Which is cooler: to accept a knighthood from the queen, or to turn one down?
In what the BBC is calling the “alternative honours list”, the British government released the names of 277 people—actors, writers, musicians, politicians, scientists and others—who rejected the rarefied opportunity to become knights, dames and the like between 1951 and 1999. Included are Roald Dahl, who said no to the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1986; Graham Greene, who declined to be a Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E) in 1956; and Aldous Huxley, who turned down a knighthood in 1959.
The list, released only after repeated Freedom of Information requests by the BBC, includes only dead non-recipients. But people who turned down awards in the past have given their reasons as, variously, not believing in the monarchy; not liking the system’s links to the British Empire, when there is no British Empire anymore; being miffed that the honour they are being offered is one of the lower-level ones; and feeling generally opposed to the elitism of the whole thing.
“Surely, there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honours from a institution she attacked when young?” wrote the author Doris Lessing in 1992, turning down the chance to be a dame of what she called the “nonexistent empire” (she accepted another title, the Companion of Honour, in 2000, saying she liked that “you’re not called anything” special.) In 2003, J. G. Ballard said he did not want a C.B.E. because the whole thing was a “preposterous charade.”
Offered an O.B.E. by Tony Blair in 2003, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah responded, "Stick it, Mr Blair and Mrs Queen.” David Bowie said no to a C.B.E. in 2000 because, “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.” And the filmmaker and pugnaciously rich restaurant critic Michael Winner upset janitors across the land in 2006 when he dismissed the honour he was offered, O.B.E, as the kind of thing “you get if you clean toilets well.”
Alfred Hitchcock turned down a C.B.E. in 1962, but perhaps he was angling for something better—he was later made a Knight Commander of the British Empire.
Honours are granted by the queen from a list presented by the government of the day after an opaque and mysterious process. Several years ago, the news anchor Jon Snow said in an interview he received a government letter asking him whether he wanted an O.B.E and inviting him to check a box, yes or no. “I tried to find out why I’d been given it and was unable to get a clear answer,” he said.
The artist Lucian Freud did not want a C.B.E. in 1977. The actor Trevor Howard, star of Brief Encounter, did not want one in 1982, and the writer Evelyn Waugh did not want one in 1959.
Then there is a whole other class of people, who accepted honours, only to return them later. While Sir Paul McCartney appears to be happy in his knighthood, his bandmate John Lennon returned an M.B.E—Member of the British Empire—in 1969, along with a note to the queen saying he was protesting Britain’s involvement in “the Nigeria-Biafra thing, the country’s support of America in the Vietnam War and ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down in the charts”—a song he wrote for the Plastic Ono Band after he and Yoko Ono decided to stop taking heroin.
In a possible homage to his recently created series of lithographs, The Bag One Portfolio, and on stationery from his newly set up Bag Productions, Lennon signed his letter to the queen using a title he awarded to himself: “Sir John of Bag.”
-- Sarah Lyall, NYT