A disappointing honours list: Why didn't anyone tell the Government where to stick it?

It's possible that some did reject their OBE, MBE, knighthoods, and so on, but have allowed their decision to be hidden under the honour system's notorious veil of secrecy
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The Independent Online

Disappointing honours list this year, don't you think? Not because James Corden is on it, although he did stink up telly's twee Esio Trot adaptation like a sweaty Roquefort quiche at the village bake sale. The list was disappointing because it appears that none of the honoured were honourable enough to tell the Government where to stick it.

In contrast with previous years, no one in the UK has publicly declined their honour, so it was left to a Frenchman, Thomas Piketty, the economist and best-selling author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to expose the hollow sham. He turned down the French equivalent, the Légion d'honneur, saying, "I don't believe it's the role of the government to decide who is honourable."

It's possible that some did reject their OBE, MBE, knighthoods, and so on, but have allowed their decision to be hidden under the honour system's notorious veil of secrecy. Traditionally, candidates are sounded out weeks in advance of the announcement and it's relatively rare for them to embarrass the Cabinet Office by going public. With every new list of leaked names, however, this practice seems less like mannerly discretion and more like pointless deference. Since 2012, when the Government was forced by a freedom of information request to reveal a list of rejections between 1950 and 1999, we know of at least 287 instances of declined honours. We also know what great company anybody who turns down or returns their honour is in: Roald Dahl, L  S Lowry, John Lennon, Nigella Lawson, David Bowie, Philip Larkin and Graham Greene have all said, thanks but no thanks.

The mistake is to think of an OBE or a knighthood as some kind of gift. Gifts ought to be received with gratitude and humility, but an honour of the British Empire, much like an honour killing, doesn't confer much honour on its recipient. Awards of any kind are much more useful to those who give them out: they neutralise the threat of establishment outsiders, by inviting them to take off their coat, come inside and warm themselves by the fire. For an artist or campaigner, therefore, accepting an honour is tantamount to declaring your early retirement. As Francis Bacon supposedly said after turning down his, OBEs are "so ageing".

But never mind the principles, just think of the numbers. They gave out 1,164 of the blighters on the New Year's list, 2,344 last year and in June there'll be another batch to mark the Queen's birthday. These days, the honours system is not only too bogus to seduce the principled, but too common to impress the snobs and too arbitrary to flatter the egotists. So what is it good for? A nice brooch to jazz up an old cardigan, perhaps?

Battle weary

Here's the bad news, followed by more bad news: if you don't develop some form of cancer during your lifetime (one in three do), it's very likely that someone you know and love will. No wonder we've invented such effective ways to live under the terrifying shadow of the disease and yet never actually give it much thought.

Last week, however, the comforting cancer clichés were challenged on two fronts. First, Richard Smith, a leading doctor and former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a piece in which he contended that the Big C is actually the best way to die, as it allows time "to reflect on your life" and urged charities to "stop wasting billions" on finding a cure. Then, a day later, US researchers released study findings which show that most cancers develop not as a result of lifestyle factors or genetics, but are "just bad luck".

Cancer Research UK called Smith's article "nihilistic", while health campaigners have been busily counteracting the "unhelpful" inference from the US study – that is, smoke, drink, sunbed and be merry, because we've all got to die of something.

Still, both these new insights are useful in so far as they challenge the conventional view that cancer is a battle to be fought and that only the insufficiently spirited give in. Those battle metaphors, even when intended as encouragement, can lead to feelings of failure and guilt among patients. That, I think we can all agree, really is unhelpful.

True Brits?

Everyone has gone to Barbados for a "winter sun break", dear reader, and you and I are the only ones left behind to water the plants. I know this because it's a January tabloid tradition to fill the papers with carefully staged, faux-pap pictures of celebrities sunning themselves by infinity pools, strolling hand in hand on pristine white sands, showing off their bronzed baby bumps and so on and so forth.

You can almost forgive the slebs. After all, rubbing their superior lifestyles in the faces of us peasants is an important part of the job description. What is intolerable, though, is how social media has allowed our non-famous friends and acquaintances to follow suit, sharing their holiday snaps in real time. "Share" is such a caring verb to describe such an aggressively obnoxious act.

It's not right. Enduring the freezing drizzle is part of the deal that every Briton signed up for, so swanning off to the Caribbean as soon as the clouds roll in should be considered a treasonous act, akin to tax avoidance or using American spellings. At the very least, these returning winter sun-seekers ought to be detained at Heathrow for a few hours and required to sit a citizenship test before being granted re-entry.

Sober reflections

Alcohol is our social lubricant and so the prospect of going teetotal, for "Dry January" or longer, can be lonely and daunting. Or so I assumed until, due to unforeseen circumstance, I found myself sober as a judge at midnight on New Year's Eve and quickly realised I wasn't the only one. When you're not drinking you stand in solidarity with an eclectic assortment of self-acknowledged lightweights, pregnant women, people on medication, professional athletes, people who have to work the next day, and others who've invested too much in their careers to be laid low by a hangover. About 15 per cent of UK adults drink rarely or never and you don't hear them whingeing about it, do you? Then again, very little can be heard over the din of drunk people repeating themselves. That's another one of those things you notice when you're sober.