Medaling Through

Under the British honours system, diplomats and people serving the UK abroad can be awarded the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. It has three classes: Companion (CMG), Knight Commander (KCMG) and, illustrated here, Knight Grand Cross (GCMG). The old joke is that they stand for ‘Call Me God’, ‘Kindly Call Me God’ and ‘God Calls Me God’. Picture: © IWM (OMD 415).

9 January 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch notes that The Queen has had the decorators in.

New Year’s Day is usually devoid of any hard news stories so editors and publishers are probably very happy with the British custom of making public the names of the latest recipients of official honours on 1 January, the so-called New Year Honours List. As may be expected from anything old, British and connected to Royalty, the various awards are a slightly confusing and impenetrable collection of honours, particularly in the case of the most common ‘gong’, the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Clearly, an award in the name of something that no longer exists and that is nowadays controversial is slightly peculiar, but confusion is increased by the OBE having three classes: Commander, Member and Officer. To add to the mix, there is also the British Empire Medal (BEM). In 2020, 1,097 people received an award including 315 BEMs, 397 MBEs and 229 OBEs. Seventy-two percent of the recipients are people ‘who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity’. Which award is best? Who would win in a fight? Perhaps only the Queen or the Honours Committee knows.

This year, three people involved in rowing were honoured.

Rosie Mayglothling OBE. Picture: British Rowing.

Rosie Mayglothling was awarded an OBE in recognition for her ‘services to rowing and gender equality in sport’. The British Rowing website notes:

Rosie has been heavily involved in rowing and British Rowing for over thirty years, particularly championing the cause of women’s sport. Rosie has held volunteer and staff roles across the sport including with Henley Women’s Regatta, British Rowing and World Rowing.

As a rower, Rosie was prominent on the domestic rowing and skiffing scene and represented Great Britain at four World Championships and the 1980 Olympic Games. Alongside her rowing, Rosie became a coach in the sport. This led to her joining British Rowing, holding various roles in the organisation, most recently Technical Coordinator for the GB Rowing Team and Director of Pathway Development from 2015 until 2018. In 2018, Rosie was appointed to the FISA (World Rowing) Executive Committee.

Throughout her roles, Rosie has been a champion for gender equality in sport and perhaps her greatest legacy to the sport is Henley Women’s Regatta. The regatta was founded following a great amount of persistence after Rosie’s initial suggestion.… in 1987.

Tony Mallin MBE. Picture: “The Henley Standard”.

Tony Mallin received the MBE ‘for services to young people through sport’. The Henley Standard wrote:

[Tony] founded Youth Experience in Sport, a charity that aims to bring at risk young people into active sport in deprived areas of London. It has provided more than £350,000 in financial support to boxing, canoeing, rowing, judo and martial arts across six London boroughs.

Most of this money has been donated by Mr Mallin, or raised through his own efforts, and his initiative is estimated to have benefited thousands of children since the charity began.

Mr Mallin, 64, grew up on a council estate on the border of Hackney and Islington and had a successful career at Hambros Bank before founding his own private equity firm, Star Capital Partnership.

He rowed at Henley Royal Regatta and won the Wyfold Challenge Cup in 1975 and the Grand Challenge Cup the following year, both with the Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club.

John Chapman MBE. Picture: Anita Ross Marshall via “The Bucks Free Press”.

The Maidenhead Advertiser says of John’s award:

John Chapman is awarded an MBE for services to the community in Marlow. He is a prominent figure in the town’s rowing community and is president of the management committee of Marlow Regatta. His positions have included president of Marlow Royal British Legion and he has served as chair, president and now trustee of the local branch of Age Concern.

The Bucks Free Press has more on John’s work for the community.

Sir Harcourt Gold (1876-1952). In 1949, he became the first person to be knighted for services to rowing. He has since been joined by Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent, Sir David Tanner, Dame Katherine Grainger and the late Dame Di Ellis.

The Honours List always causes controversy, either from those who object to the very existence of such a thing or from those who disagree with some of the choices of recipients. Further, a small but interesting number of people actually refuse the offer of an honour for various reasons. There is an engrossing Wikipedia page titled ‘List of people who have declined a British honour’. It contains more than a few surprises.

Amongst those who have said ‘No Sir’ to Knighthoods have been David Bowie, Alan Bennett, Stephen Hawking, Rudyard Kipling, TE Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw. In recent times, most refusals have been for OBEs: John Cleese reportedly thought honours were ‘silly’ and later declined a life peerage; JG Ballard claimed that ‘the honours system is a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up the top-heavy monarchy’; Evelyn Waugh felt that he deserved a knighthood, not an OBE; Michael Winner said that ‘An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross Station’; Kim Philby also declined for some reason but, after his defection to the USSR, he accepted the Soviet Union’s Order of the Red Banner (1st Class).

The Beatles with their MBEs.

One of the most famous honours controversies concerned The Beatles. In 1965, the great British musical ambassadors received MBEs. The Fab Four were nominated for the award by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. It was widely seen as an attempt by the opportunist Wilson to appear in touch with the younger generation. However, at the time, pop music still had a negative connotation with most people and at least six previous honourees returned their decorations in disgust. Colonel Frederick Wagg, then 74, was nothing if not thorough and sent back his campaign medals from both World Wars, his Indian North West Frontier Medal, the Belgian Order of Leopold, the French Croix de Guerre and the French Croix de Resistance. He wrote, ‘Decorating the Beatles has made a mockery of everything this country stands for’.

John Lennon’s slightly inaccurate take on the situation was that

Lots of people who complained about us getting the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war. They got them for killing people. We got ours for entertaining. I’d say we deserve ours more.

Paul McCartney, always eager to please, said that ‘‘MBE must stand for ‘Mister Brian Epstein’’’.

Ringo Starr declared that ‘The whole affair is getting to be a drag’.

The drag continued four years later when John Lennon returned his MBE to The Queen with a letter:

Your Majesty,

I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey (John’s latest record) slipping down the charts.

With love,

John Lennon.

We do not know what Her Majesty’s reaction was in this case but, according to Gyles Brandreth writing in The Daily Telegraph in 2001:

[The Queen’s] view is that honours cost very little and give a great deal of pleasure. ‘The system does discover people who do unsung things,’ she points out. ‘And I think people need pats on the back sometimes. It’s a very dingy world otherwise.’

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