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British Monarch Recognizes Citizens' 2017 Contributions To Public Life


Each year at this time, the British monarch recognizes citizens who have made big contributions to public life. Among the new knights are Sir Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr, and Barry Gibb, co-founder of the Bee Gees. But the vast majority of recipients are ordinary people honored for doing good deeds in their communities. Most will receive less prestigious honors such as member of the Order of the British Empire - no matter that there hasn't been a British Empire to belong to for many years. It's still an honor. How do these honors play out in these crass, materialistic times?

Well, joining us is our man in London, Frank Langfitt. And, Frank, first, how much do ordinary people pay attention to these Honors Lists these days?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, you know, Robert, some do and some don't. I think the older generation's more interested in it, the millennials, younger generation not as much. And here in multicultural London it sort of depends also where you're coming from. I was talking earlier this afternoon with a couple of 20-something guys who are of African descent. And when I mentioned Ringo Starr was going to get a knighthood, they had no idea who he was.

But they did see some honorees that they do relate to. They mentioned Mo Farah. Of course, he's an Olympic four-time gold medalist, a runner from Somalia originally. He was knighted. A black film director named Amma Asante who got an MBE. And one of these guys I was talking to today, a journalism student named George Osei-Prempeh (ph), here's how he put it.

GEORGE OSEI-PREMPEH: They are people who I've followed their journey. I'm inspired by their things, their achievements, their excellence. So in some ways that's why it appeals to me.

SIEGEL: How do people respond to receiving one of these honors?

LANGFITT: Well, it depends. There are some - not many - who have turned it down actually. Roald Dahl, the children's book author. John Lennon returned his MBE back in 1969. But Sir Paul McCartney accepted his knighthood, as did Mick Jagger. Of course, this being Britain, no matter what, you're not supposed to show that you really care that much. And certainly you're not supposed to show it off. I was talking to Robert Lacey. He's a British historian. And he described what you do after you get the honor at Buckingham Palace, which comes in the form of a medal. Here's how you're supposed to handle it.

ROBERT LACEY: You keep it at home in its leather box. And the done thing is to keep the leather box closed. You don't have it on the side board open to show off to people. That - you're supposed to receive your honor - and most people do - with a degree of extra modesty.

SIEGEL: Frank, you've mentioned some of the famous people who've received honors. Who were some of the ordinary people who received honors this year, people we wouldn't have heard of?

LANGFITT: There's a lawyer named Aina Khan. She is getting an MBE. She's of Pakistani descent. And she works to encourage Muslim women to enter into legally registered marriages. And she wants to do this to help them protect their rights later on. There's another woman named Susan Coates who's worked with the Girl Guides. That's essentially the Girl Scouts. And of course, these are not going to get national headlines, these folks. But they will get covered in the local newspapers, and local people in the community are going to hear about them.

SIEGEL: In the U.S., we really don't have anything comparable to this. We have some medals awarded by the president or military decorations. I wonder about the origin of the Honors List and what purpose you think it serves in British life.

LANGFITT: You know, Robert, I asked the historian, Mr. Lacey, about this earlier today. And he said it came out of World War I. People were dying and being injured in the battlefields, and they were getting medals. And they thought this was a good way to honor civilian contributions. And it was created by the royal family. And what they wanted to do was root themselves in the middle class in Britain and not be as associated with the aristocracy. The other purpose, of course, is to encourage and reward selflessness and provide a sense of community. I'm not sure people, you know, actually do all these good works so that they can get an MBE, but I think they do appreciate the honor.

SIEGEL: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "NEVER STOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.