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“For services to international family law”

The letter lay open on my desk, delivered in the routine office post whilst I was in a meeting.  Marked private and confidential, it had been opened with other P&C letters I receive similarly marked in my line of business.  No one read the dense text or gave it a second thought.  When I saw it, I didn’t really comprehend what it was saying.  Perhaps inevitably it was written in a fairly archaic, old school civil service language.  I took it into my wife, our managing partner, to see if it really was what it seemed to be saying

 

Yes, I had indeed been nominated for and was being offered the OBE.  I was amazed, dumbstruck and thoroughly unable to comprehend.  I had had no inkling that anything like this might occur or was in the offing or indeed had been in planning (scheming) by others.  I felt so undeserving of such an accolade.  It happened to other people.  Yet there was also excitement, wonder, gratitude and huge joy.

 

The letter was adamant about secrecy over the next six weeks or so until the announcement in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, midnight 6 June 2014.  Well I had already told my wife and there was no way I was going to keep it secret from her, although at the investiture I did meet one recipient who had not told her husband until she invited him to read the paper where he then discovered it.  I would have been in real difficulty if I had tried the same thing!  I did tell my father who, as a military man would be able to keep a state secret!  But that was all.  It was jolly hard not telling others. 

 

On the day of the announcement, at 10:30 PM when it went public, several newspapers had already made contact during the day asking for quotes and background for stories once the press embargo was lifted.  Until then it had all still seemed very unreal or surreal or both.  On the Friday evening when we thought it was safe to do so, we shared the news with some close friends and opened yet another bottle of bubbly.  I went online to see the announcement and had a wild panic that it had all been a major mistake because there was the list on the Internet at 10:20 PM and I wasn’t on it.  The voice of marital calm pointed out that I was looking at the 2013 list!  Exactly at 10:30 PM the list went online.  And there it was.  Still unbelievable

 

What was a particular joy in reading the list was a good friend of mine from our days at a church in New Malden many years ago, Antony Elliott, and with whom I had lost contact, had also received the OBE for his work in creating fair ethics for the banking industry.  Another friend, Sunita Mason, a fellow part-time judge, was also honoured.

 

I particularly remember that Saturday morning.  There was a wonderful flurry of telephone calls with friends and family.  There was such a feeling of shared joy and happiness.  There was incredible generosity of spirit.  The local newspaper sent a photographer around for photos.  I had emailed many friends around the world and around the country and received hugely supportive responses.  In the highly competitive business of the legal profession, there were so many genuine kind words.  They were particularly appreciated from those with whom one has worked over many years

 

Those three initials started to appear at the end of the name on e-mails and letters.  I still didn’t like using it extensively but it was appropriate in places.  I still couldn’t recognise it was me.

 

Always though there was still the most important aspect of all: the investiture still to come.  When and where and with whom?  It was another four months, late October, that we heard it would be on 5 December and at Windsor Castle.  It was only on the day that I learned that recipients in the South and West of the country are often invited there, and it was certainly easier for us for travel.

 

I could only invite 3 guests.  My father was nervous about being part of such a relatively long event, perhaps more than two hours, but obviously he would not miss this event.  I also invited one of my friends from my early school days, Peter Grinyer.  And of course my wife, Ann, who went into coulture choosing overdrive.  Hats, shoes, accessories and mostly the frock.  This last selection, notwithstanding vast research, was left until the last fortnight when we made a dash on a Sunday afternoon to the Cheltenham Frock Shop, based in the Cotswolds, and the owner kindly stayed open for Ann to have an hour and a half of trying on, I’m sure, every frock in the entire shop until the right item was found, and really good it looked to

 

So to the day itself.  A couple of days before we decided not to risk the Friday morning rush-hour traffic from the deepest Surrey Hampshire borders.  We stayed at the Great Fosters hotel in Egham and they did a magnificent job.  After final checking of clothing and suitable ties etc, we set off for the 10 minute drive to Windsor Castle.  One of the highlights of the day and a real privilege was being able to drive along the Long Walk, reserved only for a few and available to the recipients of the honours.  It is a magnificent piece of landscape and a wonderful sight as we approached the Castle.  Passes and photographic ID were thoroughly checked by heavily armed police.  But then, instead of parking outside the Castle on the Long Walk, we were signalled to park right underneath the walls of the inner Castle because my father was due to have a wheelchair.  We passed under the Castle Gate and through into the central Green.  An incredible privilege.  My father then had one of her Majesty’s wheelchairs (Royal Household No 7!), or so we said to him, and were taken through the private areas for ease of access.  He was put in a lift installed for Queen Victoria, and it only fitted his wheelchair.

 

I then left Ann, Peter and Norman, my father, and they went into the Waterloo Chamber where the investiture was taking place and, as I subsequently discovered, were put into the front row because of the wheelchair.  I was directed to the holding bay of the other recipients.  It was a tremendous opportunity to meet people from wide and diverse walks of life, receiving honours for incredible things they had all done, whether international or national or within local communities.  It was humbling to be there.  In due course we were given instructions by multi-braided and very military organisers.  Where to walk.  When to stop.  How to bow the head or curtsy.  When to speak and when to know the speaking is finished.  How to walk backwards and then how to leave and where to leave.  Barely anything was left to initiative, and sensibly so.  It was an incredibly well run military operation, timed to perfection.

