Chain male - sizing up the NUJ’s livery collar

THE INVITATION to a swanky dinner for the shipping industry included a line that I struggled to comprehend. "Black Tie Decorations". What could that mean? I puzzled without success until an old episode of TV sitcom Dad's Army floated from the memory's recesses.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

The hapless platoon were summoned to a town-centre march, and instructed by the Top Brass in no uncertain terms to "wear their medals". Captain Mainwaring, who had no service record, spent the entire episode trying to avoid the event lest his undecorated chest become the subject of ridicule.

The UK Chamber of Shipping, to whose bash I had been graciously asked by a fellow trades union, were inviting diners to adorn their tuxedos with whatever precious metals they were entitled to wear, I realised. Not for the first time, my sympathies for the bombastic Mainwaring swelled. Then it came to me: I could wear my NUJ Presidential chain of office.

This gilded insignia has not been seen in public for some years. Until the presidency of Chris Morley (2006-2007) it generally adorned the President's neck for at least part of the Annual Delegate Meeting. Then it disappeared. I made enquiries when I assumed high office, to be told that it was lost. Happily this soon turned out to be untrue - it had merely been pushed to the back of the finance-department safe and forgotten.

Once squeezed into my dinner suit, I recovered the necklace and admired its golden form. A frieze of roses, thistles, shamrocks and daffodils encircle the brooch above an open book and pen. These surround a light blue disk on which appear the words "NATIONAL UNION OF JOURNALISTS", within which, on a red background, are the entwined letters NUJ. At the bop of the pendant, over a fleur-de-lys is a scroll bearing the title "PRESIDENT".

Its box tells me that the badge was manufactured by Thomas Fattorini of Birmingham - then established "over 125 years". As the company was founded in 1827, and moved its badge-making operation to Manchester in the mid 1960s, this dates the NUJ's chain of office to somewhere between 1952 and 1964.

[The badge]

I tried it around my neck and imagined how it might prompt conversation.

In my early days as an NUJ activist, my instincts were shaped by a long-serving member of the NEC who was routinely contemptuous of whoever was the president. He referred to the ceremonial insignia as "the bicycle chain", by way of indicating that it was a rôle best avoided.

Now with the precious metal of office around my neck for the first time, however, I began to feel rather differently. Whatever the aesthetics of the chain itself, what it symbolises is something of far greater import. My fleeting entitlement to wear it derives from the gratifying trust placed in me by the membership. More important by far, however, is the mutuality of trust that this transitory office implies among the entire membership. Most never have, or will meet me or any president. Their faith lies in the overlapping bodies - chapel, branch, executive, delegate meeting - that have placed me here.

One hundred and five presidents precede me; hopefully there will be many more to come. Some will be brilliant, others less so, but all will carry with them the same bonds of mutual reliance from which I have benefitted. Expressed at its simplest, we NUJ members trust one another to act collectively to safeguard journalism and journalists - a magical bond that has sustained the NUJ for over a century.

The physical weight of the chain of office is not great. I suspect that our predecessors avoided the yo-yoing value and troubling provenance of gold. The chain's moral weight, however, is considerable - adding heft to its wearer's authority and a responsibility for how that is deployed. I'm sure that I could have done more, but hope that my Presidential efforts have at least been creditable.

In the end, I decided that my dinner jacket looked best undecorated. In my few remaining weeks of office, however, whenever I am seeking inspiration to motivate my work for the union, it is the emblem of office that I call to mind. And here is a final promise - the chain will have an outing at Southport, if only to protect me from delegates' slings and arrows.