I’m feeling conflicted . . .

Many countries recognise achievement or service among their citizens through a system of honours or awards. One exception I discovered is the Republic of Ireland that has no formal honours system whatsoever.

In the USA, for example, the highest civilian honours are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In France, it’s the Légion d’honneur.

The UK has a long history of handing out honours and awards. Currently there are six orders of chivalry and four orders of merit. The oldest, The Most Noble Order of the Garter dates back to 1348, and is entirely at the discretion of the sovereign, as are The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (for Scotland), and the Royal Victorian Order.

For centuries, honours and awards were given almost exclusively to government officials and members of the armed forces. There was little recognition of members of the public.

That changed in 1917, when King George V wished to create an Order to honour many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combatant roles during the First World War.

Insignia of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire

The outcome was the founding of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which recognises contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service.

Twice a year, at New Year and on the occasion of The Queen’s Official Birthday in early June, a list is published in the London Gazette (the UK’s official journal of record) with the names of those nominated for one of the ranks of this Order (or other honours).

In the 2012 New Year’s Honours I was surprised and honoured to be nominated as an Officer (OBE) of the Order for services to international food science. I spent much of my career in international agricultural research, helping to bring the best of science to address the worldwide problem of food insecurity, especially among the poorest nations.

I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the 29th February, receiving my award from HRH The Prince of Wales, who was standing in for HM The Queen as is often the case nowadays as she takes on fewer commitments.

So why am I feeling conflicted? Being an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (whose motto is For God and the Empire) does not sit comfortably right now. I’m surprised that in the wake of the recent brutal killings in the USA of African Americans and the surge of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, and calls for the removal of symbols of Britain’s imperial and colonial past (many linked to slavery), that there have not been any—that I have seen—to scrap the Order of the British Empire.

It wouldn’t be the first time. During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2004 there were calls for the UK honours system to be reformed, and some honours scrapped. Titles in the honours system were “redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class, just as the ‘Empire’ is redolent of an imperial history,” said the [parliamentary] Public Administration Committee, chaired by the Labour MP Tony Wright. 

Colonial titles, such as the Order of the British Empire, should be consigned to history. “This is anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today’s Britain,” the committee said.

There was even a suggestion that the Order should be renamed as the Order of British Excellence, an idea revived by Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy while campaigning to become Leader of the Labour Party earlier this year (before the latest protests). She proposed overhauling the honours system by removing reference to the British Empire in medals awarded to high-achieving individuals. 

She cited British poet Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected an OBE in 2003. He wrote: “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of the thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” Zephaniah is not the first person to reject recognition on this basis.

There are, of course, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) recipients of the Order, but not as many as White recipients, because there are fewer BAME nominations apparently. Some are high profile individuals like athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE and Kelly Holmes DBE, or slavery historian David Olusoga OBE, and others. Here are recent statistics up to 2019.

We cannot erase history. What happened, happened. Good or bad. Rather we must learn from the past, placing those events and individuals in context. And explain to current and future generations what that history means. Getting rid of statues, such as happened recently to the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, as well as repeated calls for Cecil Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College in Oxford to be taken down, does remove however the daily reminders that so many find offensive. These statues are best placed now in museums where the roles of the individuals they depict can be explained and contextualised.

So this brings me back to the Order of the British Empire. Should its name be changed? I don’t believe that is the appropriate thing to do. Maybe create a new Order in its stead.

I hope I do not sound hypocritical. When I was nominated for and accepted the OBE, I never even made a connection with the Order’s imperial foundation. I appreciate that some will perhaps find this response unacceptable. Thoughts of empire never crossed my mind. I’m sure that for most recipients of one of the Order’s five ranks or the UK population at large, there is no longer (and hasn’t been for at least a couple of generations or more) any concept of empire. It was what it was when the Order was created in 1917. I nevertheless acknowledge that ‘imperial links’ do not sit well today.

 


 

Four years on . . . and still the same sense of pride

20160229001 OBE

Four years ago today

Yes. Four years. How time flies. It was Wednesday 29 February 2012, and I was in London—with Steph, our younger daughter Philippa, and former IRRI colleague Corinta—to attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace.

I was there to receive my OBE that had been awarded in the 2012 New Years Honours, for services to international food science. Since this honour was given after I’d retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, I assume it was a recognition of the contributions I’d made to genetic conservation of rice as well as strengthening international support for rice research.

Travelling to London
It was an early start from Bromsgrove, to catch the train from Solihull to London Marylebone Station, where we met Phil, who had traveled down from the northeast. Then a short hop across central London by taxi to arrive at Buckingham Palace in time for the briefing before the actual investiture took place.

As you can imagine, security was tight. We all had to show IDs, and the invitation tickets. I had to be at the Palace about 45 minutes before the investiture, and was surprised to find that I was one of the last to arrive.

The gates of Buckingham Palace - from inside.

