It's an honour to be plain 'Mister'

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I got a call the other day on my Number Two phone, the one that only girlfriends and secret government departments know about.

I got a call the other day on my Number Two phone, the one that only girlfriends and secret government departments know about.

"Hello," said a voice. "This is a secret government department here - the one that gives out honours and titles."

"I am very much against the honours system," I said. "Whatever you are offering, I shall feel unable to accept."

"We're not offering you anything," he said.

Secretly I felt rather crushed at that.

"We know you are against the honours system," he said. "You said so in an article once."

"Oh, you mustn't believe anything I say in articles," I said.

"And so we think," he continued, ignoring me," that you will be ideal for a committee we are forming to deal with the problem of people who refuse titles."

"Look, I'm very busy..."

"It will be well paid..."

The next day I was round there, ready to start work.

"The problem is this," said the committee chairman, Lord Button. "Many people are against the honours system so they turn down the offer of an honour. However, they would also like it to be known that they have been made the offer. This is tricky. Our mission is to devise a title which can be given to people who have refused honours, as a signal that they were actually offered one."

There was a pause at this paradoxical notion.

"I know what you're thinking," said Lord Button. "You're thinking that it's a paradoxical notion. Giving a title to someone as a reward for refusing a title. But if we could come up with a non-title which fitted the bill..."

"May I ask a question?" I said. "How come you have a title? Being called Lord Button disqualifies you from chairing this committee, surely?"

"Oh, I have never been offered a title in my life," said Lord Button. "I inherited this from my father. Merit had nothing to do with it."

"Perhaps that was a fatal flaw in the peerage from the start," said a bossy, hard-eyed woman, the sort you see on programmes like Any Questions and Question Time but never in real life. "The title 'Lord' is used indiscriminately for life peers, who have deserved it, and layabouts like you, who have only taken the trouble to be born. Why are you both called Lord?"

"I quite agree," said Lord Button, "but that doesn't help us think up a new title for someone who has refused a title."

"How about Squire?" said someone.

"How about Mate?" said someone else.

"How about Comrade?"

"How about 'Mr'?" I said.

They all looked at me.

"We are all called Mister already," said a man with a beard. "Except for Lord Button, of course. And all women. But most men are Mister already."

"I didn't say Mister," I said. "I said 'Mister' with quotation marks round it."

"Is that any different?"

"Of course," I said. "The intonation makes all the difference. Listen to this. 'Mr' Humphrey Lyttelton."

"Even so," said Beardy, "everyone is entitled to call himself 'Mister' already!"

"You're wrong," I said. "You're oh-so-wrong. Jeffrey Archer is not entitled to call himself 'Mister'. Once he has accepted a peerage, he can never be Mister again. He is doomed to be called Lord, until his title is stripped from him, at which point he would have to go back to the ranks of the Misters."

"But we don't want him back!" said Beardy. "I think I speak for Misters everywhere when I say that the status of Mister would be demeaned if it were conferred on Jeffrey Archer! Keep Jeffrey a lord, I say, and protect the good name of Mister!"

I warmed towards Beardy.

"This is tricky," said Lord Button. "If I catch your drift, we now also have to think of a title to give to people who have been stripped of their previous title. Hmmm... Anyone for a drink?"

If there is ever any sign of progress, I'll let you know how we get on.