My letter from Mr Goodwin, as we must now learn to call him


By Kenneth Roy

I was reminded last Saturday evening of the importance of honour and status when the president of Perth Burns Club, introducing me at its annual dinner, said that unlike most of its principal speakers in the past I didn’t have anything before or after my name.

Experiencing at once a pang of guilt, I glanced furtively at the printed list of my predecessors – a Scottish cabinet minister last year, a distinguished scholar the year before, a presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament the year before that. There was no consolation in the more distant names, the first of which I spotted being a Very Rev. Long dead, admittedly. I once interviewed him for the Beeb’s General Assembly programme. He was alive at the time. Though only just.

Jeepers. I could see how bare and bereft ‘Kenneth Roy’ would look in next year’s programme. It was kind of the president to suggest that he would try to arrange a knighthood for me in order to improve my unhappy situation in life. I wish him well in this ambitious enterprise.

Actually, my situation is more serious than it looks. Should I have fessed up to Perth Burns Club that I failed to pass any of the exams I ever sat – not that I sat many – and even failed Higher English, the only subject in which I was remotely interested? It is possible that I was distracted by the state of my short game; I was holing nothing inside eight feet. At the same time I was carrying the burden of a deep disdain for post-war Scottish education which has never deserted me.

It is equally possible, however, that I failed Higher English because I was no good at Higher English. I was then forced into journalism, the only profession for which no qualifications were required, least of all a basic proficiency in English, and worked my way down from there.

My lack of education was accompanied by an absence of any appreciation of the importance of honour and status in this vale of tears. I was grateful to my friend Sir Albert McQuarrie, a Tory MP, with whom I used to chat on the station platform at Troon when it was still relatively safe to travel on a train (so we’re not talking yesterday), for instructing me in this matter. One morning we were discussing the fall from grace of a mutual friend, who had pushed himself into some public post beyond his abilities.

‘So,’ I asked, ‘why did he do it?’

‘Because of the k, of course,’ Sir Albert hissed.

‘What’s a k?’, I asked.

Because of his fall from grace, our mutual friend was denied his k. He had to settle for one of the lower ranks, which counted for very much less.

Cameron’s decision – it appears to have been his doing – to pull the knighthood says more about the character of the man leading what is left of this country than it does about the wretched figure who woke up this morning as plain Mr Goodwin.

What is worse? Not to get the k for which you have worked and dreamed and schmoozed? Or to get it and then be stripped of it years later for some terrible decision in your business life? I think the latter. It is publicly humiliating, whereas an official snub you can keep to yourself.

Despite my failure to achieve any honour or status, or pass a single exam, I have dished out many awards to others. One of the people I once presented with an award was the man we must learn to call Mr Goodwin. Now, it is a sad fact that many recipients of awards, or of generosity of any sort, are so badly brought up that they fail to write a letter of thanks to their hosts. My informal surveys suggest that such people form a significant minority, perhaps these days a slight majority.

Mr Goodwin – Sir Fred as he then was – was not one of these awful people. A few days after the awards ceremony, I was surprised to receive a graceful handwritten letter telling me how much he had enjoyed our meeting and how much he appreciated the medal. I was surprised because he had seemed so ill at ease and because he had a reputation for ruthlessness in his dealings with others. He didn’t need to send a letter at all, but having decided that he should, he could have asked his PA to do it for him.

He was then at the height of his powers. Look at him now. He has lost his job and his reputation, his marriage has packed up, his children have suffered, he has become a national figure of fun and derision. Oh yes, we have all had a go at Sir Fred, and boy, was he asking for it.

But enough should have been enough. If the weasels of the British establishment thought they had a case against him, they ought to have put him on a criminal charge and tried him. It is clear that there was no case: that the worst of which Sir Fred was guilty was of over-reaching himself, of building castles in the sky, a Master Builder in the Ibsen class, a tragi-comic figure for our morally confused and confusing times. Did he single-handedly pull down the world’s economy? Believe that, and you will believe anything. He bought the wrong bank at the wrong time. End of story.

Cameron’s decision – it appears to have been his doing – to pull the knighthood says more about the character of the man leading what is left of this country than it does about the wretched figure who woke up this morning as plain Mr Goodwin. What does Cameron’s foolish grandstanding tell us about the honours system? It tells us that a k is not necessarily for life. It is essentially probationary, subject to review.

For this reason, when the president of Perth Burns Club emails later this year to give me the good news, I shall regretfully have to inform him that I have no intention of accepting. I may want to do something wicked and irresponsible in my old age – something for which Cameron would wish to strip me of my k – and I would rather keep my options open.

Better to die without honour in one’s own country, and without Higher English too.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review