It’s 30 years ago now that I was awarded membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). I’ve never been quite certain why I got it but it was and remains a huge honour. I still remember the wave of good wishes I received from the whole range of people who touched my life and many others whom I didn’t even know.
It was one Friday morning in the sunny May of 1990, this was towards the end of my RAF career, when I was called into my Commander-in-Chief’s office, a good friend with whom I had worked closely despite the huge difference in our ranks. He told me the good news but asked that I didn’t mention to anyone until it had been Gazetted the next day. But I was allowed to tell my family, so I called my Dad. You will recall, dear reader, my previous account of this hugely private man from a certain age who had landed on the beaches on D-Day, with whom I had a close but cool relationship and whom I adored. He answered the phone with his usual immediate and abrupt “I’ll get your Mum” but before he could pass me over, I shouted, “Hang on Dad, I’ve got something to tell you.” “What’s the matter now?” he asked with his customary dark and pessimistic view of the world. “They’ve awarded me the MBE” I said. There was silence for what seemed like an eternity, then Mum came on the phone. “What’s the matter?” she asked, “your dad’s sobbing his heart out.” I still can’t even now write this tale, let alone tell it, without tearing up nor do I ever want to forget that moment, it’s my most precious memory of him.
“I was called into my Commander-in-Chief’s office, a good friend with whom I had worked closely despite the huge difference in our ranks.”
The day finally arrived for the visit to Buckingham Palace. In those days we were permitted two adult guests or one adult and two children, so the family voted my wife and eldest two kids Madeleine and Peter. I would have loved to take my parents but they were the first to rule out that option, they insisted the youngsters should go. “It will be a memory that will last a lifetime for them” they said, and of course they were right.
Peter was 8 years old and hugely into the cub scouts. “Are you going in your uniform?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied, “I have to”. “Well then, I will go in mine?” was the immediate and non-negotiable reply. So, Peter wore his cub uniform on the great day, even now Maddy (his elder sister by a couple of years) regrets not having the courage to wear her girl guide uniform.
We drove to London in my 1964 Mk1 Cortina estate, my daily ride to work and all we could afford as a second car but she had been a good and reliable friend for several years, taking me to my place of work each day where I had (presumably) earned my award so it seemed only right to take her along on this adventure. She brushed up well. We all did. We drove down the Mall with a sticker in her front window, the police saw us coming and held up the traffic whilst we drove through the Palace gates and were waved through the archway to park in the central courtyard. Already we felt special – the aim of the day, we subsequently realised; for a couple of short hours the recipients and their guests were the focus of an enormous machine’s complete attention and they did it to perfection. I was ushered away to a separate door whilst the family went into the main entrance and escorted to the Ballroom. I didn’t realise until afterwards that quite by the luck of the draw the three of them had been seated at the front end of one of the side rows with the kids as near to the Queen as was possible – no more than a few feet and no one was closer. They could see (and hear) everything.
“The police saw us coming and held up the traffic whilst we drove through the Palace gates.”
We gathered in a long, grand gallery – huge pictures, huge vases on stands and huge radiators (memory is a strange beast). By now my nerves were kicking in. We congregated into small groups as we were shuffled into some sort of order by seniority of award, the MBEs were at the bottom of the list, I think my small cohort was pretty much the last in. There were just a few young Army officers behind me, someone whispered to me that their awards were for heroism, they were to be received last by Her Majesty. Special people indeed.
The gallery slowly emptied. Finally, our group was moved into the back of the Ballroom underneath the minstrels’ gallery where the RAF band was quietly playing a selection of tunes. Ahead of us, the single-file line of recipients moved forward slowly, down one side towards the front. The spectacle was overwhelming – the colour, the grandeur, the pomp, the quiet and contained excitement in the vast room. And way at the front my first sight of a tiny lady, the focus of everyone’s attention, the epicentre of the whole show.
I was privileged to have been put with a lovely lady who’d been big in the Women’s Institute, Charlie Chester the comedian and actor, and Tracey Edwards who had the year before skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race – she looked as terrified as I felt, we smiled at each other for mutual support, she whispered that she’d been less nervous sailing round Cape Horn.
