Our dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen. His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life. While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that. This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here. Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something. Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.
So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?
Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler. Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’. Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings. The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times). And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please). It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports. Oh, and the girls hang around in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and — Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour — Lancelot).
All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare. William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town. But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York. A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’. When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):
Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;
DUCHESS OF YORK
I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.
Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.
The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you. Sorry).
But to end on a bright note. The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post. Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived. To a truly great actress, congratulations.