 

It was then that we were told that the presentation would be by her Majesty the Queen.  Receiving the honour itself was incredible but to have it bestowed by the sovereign, our Queen over so many decades, and the person for whom many of us have incredible respect for her service and all she has done for our country.  It caused an audible frizzom of additional excitement in the room

 

We were told that the first time in conversation with her Majesty she should be addressed as Your Majesty and on the second and any subsequent occasions as “ma’am”, as in jam rather than as in marmalade.

 

We were then taken in batches of 15 or so to wait in the splendid Garter Room.  There was inevitably an order to the presentations; seniority of the honour then military before civilian then women before men.  The old and proper chivalry.  I was in the first batch, queueing for the start of the ceremony.  We heard the National Anthem and were told the Queen had arrived.  The inherent nervousness of such a situation became almost physically palpable.  I was really struck that, humbly as I viewed it, here queueing was the great and the good, the very bright and the very brave, those who had made incredible sacrifices in good work internationally, nationally and amongst local community, but all now nervously looking forward to the meeting with the sovereign, whether bowing the knee for a knighthood or bowing the head or curtsy for other honours.  It brought home very much to me the element of sovereign and people, as throughout history. 

 

The ceremony started at 11 o’clock on the dot.  I was about the 12th to go forward.  I stood at the doorway as instructed and for the first time could see the huge magnificent room in which the investiture took place, with the many guests and many members of the Royal household overseeing the proceedings.  As one recipient finished receiving their medal, there was the nod to me to walk forward to stand alongside one of the officials whilst the person in front of me walked forward to receive his honour.  It seemed an age but I’m sure it was only a couple of minutes.  Then the name was called in a very deep, sonorous voice: Mr David Hodson, for services to international family law.  Oh help, that’s actually me.  Here goes.  A short walk of about three paces.  90° turn.  Head bowed, chin tucked into the tie as instructed.  Forward about four paces reaching the small dais on which the Queen was standing.

 

She looks and is exactly as one has seen so many times on television.  An incredibly kindly face.  Although she has undoubtedly done it thousands of times before, she made it feel very personal and individual to me.  We chaps had all been given a little hook on our lapels and she put the medal onto the hook.  It happened very quickly.  She asked a couple of questions about international family law.  I had deliberately not prepared words to say as I wanted spontaneity and I was able to answer with, I hope, a degree of passion and commitment as well as saying how absolutely delighted and honoured I was.  She smiled again, a really radiant and genuine smile.  The hand was extended.  This was a signal that it was concluded.  I don’t remember putting out my hand but I guess I must have done so instinctively.  Shaking the Royal hand, another moment to remember.

 

Then three or four paces stepping backwards.  I think by now I was on autopilot and what should have been an experience full with potential hazards just carried on as it should be done.  The second bow of the head.  The 90° turn.  The walk to the door on the other side as the name of the next person was being called.  And so out of the Chamber and into St George’s Hall.  I handed over the medal which was put into its box and we were shown into the back of the Chamber to watch the remainder of the ceremony.  Almost on the dot of noon, it finished, with again the National Anthem and the Queen and the members of the Royal household in attendance walking down the middle of the room.

 

I joined Ann, Peter and my dad, who said it had seemed almost like a dream, to be so close to the front and her Majesty the Queen and to see it all happening.  There was a lot of celebrating and mutual congratulations with those I had met whilst waiting and being introduced to their own guests.  Such a very happy occasion

 

But it was not to end there.  We had the opportunity of walking through the state rooms at the Castle, with no time pressure at all, and admiring the paintings, furnishings, tapestries, ceilings and the rooms.  We then came back to St George’s Hall where professional photographers were taking pictures in front of the large Christmas tree or in front of other magnificent backdrops.  A wait but well worth it.

 

On leaving, again we went through the private area because my father was in the royal wheelchair.  Now more relaxed, it was time to look around.  The wallpaper had the ER II insignia.  My father went down in the Queen Victoria lift whilst we descended one of the staircases, and out into the private courtyard.  By now it was about 1:30 PM.  Full of elation we went back to the Great Fosters hotel for a celebratory lunch and suitable champagne.

 

It was an incredible day and one of the best days of my life, ranking up there with Southampton winning the cup final on 1 May 1976!

 

Throughout it all I was supremely conscious that there had been so many other people throughout my life who in all sorts of different ways had contributed to where I had got to, in the award being bestowed.  For some of the recipients it was a completely singular honour, an invention or an act of bravery etc that they alone had done.  For me I felt it was an honour for very many people who work incredibly hard in family law generally and specifically to help international families and their children and to inform and educate and to improve the law and practice to produce better fairness and justice.

 

Thank you to everyone

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