Honours are a worthwhile method of recognition, but remain rather mysterious, says Paul Finch
Congratulations to Bryan Avery, Gillian Darley et al, honoured with those three-letter acronyms of empire to mark the Queen’s Birthday. Always a moment for celebration, but frequently the occasion for debates about who has or hasn’t been in receipt of the establishment’s mark of approval.
I can throw a small light on how things work, since for more than two decades I was part of a tiny group which reviewed/recommended architects for honours. It was the late lamented Bryan Jefferson, when he was architectural adviser to the Department of Culture, who invited me to join the group in a personal capacity. It comprised a departmental official, Bryan himself, and the chief exec of the RIBA.
We would meet two or three times a year, following which I would draft or hone citations to exact world lengths. These would go to a higher authority, in the form of a group that looked at honours for the arts as a whole, so not everyone we recommended would necessarily be accepted, but they could be borne in mind for a future occasion. Sometimes a slightly cryptic message would come our way saying we shouldn’t submit a particular person again. Had they been rude to a politician 30 years earlier? Communist spy? Tax avoider? We never knew.
Although I still get the occasional request, as an individual, to recommend people for honours, our little group faded out – or perhaps I did, though I have never had any written notification one way or the other. I can’t say I miss our meetings, which were frustrating on a number of counts, not least because in the Blair/Brown years we started getting instructions about the ‘tone’ of the list proposals.
First it was ‘younger people not recognition of lifetime achievement’. This struck me as completely mad, and it looks as though it is a policy abandoned, if Bryan and Gillian don’t mind me saying so. Then it was ‘more ethnic and women candidates’, which I regarded as insulting to both groups. There was also dubious official advice, for example ‘don’t worry about the Olympic architects, they will be taken care of in 2012’. Most of them weren’t.
Not least, there were just obvious cases of architects, or contributors to architecture, who were being consistently overlooked, with not a whiff of impropriety about them, just a blockage somewhere in the system. I will not embarrass any of the people concerned by naming them, but from my perspective there have been some serious injustices which I hope can still be rectified.
Well actually I will name one, who I hope won’t be embarrassed: David Rock, a past president of the RIBA. Apart from running a considerable practice, he spent a lifetime not just designing buildings but promoting architecture, small practices, place and community in myriad ways. If ever there were a case for a public honour it was David’s, and we repeatedly put his name forward, only for the message to fall on stony ground. DCMS (or is it now CLG?) please note.
It is a sorry fact that there are some good people who simply miss the tide, and the system as a whole moves on to new faces and new fashions – if there are three good candidates for a knighthood you will only ever get one.
There has to be a balance between the arts though, and architecture is not under-represented. Norman Foster is a peer, knight but most importantly holder of the Order of Merit; Richard Rogers is a peer, knight and Companion of Honour; it is Sir Michael, Sir Nicholas, Sir Terry. There are innumerable architect CBEs, OBEs and MBEs.
Prince Charles must be slightly baffled.