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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?