by Ian McCall


I may have been a willing participant in the fag-end of empire but I cannot let the opportunity pass of acknowledging the style with which the charade of power instituted by the early representatives of imperial authority was perpetuated even as its rule was being wrested from it. I say ‘wrested’ advisedly as the British government’s time-scale for the granting of independence seemed progressively to contract as a result of response to the identification of unrelenting forces calling for change. Nowhere was this charade reflected better than in the custom of the champagne breakfast. Perhaps this seeming oxymoron was in fact a commonplace among the landed classes or the turn-of-the-century equivalent of today`s chattering classes. It certainly was not something practised by the people living in the houses of the wynds and vennels of my home town, nor in the substantial dwelling houses of its somewhat more affluent citizens. There is an expression known to me - ‘the wedding breakfast’- which could conceivably be associated with champagne, but that always seemed a nonsense as no one in their right mind would get married or drink champers so early in the day. Champagne lunch perhaps. Maybe it is a custom that scions of the aristocracy who took the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe in the second half of the 19th century, brought back from their travels in Germany where the Sektfrühstück was a ritual to mark an important event like a fiftieth anniversary or the annual meeting of German wholesalers as they thrashed out the basis of civilised competition for the ensuing year.

The champagne breakfast was given in celebration of an important event and that was associated in the few instances in my experience with the award of a decoration in the Queen’s Birthday or the New Year Honours List. It was inevitable that someone you knew or knew of would be honoured in one way or another. The secret was well guarded and invitations would be made by a close friend or colleague of the impending recipient on the morning of the publication of the list, thereby perpetuating the myth of the spontaneity of the event. This information is largely from hearsay as I was present on only one such occasion. So I infer the general from the very particular but also from the accounts of others. The ‘breakfast’ was just before the normal lunchtime and consisted indeed of champagne, accompanied by tasty bits. Speeches were part of the proceedings, one (at least) of congratulation and another acknowledging the support of colleagues and thanking them for their part in the award which was also in recognition of their contributions.

I am sure that recognition was deserved, the only pity being that there were many more deserving cases who could have been included if only the list were flexible and nominations not confined to senior government officials. A case in point was Harry Whittaker who arrived at the Warri club from the creek on Christmas Day dressed as Santa Claus and bearing presents in his canoe for the children on the station. I have mentioned Jim Brown’s work also in the Warri area where he quietly, in addition to his other duties, went about doing simple but effective infrastructural works in the bush. No doubt, if more people had been recognised as deserving, the awards might not have been valued to the same degree. Maybe the greatest of rewards lay in the knowledge of having done the job to the best of one’s ability, and that often meant beyond the call of duty. The titles of these decorations were redolent of empire and the prerogative of the Sovereign graciously to bestow them a gesture within His/Her gift in grateful acknowledgement of the bestowee’s contribution to the furtherment of the Pax Britannica. If you thought about it, you came up with questions about the honours system itself and what it was it underpinned. That Harry Johnson should have been knighted, the man who had so dishonourably tricked King Jaja into captivity, an action deplored by the prime minister of the day and one that had long-lasting repercussions on the trust that could be put on an official’s word in the region, suggests that it is at worst a mockery. Was it a vehicle for giving psychological rewards to those employed by government or to politicians for doing adequately what they were paid to do or perhaps to reinforce the hierarchies the British elite found so dear? Or recompense for serving dutifully in some distant and none too salubrious place? In any case it was based on an outmoded concept as the following examples will illustrate. It has taken journalists over forty years to discover only one or two of the names given to some of these decorations by clever and irreverent officials, which those of us who lived it accepted as part of the linguistic baggage we took along with us:

Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) My Bloody
Efforts {Motto of the Order For God and for Empire}

Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) Other Buggers’

Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) Ma`am’s Very Own (This is a
decoration awarded for personal services to the monarch)

Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) Can’t Be
Ennobled (Got as far as he/she can get but did well what he/she had to do)

Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG)
Call Me God (Usually denotes the recipient served with some distinction)

Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) The
King Calls Me God (probably served with even greater distinction or did whatever
he did for longer or in a more exalted position)

Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George
(GCMG) God Calls Me God (A paragon of all the virtues. Usually reserved for
for those in the highest echelons of the service but awarded very sparingly)

The apparent pomposity of the names of the orders is mitigated by the irreverence of the articulators of the alternative titles. At least two of the people I first heard quote some of these have later had a decoration bestowed on them. Will they feel any different now? Will the concept of Britishness be an anachronism in an age when the nation state is fragmenting all over the world and reverting to a pattern which indicates that the last two hundred and fifty years of its assumed permanence have been an extended blip in the continuity of small autonomous societies? Perhaps it is a case of ‘back to the future’ and the death-knell of the all-powerful state that forces its will on large and reluctant minorities even where the representatives of the people have been ‘democratically’ elected.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003