The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Naipaul biographer turns down Queen’s honour

London, Sept. 28: Patrick French, the prize-winning author, turned down the offer of an honour from the Queen for “his contribution to Indo-British relations” because he felt this might undermine his status as an independent writer, it was revealed today.

The offer of an OBE (Order of the British Empire) was contained in a “formal letter” written on behalf of “HM The Queen” and asked French if he would accept the honour.

This is normal procedure under which candidates for honours are sounded out on their reaction before the official announcement is made.

Although only 37, French is highly regarded for his rigorous scholarship and his books, which include Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division.

He was picked last year to be the official biographer of Nobel Prize-winning author Sir Vidia Naipaul. The latter was impressed with Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventure, French’s biography of a man who invaded Tibet in 1903 only to become a mystic. The book won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Prize.

French’s latest book, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, has also been well received.

French and his family have just spent five months in India, mostly based in Kerala, where he has been gathering material on Naipaul. Unlike French, Naipaul was delighted to accept a knighthood from the Queen, although admittedly this is a much higher honour.

French wrote back to say “it was very nice to be offered the honour but I will have to turn it down”.

Today, French told The Telegraph that the OBE was particularly inappropriate because it contained the word “empire”.

“If you are a businessman, it’s ok but as a writer on South Asia, I wanted to be seen to have an independent voice,” he added.

Among those who have recently been more than happy to accept the OBE are some big names — James Bond star Pierce Brosnan, the England football captain, David Beckham, and the former England cricket captain, Alec Stewart.

It was Naipaul who approached French with the offer of writing his biography.

French hesitated before finally accepting.

Lady Naipaul said at the time that both she and her husband felt that French possessed great integrity, a very good understanding of his books and of both Indian and British cultures.

According to Lady Naipaul: “Patrick has no malice. Patrick is unique in that I have never known to say anything disparaging about anyone.”

French said today: “I am off to Oklahoma (to Tulsa University) where the Naipaul papers are kept to do more research. The first part of the biography will appear while Naipaul is alive.”

French has many useful Indian connections, having helped Arundhati Roy to find a literary agent (David Godwin) for The God of Small Things, which went on to win the Booker Prize.

The Order of the British Empire was created during the First World War in 1917 by George V. The OBE is the order of chivalry of the British democracy.

Valuable service is the only criterion for the award, and the Order is now used to reward service in a wide range of useful activities. There are more than 100,000 living members of the Order throughout the world.

“The motto of the Order is ‘For God and the Empire’,” said French, making it clear this was not something to which he could subscribe.

Although there is not an exact parallel, he said he found it inspiring that Rabindranath Tagore had sent back his knighthood after the Amritsar massacre of 1919.

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