Years ago and in a foreign country a distinguished person came to address the school I was teaching at. I no longer remember whether the person was an old boy, or a parent, or a governor or what. But I do remember that by profession he was an ambassador.
The headmaster, who was himself a worryingly odd character, called a meeting of the staff. After the ambassador's address, he said, there would be a little function in his honour.
We were expected to be there. And the headmaster let us know that should we have the good fortune to find ourselves spoken to by the ambassador he liked to be addressed formally, with the words "Your Excellency".
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Well now, even back then when I was a polite little shrimp and not the hard-shelled, grumpy crayfish I am now, I snorted. I snorted at the absurdity of calling anyone "Your Excellency". And though I didn't think it through at the time it seems to me now that it was a tripartite snort.
First it was a snort of disbelief. I disbelieved that anyone could be simply excellent. I could accept a singular excellence - in juggling say, or identifying mushrooms - but not an excellence in general.
General excellence was the quality of a god, and then, as now, I suspected gods, in all their variety, of being fictional.
Second it was a snort of incomprehension. If this man was excellence personified, why did he need to be addressed as such? Why did he need reminding?
Surely if there was such a thing as all-round excellence, one component of it would be modesty. (Though here too the god comparison arises. Every god, from Allah to Zeus, seems to require praise and worship and being told by his subjects what a wonder he is, day after day, week after week, service after service. Gods never tire of being told they're great. They seem as vain as we are).
And third it was a snort of resentment. Nobody likes a boaster, but this was going beyond boasting. The ambassador wasn't telling us he was excellent. He was requiring us to tell him he was excellent. To address him was to flatter him. It was compulsory dishonesty and I resented being obliged to lie.
I remember nothing of the ambassador's speech to the school, of course. In the course of my years of teaching I heard hundreds of speeches and offhand I can remember only one, which was given by a fat little bishop at a prize giving. He told 600 schoolboys that at their age he had taken an intense interest in parrots. He urged them to do likewise.
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I bunked the ambassador's after-match function. I doubted my ability to say Your Excellency with a straight face and I didn't want to cause a diplomatic incident. No one remarked on my absence. Perhaps I'd already been identified as a bolshie.
And I remain a bolshie. I will never refer to anyone as reverend or very reverend or father or holy father or your grace or any other title implying spiritual authority merely because he or she has attended theological college (and if you're looking for a definition of an oxymoron look no further than theological college). Nor will I address a mayor as Your Worship or Winston Peters as Honourable.
The only exception I'd make is the Queen. I would be happy to call her Your Majesty, not because she's majestic, but because I feel sorry for her. She's taken one for the species.
Like bees in a hive or wolves in a pack, human beings are hierarchical. Every society everywhere creates tiers, which means that someone has to be at the top. But very few people deserve to be at the top and even those few can be corrupted by being there. Which is why I admire the Queen.
She's accepted the role of leader of the pack but asserted none of its privileges. She has suppressed self and become a cipher for the good of others. She has acted as a bowl into which the dangerous stuff called power has been poured for safe keeping. It can't have been much fun.
But as for the rest of them, pfui, though I realise of course that this little protest will make no difference. We're not going to stop creating hierarchies or being vain. And besides, others have seen through titles before me.
After the French revolution they addressed each other as citizens. After the Russian, comrades. What did we get? Citizen Robespierre and Comrade Stalin.