The gates of Buckingham Palace – from inside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Corinta was impressed by Buckingham Palace

Briefing over, and the investiture was also over before it had begun. I’m still surprised how quickly it went, even though it seemed as though HRH The Prince of Wales spent at least five minutes speaking with each of the awardees. It couldn’t have been more than a minute. But he was remarkably well-briefed, and we held a conversation about rice in the Philippines. His opening question being, ‘Are you still working in the Philippines, Dr Jackson?

20120229104 OBE

Talking rice with HRH

After the ceremony we joined up in the palace courtyard, and outside the gates for more photographs.

It was a memorable occasion for all of us, and after four years I still have that same sense of pride as I did when I first received the letter in November 2011 informing me I had been nominated for the OBE. I rarely take my insignia out of the safe, but this morning I thought I would have a four-year update.

A knotty dilemma . . . what to wear to an investiture at Buckingham Palace

As I browsed the BBC news website this morning, I came across a magazine article about dress code (click here to access it). Specifically it was an article by British historian David Cannadine, who is Professor of History at Princeton University, on “the language of ties”.

Well, the dress code thing, and especially what tie to wear, has been very much to the fore over the past few weeks since I received details about the investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive my OBE. The guidelines indicated that gentlemen should wear “morning suit, lounge suit, or national dress”. No medals! That took place on 29 February, and I wrote about the whole OBE experience – receiving the nomination, the period of secrecy, the investiture itself – in another post.

Morning suit or lounge suit? Over the course of my professional career I’ve never had to wear a suit, and frankly, never really feel very comfortable in one. And I’ve only ever worn a formal morning suit twice – at the weddings of my eldest brother Martin, and my cousin Diana. In the end, I chose what I knew I would be most comfortable wearing, and opted instead for my charcoal grey, lightweight suit that I had purchased only a couple of years ago or so, and had worn only a few times (there’s not much demand for suits in the Tropics). My friend and former colleague, John Sheehy – who received his OBE at an investiture on 14 February – decided on a morning suit, and very elegant he looked too.

So that was the suit sorted. But what tie to wear? I have to admit, I LOVE TIES, and my collection (somewhat eclectic) would be bigger if I could justify the expense. You see, I don’t wear a tie very often either. But while the suit thing is not my style, I sometimes wish there were more opportunities to wear a tie.

In November 2010, on my way to attend a major international rice congress in Hanoi, Vietnam, I’d purchased a couple of silk ties at Birmingham airport. Both were plain colours – no stripes, patterns or what have you. Just plain coral pink and apple green (if plain is the appropriate description).

Now I really like the pink tie, and it goes well with my suit (pink apparently conveys good health and a positive attitude, and also has calming effects). The question was would it be appropriate for an investiture at the Palace. And I agonized over that decision longer than I really want to admit. I even looked for advice on the web, and was amazed to find that there are many sites offering advice on all things ties: colours, occasions, and even what type of knot to tie.

In the end, I went with my instincts, and settled on the pink tie. And even if I say so myself, very smart it looked, and certainly (k)not out of place.

The lounge suit was a sensible choice, and I guess only about half of the men wore a morning suit even if they were being knighted. Only one woman as far as I can remember wore a trouser suit. Most women receiving an honour wore a hat – this must be the most difficult choice they have to make, and from what I observed in some instances, the choice was not very wise. None of my three guests – my wife, my younger daughter, and a former colleague from the Philippines – wore a hat. And it didn’t matter.

They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace . . .

A letter in the mail – The Queen’s New Year’s Honours
On a bright, sunny day last November (my birthday, actually) I was outside cleaning the car, when the postman passed by. He handed me several envelopes and my immediate reaction was that this was another load of the usual junk mail. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across one that seemed rather official looking. And I was even more surprised when I read what it had to say – that I had been nominated to become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science. Well, I was gob-smacked, quite emotional really. I rushed inside to tell Steph – who was equally stunned, and we set to ponder how on earth this had come about. I did some Google detective work, and was able to find out a little more about the nomination process, and how successful nominees are chosen. But beyond that, I had no idea. Subsequently (in early January 2012), there was a press release from the British Embassy in the Philippines. There is some more information about the British honours system on the BBC website.

And then began six weeks of purgatory – nominees are sworn to secrecy until the honours list is published officially in The London Gazette, scheduled for 31 December! Anyway, on the 31st I came down for breakfast, and went to the website to see my name in print. And I couldn’t find it! I began to wonder if I had ticked the right box when I sent the form back. But then I found it (page N24) – under the Diplomatic Service and Overseas list. And looking down the list, it was then that I discovered that my good friend and former colleague at IRRI, John Sheehy, had also been made an OBE. A great day for IRRI!

Going to the Palace – next steps
Not long after the New Year, I received a package of information from the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, with the date of the investiture: 29 February. I applied for tickets – for Steph, daughter Philippa, and my closest colleague in the DPPC at IRRI, Corinta Guerta.

Not long afterwards, the tickets arrived in the mail.

Corinta arrived to the UK on 26 February, and after her meeting at DfID in London on the Monday morning, came up to Bromsgrove to spend a couple of nights with us, and to join us for the investiture. We agreed to meet Philippa in London.

