Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Matters of Honour(s)

Having never actually read any of his novels (a fact I normally hold in reserve in case I find myself roped into a hard-fought game of 'Humiliation'), I am relatively ill-equipped to judge the merits of the British government's decision to grant Salman Rushdie a knighthood.

I do know, however, that Sir Salman has said a fair number of very sensible things about the world recently. And I recall well the issuing of the fatwa calling for his death, not least since I worked in a bookshop at the time, and the management apparently took seriously the possibility that violence might be visited upon those who sold it. Although the chain that owned the store did continue to sell the book, it was not displayed. We had to keep them behind the counter to be sold only on request. Rather like the porno-mags. In retrospect, I can see this as a small defeat for values I hold dear.

Furthermore, many of the reactions to this announcement (commented upon by Ophelia and Shuggy) are, all by themselves, reason enough to applaud the government's decision, revealing, as they do, the infantile worldview of those would justify murder for fictional 'blasphemy'.

Consider the comments of the Pakistani religious affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, who reportedly said:

"The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title."

The thought that statements like those in his second sentence might be one of the causes of the accusations referred to in his first sentence does not appear to have crossed his mind.

Nonetheless, without wanting to diminish Rushdie's claim on recognition as an artist--and despite my own conviction that 'blasphemy' is among the most pernicious and idiotic concepts ever developed--I couldn't help but think of J. G. Ballard's reaction when, just a few years ago, he was offered a CBE.

He turned it down.

Why? Well, I'll let him explain.

"I might have been tempted had I been entitled to call myself Commander Ballard - it has a certain ring. I could see a yachting cap and a rum ration as perks of the job. If I was French and was awarded the legion of honour, I might well accept. But as a republican, I can't accept an honour awarded by the monarch. There's all that bowing and scraping and mummery at the palace. It's the whole climate of deference to the monarch and everything else it represents. They just seem to perpetuate the image of Britain as too much pomp and not enough circumstance. It's a huge pantomime where tinsel takes the place of substance.

"A lot of these medals are orders of the British Empire, which is a bit ludicrous. The dreams of empire were only swept away relatively recently, in the 60s. Suddenly, we seem to have a prime minister who has delusions of a similar kind.

"It goes with the whole system of hereditary privilege and rank, which should be swept away. It uses snobbery and social self-consciousness to guarantee the loyalty of large numbers of citizens who should feel their loyalty is to fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. We are a deeply class-divided society.

"I think it's deplorable when leftwing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen.

"I'm in impressive company [in refusing]. Most of them are thoughtful people and people of spirit and independence. It's good to see quite a few showbusiness people, like Albert Finney, a great actor. There were Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves - it suggests there's quite a large number of people who reject the whole notion of honours in their present form. And it might do something towards bringing the whole system down."
(Source: The Guardian)

'Impressive company' indeed: the same year, the excellent playwright and author Michael Frayn not only turned down a knighthood but had also previously refused as CBE; however, he claimed it was out of relatively prosaic motivations:

"I haven't done this for reasons of modesty," he claimed yesterday. "I like the name 'Michael Frayn'; it's a nice little name to run around with. I've spent 70 years getting used to it and I don't want to change it now."
Despite such caveats, however, I do of course wish Sir Salman a long number of years to get used to his new name.

Be careful, sir.

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