarely given, and always with an air of an exception being made.

Writers don't get state honours, which, considering that, alone among the arts, they make no demands on the public purse and generate a consistently healthy slice of the economy, might be viewed as rather odd. Painters and sculptors do pretty well; actors, conductors and singers, it seems, need only carry on long enough to pick up a K. But only the very grandest and oldest novelists get anything at all. If Sir Simon Rattle, why not Sir Martin Amis? If Dame Felicity Lott, why not Dame Victoria Glendinning?

The very idea seems absurd, and I think rightly so. I'm not arguing for more recognition for writers, rather the reverse. Paul Theroux's new book about his friendship with V S Naipaul spends a great deal of space on Naipaul's change of mind. According to Theroux, Naipaul in youth argued, rightly, against the idea of a writer accepting the state's honours, only to take a knighthood when it was offered. There is something wrong about the idea of Sir Vidia Naipaul, and I can't be alone in thinking that the author of The Enigma of Arrival is not augmented by the possession of a KCB.

It is demeaning on even the best of novelists to accept a bauble like this; the merits of the work, in the end, are going to have to be enough, and ought always to be enough.

Satie is said to have remarked bitchily of Ravel that "M.Ravel has refused the Legion d'honneur; but all his works accept it." How much worse to accept an honour, to be seen as the sort of writer that the government admires and respects; it is almost as deplorable as the award of knighthoods to the editors of newspapers, an honour which can only diminish the recipient. There are certainly writers who are universally known to be touting for knighthoods, but they are not writers worthy of anyone's respect, and, if their surreptitious campaigns ever succeeded, it is not likely that the ridicule would cease.

It would really be more sensible if a firm convention arose that writers fell outside the range of the honours system. The award of gongs, all in all, should be seen as what it is, a series of consolation prizes.

If you work in the civil service for not much money and no recognition, you might be glad of the K. Similarly, the preponderance of the performing arts in the lists, the readiness to reward sportsmen ought to be seen less as an attempt to court popularity and more of a consolation for the undeniable fact that they will soon be completely forgotten. Hardly anyone remembers actors, or footballers, or sopranos after their retirement; let them have a cheap bit of recognition for their mantelpieces.

Writers shouldn't need a consolation prize; their work will be remembered, or forgotten, regardless of a piece of tinsel. Did Blake deserve a knighthood? Could the Government of the day have given Dickens, or George Eliot, or Waugh anything which might begin to recognise what they had done? Should it even have tried?