January 27, 2012

British government releases list of writers who refused to bow before the Queen


J.G. Ballard

In 2003, J.G. Ballard famously rejected a CBE (Commander of the British Empire), one of the royal honors bestowed annually by the Queen on various luminaries, saying, “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,” according to a Guardian report. “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.”

He even called out some writers for accepting it: “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.”

Now, a freedom of information request has revealed that Ballard was far from the only writer to turn down one of the Queen’s honors, which include CBEs, OBEs (Order of the British Empire), and, the big one, knighthood.

As detailed in another Guardian report, this one by Alison Flood, the request led to the release of a list from the Cabinet Office that has revealed that, between the years 1951 to 1999, writers including C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, Philip Larkin, Robert Graves, Stanley Middleton, J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh, and others, turned down the awards.

According to Flood,

In the past, this information has generally only been made public if the individuals to have snubbed the recognition announce it themselves – a step taken by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in 2003, when he wrote in the Guardian: “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”

Flood also notes that it wasn’t only writers turing down the honors. Sculptor Henry Moore, painters Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, and director Alfred Hitchcock also rejected them (although Hitchcock was late in his life convinced to accept a knighthood). And it was a painter, L.S. Lowry, who in fact turned down the most offers: “a total of five honours, including a knighthood.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.