Monday 19 November 2018

Nod, bow, curtsey... but never kow-tow

Damian Corless on the nuances of international protocol

Britain's Queen Elizabeth and US president George W Bush have been in a few protocol mix-ups in their time
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and US president George W Bush have been in a few protocol mix-ups in their time

Damien Corless

To Nod Or Not To Nod? That was a question posed to sailors manning Britain's royal yacht, Britannia, in a booklet offering instruction on what to do should they encounter a member of the royal family on board.

The convoluted answer is that you nod when an adult royal "enters or leaves the Wardroom, Royal Drawing Room or onto the Verandah Deck, but NOT when they enter the Church". However, in the case of schoolgoing royals, "they will be addressed by their Christian names and not accorded a nod".

Eleven years after the royal yacht was decommissioned, Britain's Ministry Of Defence has just released the book of protocols which every crewman was expected to observe. The 200 pages provide an intriguing insight into the customs, regulations and courtesies that have grown up around the royal court and its diplomatic circles.

A nod required the nodder to: "Lower your head forward until your chin touches your chest momentarily and then raise your head to an upright position. The whole sequence takes about one second." If caught unawares by a royal while working on deck with your cap off, you were to nod. If wearing your cap, you saluted but didn't nod. Whistling was banned "anywhere on board at any time", and if a royal drove past on shore, you stood rigid and saluted.

Every state has evolved its own sets of protocols, and history is littered with cases where untutored foreigners have lost their heads by failing to observe them. King George III's envoy to China, Antrim-born Sir George Macartney, provoked decades of conflict when he refused to prostrate himself (kow-tow) before Emperor Chen Long.

Protocol can be as flexible or inflexible as the situation demands. When President Bush visited the Pope last month, the Vatican announced that the normal library audience would be scrapped in favour of a stroll in the gardens. When Bush breached protocol by addressing the Pope as "Sir" instead of "Your Holiness", both sides laughed it off.

A generation earlier, there were smiles all around when one of President Reagan's male officials curtsied like a flower-girl before Prince Charles. Months later, at Charles and Di's wedding, Nancy Reagan was forgiven for shaking the Queen's hand instead of bowing. There was a general amnesty, too, for the supporters of Brian Cowen who last May breached Leinster House protocol (and security) to celebrate his elevation to Taoiseach with a raucous rendition of The Offaly Rover.

The most infamous breach of protocol here in recent times was perpetrated by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994. While Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and scores of dignitaries awaited to greet him on the Shannon Airport tarmac, Yeltsin's jet circled above as his aides tried to sober him up. According to Russia's ambassador, a "high-ranking Irishman" complained bitterly: "If your President had come out, we wouldn't have paid any attention to his state and would have forgiven him, but his refusal insulted us to the depth of our souls."

The ambassador classed Yeltsin's slight as "one of those non-standard emergencies that are impossible to predict". This year, however, Yeltsin's strongman successor, Vladimir Putin, engineered a deliberate breach of protocol to deliver a political message. Angry that Nato has been courting former Soviet states, Putin gatecrashed a Nato dinner in Bucharest, to which he had not been invited. Stunned, the other heads of state made room for him.

Polite restraint was absent last year at a Chile summit where Spain's King Juan Carlos interrupted Venezula's President Chavez, snapping: "Why don't you shut up?" Back home, Chavez returned the breach of protocol, retorting: "Mr King, we are not going to shut up."

Bewildering protocols have grown up around national flags. In the US, to publicly burn the flag is tantamount to high treason, whereas in Japan, a flag that becomes worn must be removed from sight and burned in private. Here, the Taoiseach's Department has responsibility for the flying of the tricolour, and while there are no statutory requirements, a booklet gives detailed instructions on where, when and how the flag should be displayed.

The Catholic Church has evolved many thousands of protocols, but one which it keeps under wraps is the procedure for resigning from Catholicism. Those who want out can either make "a formal act of rejection" by uttering heretical statements, or undertake the process of "notorious rejection" -- standing up in public and making a "hostile repudiation" of Catholicism.

But the Church doesn't give up its members that easily, and a counter-protocol says: "Church involvement and analysis of the act must inevitably become part of the process. The will of the agent alone affects nothing at the visible juridicial level." In other words, you might go through all the rigmarole, but the Church alone will decide whether you really mean it.

But Church and State don't have a monopoly on protocol. Godfather of Soul James Brown was a real stickler for it. At his most drugged-up and deluded, in the 1980s, he would wear a cape of royal ermine and demand that visitors approach on their knees.

From the outset, his on-stage protocols made Brown the Boss from Hell. As one musician noted: "You gotta be on time. You gotta have your uniform, the bow tie, the cummerbund. The patent leather shoes gotta be greased."

When Brown danced across stage with his back to the audience, flashing hand signals to his band, he was actually pointing out bum notes, sartorial faults, and other infractions, all of which were punishable by a cash fine.

Godfather by name, and by nature.

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