Melanie McDonagh: Lord Sir Seb - just how many honours does a man need?

For a few, there's the exquisite pleasure of sending it back
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Contemplating the New Year Honours List, doesn't it look as though the advisory committee simply cut up all the entries in Who's Who, put them in a jar, shook vigorously, and then pulled out as many names as they needed? Sometimes it seems that in Britain you only have to live long enough and someone will nominate you for an honour for existing. The worthies who will be buying hats, hiring morning suits and trooping off to Buckingham Palace later this year include, as we all know, soon-to-be-Sir Tom Jones and the entire England cricket team - yes, the boys who turned up at Downing Street the day after their triumph palpably the worse for wear. It also includes the Royal Victorian Medal for the Queen's chief bricklayer at Windsor, the Duke of Edinburgh's former housemaid and the chief carpet planner at Buckingham Palace. How nice to think that the Queen will recognise some of the people in the queue.

It's a normal reflex to jeer at the honours list, and indeed, I am barely getting into my stride. But it always feels a bit mean-spirited. I mean, does it hurt any of us if Daniel Galvin gets an OBE for hairdressing or the Beverley Sisters become MBEs? It's nice for their mother, or their grandchildren, and if it nudges them up the bit of the social hierarchy they inhabit, why, it's a harmless sort of pleasure. As for Lord Coe: how many honours does a man need?

For a more select few, there's the even more exquisite pleasure of turning down an honour - or sending it back. You get both the kudos of warranting a CBE or whatever and the even greater self-regard that comes of thinking yourself above that sort of thing. It's said that Nigella Lawson refused an honour, but how nice that, if there's a popular outcry at her omission, she can murmur that she was indeed offered some worthless bauble. And yes, we all know we're all equal in the sight of God.

Personally, I would hanker only after the sort of honour that has some sort of medieval resonance - even an entirely spurious one. For instance, the Order of St Michael and St George, two warrior saints, is just my kind of thing, and I worry whether some of its present holders are quite up to this glorious patronage. I mean, John Beadle, a senior civil servant at the MoD, who is the latest Commander of the Order, is probably a perfectly nice, hardworking person, but this one sounds as though it should be awarded on the field of battle.

What's interesting is the categories of activity that the honours system rewards. It says something about our fragmented society that we reward so many people for inter-faith relations - as opposed, say, to propagating the Gospel - and set such a high store on promoting community relations. A bizarre feature of the award of OBEs to the admirable chefs Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal is that they were for services to "the hospitality industry". What about rewarding them for being really good cooks? And what about the People's Pundit, Jamie Oliver, who got a measly MBE in 2003 but nothing this year?

It's the sheer promiscuity of the awards that gives us pause; the mix of the worthy and unworthy, not to mention the omissions. The honorary consul in Phuket during the tsunami gets an MBE, but there is not a sausage for the members of Rapid UK, the charity specialising in earthquake relief, whose members were on the first flight to Pakistan before Whitehall had got its boots on. But there - it's not for the honour that people do good things. Just as well, really. Because, looking at the other odd individuals in the list, they might wonder whether it was worth it.