The Order of Merit, by Stanley Martin (I. B. Tauris, £25)

This week, a large congregation will gather to honour the memory of Sir Edward Ford, for many years Secretary and Registrar of the Order of Merit (OM), and a man who understood the significance and the nuances of the various Orders a rare talent at a time when the system is muddled and consistency of approach is somewhat lacking.

Sir Edward would have had hours of fun with this book. He followed its development over many years, and missed receiving an early copy by a matter of days. He saw his role as Secretary to suggest recipients of the OM, and was vigilant lest a worthy candidate should slip through the net. He was irritated in his last year when one of these was scooped up into another Order.

The OM is in the personal gift of The Queen, and there are only 24 members at any given time. As recipients die, they are quite swiftly replaced. The Order enjoys a special place in the system, considered by some more coveted than the Garter, partly because of its requirement for ‘meritorious service’ and partly because it confers no title on recipients. One thus honoured, the sculptor Henry Moore, explained: ‘Titles change one’s name and one’s opinion of oneself. The initials are not so bad. No one comprehends them.’ Thus the OM has proved acceptable to the wilder elements of our national life Bohemian artists such as Augustus John and Lucian Freud although it was still too establishment for George Bernard Shaw.

This book tells the history of the OM and places it neatly in context. But the book’s particular value is that it gathers together in one volume the most fascinating figures of the 20th century military and naval commanders, statesmen, scientists, artists, sculptors, musicians, actors, writers, and others who have but one thing in common: that they achieved enough in life to be given the Order of Merit.

The author has had to come to an understanding of the varied careers of Field Marshal Roberts, Winston Churchill, Kenneth Clark, Elgar, Ted Hughes, Lord Denning, and Cardinal Basil Hume, not to mention Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, whose OM now adorns a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. (Mother Teresa sent The Queen a photo of this, in the hope that ‘it will give you joy to see the gift of the Queen of England on the neck of the Queen of Heaven and Earth’.)

Stanley Martin also speculates on those who missed out – those approached who declined, those whose cases were promoted, and those whom no one (save the author) seems to have thought of. This is an entertaining feature of the book, although I am not convinced that his idea that Eleanor Roosevelt should have been given it would have found favour at the court of George VI.

The book is wholly successful in its aims, and my only regret is that Mr Martin’s publishers let him down with the poor quality of reproduction of the illustrations.