Saturday, 1 January 2011
Honours from the Empire
Mark naturally is pleased to receive this Honour, but you know it’s a funny old world. Not everyone is like Mark. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth wanted to pin an OBE on the breast of poet Benjamin Zepheniah, and instead of smiling broadly like Mark and ordering up his morning suit, Benjamin declared he wouldn’t take the OBE! Rejected it out of hand. Naturally, he was asked why he’d done such a thing and he said it was because the OBE reminded him of ‘thousands of years of brutality’. How do you mean brutality, the reporters asked. “It reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised” Benjamin said. Did you ever hear the like? Talk about ungrateful.
A shame he couldn’t have followed the example of the native American people, centuries ago. Then, native people, whether in America or Ireland were much less cheeky. They were grateful. Appreciative when an Honour was bestowed on them. Biddable. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon captures this attitude very well in his poem ‘Meeting the British’. Like Queen Elizabeth’s distribution of Honours, Muldoon’s poem is set at this time of year when people need cheering up.
We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender,
And the snow, lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
The sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over).
The poem ends with a British colonel and a British general conferring their Honours on the simple native people:
They gave us six fishhooks
And two blankets embroidered with smallpox.
You could warm your hands off that account as well.