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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Naipaul biographer refuses OBE

Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online, London

British historian Patrick French turned down the offer of an OBE to "guard his independence as a writer".

Patrick French
Patrick French: Change in honours system is long overdue (photo courtesy of Emily Andersen)
He feels that the title of OBE could end up stifling and shackling him.

The 37-year-old academic, who has written best selling books on India and Tibet, was chosen last year to be the biographer of Nobel Prize-winning author Sir Vidia Naipaul.

The Order of the British Empire was created during World War I in 1917 by George V and is now awarded to civilians and service personnel for public service or other distinctions.

James Bond star Pierce Brosnan and England football captain David Beckham are among the more than 100,000 living members of the order throughout the world.

'A writer is a free agent'

Mr French received an offer of an OBE earlier this year.

"The greatest thing about being a writer is that you have freedom to say what you think.

"Once you take a medal from a government or a monarch, it looks as if you have been brought into the fold," Mr French told BBC News Online.

It is ridiculous that honours given in the 21st century have the word Empire
Patrick French
"But it is up to each person whether they want to take a medal. My point was that if you are in the armed forces or the civil service, for example, it goes with the job. But as a writer you are a free agent."

Mr French said that he does not like the honours system in Britain.

"It is opaque. It is decided by a secret committee, and then the recommendation is given to the Queen," he said.

Mr French, whose latest book is Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, also feels that an honour like the OBE smacks of the old colonial order.

"It is ridiculous that honours given in the 21st century would have the word empire in them. The motto that goes with the OBE is 'For God and the Empire'. Which God and which Empire?"

He added that understanding the British Empire in history lessons is "crucially important" and that it was not "taught in enough detail in schools".

"But this argument about medals relates to the present. I think it was the Duke of Edinburgh who suggested, about 30 years ago, that the word empire in the medals OBE, CBE etc should be replaced by the word 'Excellence'," he said.

"The Order of British Excellence has a good ring to it. So it's a very sensible suggestion... and a change which is long overdue."

'Helpful' Naipaul

Mr French is now busy researching the first volume of his Naipaul biography.

VS Naipaul
VS Naipaul: "Easy to work with"
He is spending the rest of the year at the Nobel Laureate's archives in the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

"It is a big project and the first volume will not be completed for several years," he said.

Mr French said he was happy to work with the mercurial Sir Vidia.

"So far, VS Naipaul has been helpful and easy to work with - I know that may surprise some people, but it's true," he said.

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