Books: Unsentimental journey

Michele Roberts enjoys sharp new angles on the Diana cult
After Diana: irreverent elegies

edited by Mandy Merck

Verso, pounds 10, 231pp

THE COVER of this iconoclastic volume depicts Princess Diana as a smirking renaissance Madonna cradling her babe. Is nothing sacred? The heretics speak out! Thus endeth the first lesson, or blurb. The essays that follow the provocative title page are far livelier than any sermon, being written by a bunch of journalists, academics and free-range intellectuals whose business is investigating ideas rather than propagating eternal truths. This makes for a refreshing lack of pomposity that is not always evident in pulpit pronouncements.

The premise of the book is clear. For anyone sick of the sentimentality, dishonesty and mystification surrounding our latest saint, here is an antidote. Since the cult of Our Lady Diana has its devotees and self-elected priests, its infallible doctrines and touchy-feely rituals, its Althorp and Internet shrines, its tabloid-attested miracles, there must exist a space for heretics too.

Orthodoxy and heresy are mutually supportive twins; blasphemy and belief are needily entwined like voracious lovers. The carnival, as Juliet Mitchell once remarked, always happens on the church steps. The dissidents nail their theses to the door of the church; they don't burn it down.

One of the strengths of this engaging anthology is its authors' refusal, in the main, to submit to a Madonnas versus Magdalens version of recent history, in which Di was either a lovely or a loathly lady. Instead, the contributors unpick the sections of the myth that most bother or annoy them.

So, on the one hand, they come across as disciples of reason sternly chiding the excesses of imagination. On the other, they are mostly willing to admit to an ex-convert's fascination, often disgusted, with the meanings projected onto Diana by fans.

Mandy Merck has always been an astute commentator on the Princess Di phenomenon. Way back in the heady engagement days, when the fairytale version of the royal stud farm had been bought by most onlookers, she was pointing out how the adoration of male photographers could quickly convert into its opposite.

Now, Merck places the people's princess in a context of the modernising ideologies of Blair's Britain. To declare yourself a socialist in modern Britain is to be a heretic in danger of burning at the stake; and to be plunged into passionate alternative thought is another reason for finding this book such exhilarating reading.

Merck has carefully ordered the essays so that they chime and resonate. Each functions as a beam of light which strikes one facet of the crystal of modern Britain. Multiple viewpoints are offered: the collection embraces satire, historical theory, political analysis, polemic, anecdote, psychoanalytical investigation, stand-up-comic rudeness. There's even a song, with words and music, by theorist Jean Baudrillard.

To some extent, Merck has rounded up the usual heretics, from Christopher Hitchens to Dorothy Thompson to Alexander Cockburn, but her definition of dissidence lets her include novelists like Sara Maitland and journalists like Linda Holt, as well as well-known commentators such as Elizabeth Wilson and Sarah Benton.

The tone is thoughtful, angry, witty, always very intelligent. The only contribution that fails to hit the mark is from Glen Newey. Apparently aiming for a mix of Swiftian satire and Amisian riff-of-disgust, Newey deploys banal ad feminam arguments and ends up sounding merely spiteful. The essays I most enjoyed were those mixing self-interrogation with analysis.

Sarah Benton, for example, provides a brilliant account of why her own shock at Diana's death led her to try to understand the paranoia afflicting those who feel left out in our culture, and their adoption of Diana as a figurehead. Her expression is concise and poetic, her language crisp and accessible. How stimulating to read a political thinker who engages in such committed dialogue with the reader.

Richard Coles is another exemplary writer, providing a very funny and insightful portrait of Diana as camp heroine, as a gay man. Linda Holt gives a most thought-provoking account of the way that feminism's slogan - "the personal is political" - has been taken out of its orginal context by Diana's fans, and shorn of meaning so that it ends up as a defence of any old solipsistic ramblings. These are just a few jewels among many, in a book that constitutes necessary reading for anyone desiring change.