One other issue for me was what to wear: morning dress (top hat and tails) or lounge suit (and even which tie to choose).* I finally settled on my lounge suit and pink tie.

Investiture day
It was an early start on the 29th: up at 5 am, and off to Solihull to catch the 7:41 am Chiltern Railways service from Solihull (about 25 minutes from Bromsgrove by car) to London Marylebone. The train eventually was very crowded, with some passengers standing all the way from Banbury to London; but we had good seats. We met up with Philippa at Marylebone, had a quick cup of coffee, and then took a taxi to the Palace.

Security was extremely tight, and we had to show photo IDs and our tickets for access. It’s quite some feeling walking through the gates of the Palace (made in Bromsgrove), past the guards, and through into the inner quadrangle. At the main entrance, under a glass canopy, our tickets were again checked, and we headed inside. What a spectacle: guardsmen in their metal breastplates and equerries in morning suits; everyone was very polite and friendly. After a quick comfort stop, Steph, Philippa, and Corinta headed for the Ballroom, and I headed off in another direction to meet the other honours recipients. The recipients of knighthoods and CBEs were together in one room, the OBEs and MBEs in another. Mineral water and juices were provided – in bottles with The Queen’s crest, and little goblets with EIIR engraved (not to be left on a mantelpiece next to a priceless ceramic vase). We waited in a long gallery full of the most incredible pieces of art – goodness knows what their value was.

One of the Officers on Duty gave a briefing about the ceremony, that it would be held by HRH The Prince of Wales (not HM The Queen, much to my initial disappointment). It began precisely at 11 am, and the first batch of recipients was called away. I was in the second batch. Click on the image below to read the investiture program.

I guess I must have been called to receive my OBE at around 11:15; and afterwards the recipients returned to the back of the ballroom and took their seats to watch the rest of the proceedings. Immediately after the presentation, the insignia was removed and placed in a special case.

I was intrigued to see that the insignia was made by a company based in Bromsgrove, the Worcestershire Medal Service Ltd.

The medals are actually manufactured at a site in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, but the head office is a small shop on one of my daily walk routes!

Anyway, to get back to the ceremony. Each batch of recipients crossed the ballroom at the rear, to enter a corridor on the other side. And it was from there that each recipient was called forward, to wait beside one of the Officers on Duty, and then move forward again as the surname was announced (and the reason for the honour). Turning towards HRH, men gave a small bow from the neck and women a curtsy. The insignia was pinned on, and a few words exchanged.

Receiving my medal from HRH The Prince of Wales (screenshot from The British Monarch website)

HRH asked if I was still working in the Philippines – he had been well briefed, and then we spoke briefly about different varieties of rice. Then, after some words of thanks from HRH and a warm handshake that was it – my moment of glory all over, and I exited through a door on the opposite side from where I had entered. The ballroom itself was quite dimly lit, from several huge chandeliers. On the video footage I have seen, and on the close circuit TV that was broadcast to waiting recipients, the ballroom look very bright indeed.

Considering the number of honours recipients and that HRH spoke to each person individually, the investiture was over just after 12 noon. Then we were able to meet up with our guests. Steph, Philippa, and Corinta had found seats at the back of the ballroom. We then made our way outside for picture taking.

Here are just a few, but click on the image immediately below and a web album of the best photographs will open.

Unfortunately we were not able to stay long in London, since Corinta was due to fly back to the Philippines from Birmingham Airport (BHX) at 8:30 pm. So, once we had taken all the photographs we wanted, I hailed a taxi (much easier outside the Palace than I had envisaged) and we set off for Marylebone and the train. We had a quick bite to eat at the station, and our train to Solihull departed at 2:37 pm, arriving in Solihull on time just after 4 pm. Corinta had plenty of time to get changed, complete some last minute packing, and even enjoy a cup of tea and some home-made Victoria sponge before heading off to BHX in an Emirates Airlines limo.

Reflections
Originally we thought about driving to London for the investiture. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would have been stupid to have attempted this trip by car, even though we could have parked right inside Buckingham Palace. On the afternoon of 29 February there were serious traffic incidents on one of the main motorways (M40) into London that we would have used, and there were holdups for several hours. So instead of an anticipated stressed journey by car, we let the train take the strain.

As Steph and I reflected on the day over dinner and a cup of tea that same evening, it was quite surreal to think we had been inside Buckingham Palace just a few hours before. But what a privilege it was, and what a fantastic honour to have received in recognition of the work I did in agricultural research, especially the conservation and use of crop genetic resources.

My former staff in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI sent me this photo – a very thoughtful touch.

Warrant of Appointment
On 22 May I received my Warrant of Appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. This is printed on parchment, has an embossed Seal of the Order in the top left corner, and measures 11.5 x 16.5 inches approx.

* Over the past year since I first posted this story, lots of other recipients of awards have also worried about what to wear to an investiture, and their web searches have often led to my blog. I hope my advice has been useful. I know in at least one case that it has been, since there are a couple of comments to that effect.