“And way at the front my first sight of a tiny lady, the focus of everyone’s attention”
One by one the queue shortened. Our moments approached. At the head stood the biggest, grandest Yeoman of the Guard one could ever imagine. This magnificent figure, a retired Army Warrant Officer as they all were, was the final gate between the recipients and the Queen. I could see that as each of us reached him, he would lean in and say a few words before gently pushing us forward from the small of our backs at the perfectly timed moment towards Her Majesty, an action he must have repeated thousands of times before. As the lady-from-the-WI got to him I heard him say “Good morning madam, please don’t be nervous. Just step forward when I nudge you, move away from Her Majesty when she pushes your hand back towards you, and remember she really wants you to enjoy your moment.” With these comforting words in her ear, off she went. Then it was Charlie’s turn. “Good morning Mr Chester, I’ve always been a fan of your work. Please don’t be nervous. Just step forward when I nudge you, move away from Her Majesty when she pushes your hand back towards you, and remember she really wants you to enjoy your moment.” Then Tracey – “Good morning Miss Edwards, what a marvellous thing you achieved, we’re all very proud of you. Please don’t be nervous. Just step forward when I nudge you, move away from Her Majesty when she pushes your hand back towards you, and remember she really wants you to enjoy your moment.” Then came my turn. This God-like figure loomed over me, looked me up and down, sighed theatrically and wearily said the immortal and perfectly judged words that I will never forget. “Try not to fuck up, sir.” He winked at me and off I went.
“This God-like figure loomed over me, looked me up and down, sighed theatrically and wearily said the immortal and perfectly judged words that I will never forget.”
I should remember those following 50 seconds, but I just don’t. I next recall wearing my newly-hung medal and walking back down the other side to be seated at the rear as the ceremony drew to a close. We all stood, the National Anthem was played, and the Queen exited left. As she walked within touching distance past my family, although I couldn’t see, apparently she directed a smile straight at Peter; of course, she was and remains the Patron of the Scout Association, what a generous, spontaneous, unnecessary gesture this was to such a young lad.
Then it was all over. Everyone regrouped in the Palace’s central courtyard which quickly became a noisy throng of excited families. Official photographs were taken. Celebrities were spotted. I managed to say a quick hello/farewell to the lady-from-the-WI whose husband, I swear, was about to explode with pride. I looked around for Charlie and Tracey to say goodbye but couldn’t see them.
Eventually we walked over to where the car was parked, proudly defiant in a line of chauffeurs, limousines, Rollers and Bentleys. To my horror she was surrounded by three uniformed police officers. My heart sank – OK, the rear tyres weren’t exactly brand new, but they were at least legal. She was displaying a valid road fund licence – or was she, doubt suddenly set in. And to be sure the metal coat hanger (I swear I’d meant to take it out before we’d arrived) that was still sticking up in the place of the broken radio aerial didn’t do the old crate any favours. “Is this your car, sir?” “Yes,” I replied nervously, “is there a problem?” “Oh no sir, quite the opposite. Could we take a photo of ourselves with it, it’s years since we’ve had something like this in here.”
We took the coat hanger out first…
Everyone we spoke to seemed to be heading off to the Ritz and the Savoy and other swanky places for posh celebrations. I now had a medal, but we were still as poor as church mice and besides, what else could better meeting the Queen. So, off we trotted to the Science Museum for lunch in the cafeteria followed by a look round the exhibits. The kids loved it.
I know, I know, we no longer have an Empire. Imperial associations are indeed a thing of the past. The honours system is regularly pilloried and portrayed as an unfair, abused, outdated and anachronistic hang-over from a previous age of privilege and patronage that has no place in our modern meritocratic society. Huge arguments rage twice a year as each latest Honours list is criticised as being riddled with inequity, inconsistency and anomaly. Certainly, even to me its credibility is not helped by the seeming reward by “Buggins’ turn”, and the political awards doled out in bucketloads by politicians to their unremarkable and undeserving mates for favours done or promised. But we live in a culture of success; there is a place for more recognition and respect, not less. Huge numbers of good, ordinary people are recognised by the Honours system for their countless selfless acts and remarkable sacrifices. A noble honours system that rewards appropriately can bring us together rather than divide us. We just need to venerate the right things and the right people in the right ways.
One final word – it is so easy to nominate someone for an award. Do it. Look around you, if someone you know deserves that special level of recognition for what they’ve done in the community or at work then do something about it. If you don’t, then probably no one else will make that first move. Go to the Cabinet Office website, it’s all explained there, it couldn’t be simpler. There’s no set format for the nomination, I’ve done it a few times over the years, always without the subject’s knowledge and not always successfully; but that doesn’t matter, it’s just that on those occasions it felt the right thing to do and it felt good doing it.
My modest gong means the world to me, mostly because it made my dad so proud. “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.” (Babe Universal Pictures, 1995)
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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.