The first approach came unexpectedly and rather like a secret. The letter, in an official windowed envelope of no apparent distinction, had been sent on by my literary agent almost accidentally. 75 years ago, when he received something similar, Joseph Conrad mistook it for an income tax demand, and nearly threw it away. And it was a secret: an official letter from the Prime Minister's office, kindly murmuring of his mindedness to recommend me for an honour.
The form attached presented me with two boxes: one to be ticked if you agreed to let your name go forward, the other to be marked if you wanted to hear no more of this product. Anyone who has ever at any time read the Guardian will understand the surge of anxiety, guilt even, that wells up at this moment. We all know the moral dangers of the baubles of office, the trappings of rank, the odours of power. On the other hand any sensible person will immediately realize that first sensations are of excitement and pure delight. In a liberal mind like mine, the result is utter confusion. Ten minutes after I had posted back the form, I could no longer remember which of the boxes I had ticked.
The event itself approaches like a secret too. You might suppose, as I did, that the New Year Honours list (double-sized this year) would be announced on New Year's Day. In fact it's not; it appears on New Year's Eve, and the news is released to a select band of journalists the day before that, at twelve noon. So the first real knowledge that an honour really was dawning came when Anglia TV's newsroom rang to advise me a crew would be appearing on my doorstep very shortly, forelocks at the ready.
So to the following night, and the great moment itself – the moment of what used once to be called the Apotheosis. This was no secret; in fact I have to say it was very splendidly done. Fireworks rose over every major city on the globe. The Eiffel Tower erupted and the Washington Monument glowed. The River Thames caught fire, or almost. Thousands of distinguished people celebrated in long unmoving lines at Stratford tube station. A thousand years of past history was immediately discarded, and a new thousand ushered in.
Myself, I spent my magic moment of transformation not up a tower, on a wheel, in a tube-station or inside a riverside dome. As I have for the last 25 years, I spent the turn of the year with a small group of fellow academics and writers at a house with bubbly in a Norwich suburb. As midnight neared, we stepped outside to watch a dozen or more rockets rise high over the Earlham housing estate, and then stepped back in again to see the Millennium come. My academic host naturally disapproves of television, but he did have a set 'for the kids.' It was possible, by placing a magnifying glass in front of it, to discern Greenwich, the Queen and the Prime Minister, singing the statutory Auld Lang Syne.
So the whole world and myself went from one condition to another; and both of us seemed equally confused. Everyone expected planes to drop from the sky, and all computing to grind to a halt. The sheer ordinariness took us all by surprise. The year 2000 seemed just like old-fashioned 1999. What had been and what was coming appeared identical. And it was exactly the same with me (except that I could now look at my titled wife with an entirely new respect).
I reflect that honours and life-changes are curious things, and perhaps not always for the best. Some time back, when Punch was still Punch, the great magazine offered to help me celebrate my birthday, by lending me a Roll Royce car for a few days. All I had to do in return was write an article describing the difference it made to my life. I knew it would make none; I was completely wrong.
The car would not enter between our gateposts, so we had to spend hours parking it with very unenthusiastic friends. My children, instead of sitting in the back screaming for refreshments as usual, covered themselves with thick rugs and lay down embarrassed in the back. Restaurants found better tables; there was generally a free brandy after the meal. On the other hand, I was asked to join a society for Successful Builders, and whole districts of the city became No Go Areas. To be honest, I was not sorry when the car went away.
Will it be that way now? I'm hardly sure, since the illnesses of the season mean that over the past couple of weeks I've scarcely gone beyond my front door. I have yet to go to the pub and get the saloon bar reaction. The post has been splendid: a wonderful pile of kind associations, remembered events, old friendships. Former student protesters, devout anti-monarchists have been kind enough to join in. They were nice to me at the doctors' surgery, and even some fellow writers have been amazingly kind.
But the truth is that honours – the baubles of office, the trappings of rank, the odours of power – have always made writers anxious. Independent and critical spirits, they live in another world. Joseph Conrad refused that offered knighthood, though he did confess that, if only on behalf of Poland, he longed for the Nobel Prize. Thomas Hardy rejected one too, reputedly because he did not want his first wife to get a title, and preferred the O.M..
Rudyard Kipling refused one, and so did John Galsworthy, neither of them famously alienated figures. But these were in times when honours were highly political, and had everything to do with class and influence. Peerages were purchased, and many of them went to an aspiring, influential nouveaux riches. Lloyd George famously dispensed nearly 300 knighthoods in eighteen months, often in the form of reward for services rendered or yet to come.
In today's deeply different society, the issue of honours is still confused. We live in an age of democracy which is also an age of celebrity. More than ever before, writers exist in a world of prizes, recognitions, awards. Public honours are reflections of public values. Honours given to writers are honours given to literature, an affirmation of its cultural place and significance, in times when there are anxious fears it has fallen into neglect.
Nowadays writing, literature, takes its place in a world of a massive explosion of style, media and communications activity. It is swamped by the modern technologies, caught amid a welter of every kind of creative expression. Works of literary imagination are still a fundamental part of modern culture, especially our own, but it is important they should be affirmed.
My own feelings on the matter are deeply shaped by the experience of Angus Wilson, one of our great recent writers. He was my academic colleague, and together we founded the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 1970. In 1970 he was offered and accepted a knighthood. He found it a difficult decision, since he was a radical, a critic of British society, a campaigner for gay rights, and the Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher.
Angus Wilson, rightly, took the honour as being not simply for his own work but his passionate efforts on behalf of literature and for his belief in its centrality. He had travelled the world lecturing on British fiction; he had worked with innumerable young writers, had fought for literary freedom and the interests of writers and writing.
The outcome, it should be said, was both happy and sad. His own work grew even more experimental, and he campaigned for literature, gay rights, social reform. Finally the corporate materialism of the British Eighties grew too much for him. He believed the climate was destroying serious writing; he moved with his partner Tony Garrett to France. Then he fell ill and was unable to write.
He returned to Britain not too long before his death in 1991. Happily, his feeling that the Eighties had destroyed literature in Britain was wrong. In fact the decade was a flourishing, vital, transforming one for the British novel. Some of the leading writers were his own former friends and students, including Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro.
The new freshness that came into writing then is still very much alive as the new millennium comes in. Writing – literature – is a central expression of our culture, and London is as never before an international, multi-cultural publishing centre, and a forcing ground of creativity in the arts. A sense of creativity has surged through the culture. We have enjoyed a vital period in the novel; we have seen London become what he wanted it to be, a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural literary capital. Which is why, among all the letters and cards that have come, the most pleasing comes from Tony Garrett, Angus's partner. And, he adds, also from Angus Wilson.