December 17 2011
Oops! This morning I think I heard a presenter on Radio 4 say “..and that was XXX, CBE in the New Year’s Honours”. Well, it brought it all back, the strain of keeping quiet about one’s honour because otherwise “it’ll be taken away”. No doubt that’s a carefully nurtured rumour, but nevertheless I was very careful to tell only a very few people who were sworn to secrecy.
But it reminds me that all over the country there will be hundreds of people who’ve received That Letter, and will have gone through the same period of disbelief that I did, and then will look in the paper on January 1 (or in my case June 16) and see it in print and think, “Well it really must be true!”. So, for those In Waiting, or just idle blog browsers, I thought it might be useful/entertaining to know what it’s actually like. Or what it was like in my case in 2008.
I’ll begin at the beginning with the arrival of an envelope in mid May that looked like a tax demand, except that it was from the Cabinet Office which frightened me; I wondered what I’d done to upset Gordon Brown. Inside was a letter from a man who signed himself my Obedient Servant, suggesting that “The Queen may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)”. The Prime Minister, he said, would be glad to know if this would be agreeable to me (I wonder how many people say no?). If so I needed to fill in a form stating my ethnicity, disability, background… The rest of the sentence had stuck to the envelope flap and torn off. Since I had to admit that I was neither black nor disabled, I thought I might hear no more about it. I did phone my MD, Donald, and ask if it was a joke. He thought not. The citation was “For Services to the Tourism Industry and to Charity”.
Well, you don’t know when you’re going to get the thing, so my first mistake was to rush out to the charity shop and buy a really nice summer outfit. I finally heard, in October, that the investiture would be at Windsor Castle in December, which meant I had waited seven months with the wrong clothes in the wardrobe.
As I explained in my Christrmas letter, “I’m worrying. Mostly about clothes and my finger nails. I’m borrowing Inge’s red jacket and Daphne’s black trousers. And I’m hiring a hat with a huge brim (everyone I speak to say that it should be a small hat) so I’m sure I shall knock Her Majesty over with it. Or fall over myself when I try to curtsy. Or fail to recognise HM. Or… And the fingernails! I painted my new fireplace today with heatproof black paint. I should have worn gloves, or at least not smeared permanent black paint under my nails. So I’m going to have to ditch the red jacket and hat, switch to faded black, and go as a Goth.”.
The investiture was on December 17, and here’s how I described it at the time
.“So, it’s happened. I got invested and it was literally awesome. My guests Kate, Janice and Inge and I were ushered up a magnificent staircase past a line of household cavalry chaps all dressed in silver, red and gold and at least 7ft tall. Then the recipients were separated from the guests and herded into a room with refreshments (wisely non alcoholic) and we mingled. I talked to a jolly woman who got hers for Services to Netball and a conspicuously caring woman who’d done 30 years atGreatOrmondStreetHospital. And a woman who will have intrigued the Queen since hers was for Services to The Caterpillar Club. Disappointingly she turned out not to be an entomologist but connected with parachutists in the War. And there was a man called Dr Drain who got his for Services to the Environment (bet HM had a giggle over that). Then a beautiful Mr Darcy-like man came in, all hung about with plaited gold braid and wearing spurs, and talked us through what we’d have to do. My brain immediately went into No Memory mode and although I could hear the words they didn’t seem to refer to me: walk to Mr Foster and stand at his chest (what?) then turn 45 degrees and walk towards the Queen (oh Lord), stop and curtsy (demo of a curtsy, with spurs clanking), then forward to HM who would say a few words. We were to address her as Your Majesty the first time and Ma’am to rhyme with jam the second time. Then step back three paces, another curtsy, and leave the room. “One warning” he said, “Don’t forget to let go of the Queen’s hand”. Nervous giggles as we visualised hauling HM along the floor. At that point a dishevelled young woman arrived, hat askew, panic oozing from every pore. She told me she thought the investiture was atBuckinghamPalaceand had turned up there at10 o’clock. Can you imagine the awfulness? But she made it – I suppose by taxi.
Far too soon, I found myself at the head of the queue. I could see this little blue figure with white hair, and I became rooted to the spot. “Go on” said the gold-braided man giving me a little push. I couldn’t remember how legs are supposed to move to create a forward propulsion. Kate said I looked like Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, weaving my way across the floor in the rough direction of the Queen. But I did my curtsy and wobbled forward. She popped the medal onto me (they pin a hook on beforehand to make it easier) and said “Is it children?” I couldn’t think what to say. “No no” I blurted out “I publish guidebooks. For adults”. Then I realised she was talking about the charity part. “Oh yes, Children.Madagascar” and did a huge gesture to encompass theIndian Oceanand the children thereon. At that she looked rather frightened and held out her hand. I managed the second curtsy and fled, realising that I hadn’t addressed her as Your Majesty nor Ma’am.
“Then photos and a lovely lunch with the lovely people who nominated me. The photo of the actual medal pinning arrived by email that evening. And I saw why people had said I should wear a small hat.”
TIPS FOR THOSE RECEIVING AN MBE (OR WHATEVER)
Things I wish I’d known:
1) Don’t decide what to wear until you know the date of the investiture
2) Wear a small hat or fascinator
3) Double check the location
4) Arrive early! The instructions said don’t arrive til 10 o’clock. We got there at 9.30 and waited in the car park until 10.00. We were almost the last to arrive and my guests were stuck at the back of the hall.
5) Relax! Everyone is extraordinarily nice to you and it is an occasion to savour for ever.