John Walsh: The 24 OMs who show that even in Britain there's a place for meritocracy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's something about the word "honour" that provokes dishonourably furious responses. In France, they're currently enragé because the Legion d'Honneur has been given to Selma Hayek. The Mexican-born actress is best known for her not-unerotic snake dance in the film From Dusk Till Dawn, during which she pours tequila down her leg and into the mouth of Quentin Tarantino, but the French government claim to have given the award for her work as "director, producer and active member of charitable foundations for 23 years".

Carping malcontents have pointed out that Selma's husband, François-Henri Pinault, is a billionaire businessman friend of President Sarkozy, who has final say about who receives France's supreme nod of approval. "What services," demands a scornful letter in Le Figaro, "has Selma Hayek rendered to France?" "Why not give an honour to Tintin?" asked another.

Don't ask is the best response. Why did Harold Wilson give Lord Kagan, the Gannex raincoat manufacturer and tax evader, a life peerage in 1976? Does Gerald Ronson deserve a place in the New Year Honours list for his charity work, despite being jailed in 1990 for conspiracy, false accounting and theft? Just don't ask, or you'll start to suspect everyone in the British and French governments and civil services of bribery, corruption and cronyism, and feel that the whole system falls short of the idealism that once prompted their awarding.

There's something about the Order of Merit, however, that seems admirable by comparison. The highest honour that can be given to a British citizen, it's in the gift of the Queen. No civil service murmurings, no Privy Council recommendations, just the personal choice of Her Maj. I like the way there must always be 24 OMs – a kind of alternative Cabinet, changed only by death – drawn from the fields of arts, sciences and "learning" rather than the shabby ranks of the newly philanthropic. I like the way there's no title involved.

David Hockney, newly admitted to the OM club, refused a knighthood some years ago; the deceased OM he replaces, Lucian Freud, also turned one down. Both recognised the difference between an honour that puts you on the same level as (say) Sir Mark Thatcher, and one that admits you to a brilliant club, where you get to sit between Tom Stoppard and Tim Berners-Lee, and across from Betty Boothroyd and David Attenborough and have these seraphic figures include you in the conversation as if you're sitting in one of those paintings generically called sacra conversazione, in which the Virgin Mary and her baby have an elevated chat (unheard by mortals) with assorted saints.

There's one more thing. The Legion d'Honneur was created by Napoleon in 1802, as an attempt to replace France's nobility with a republican meritocracy. The British OM gang also represent a republican meritocracy, an aristos of intelligence – but one still presided over by the Queen, with honorary seats for her husband and eldest son. It's a wonderfully British compromise.

Nice work, Lily. I do like an Ethel

So Lily Allen has called her new baby Ethel – a late-Victorian name which flourished as a nod to Ethel Barrymore, the gorgeous young actress, and to Ethel Charles, who was Britain's first woman architect, an inspirational figure. It's been out of fashion for half a century, because of the popularity of a 1950s radio show called The Glums, in which "Eth" was the name of an unusually dim fiancée. But good for Lily (the proud owner of a late-Victorian flower name, part of a 1980s fashion that produced a slew of Daisys, Poppys, Heathers and Rosies, even though, in Victorian times they tended to be the names of junior cooks and parlourmaids). I hope this retro trend continues.

There's something strangely four-square and don't-mess-with-me about the old names that's particularly appealing when applied to a baby.