Books: Unsentimental journey
Michele Roberts enjoys sharp new angles on the Diana cult
Saturday 29 August 1998
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.
peopleContenders for Time magazine's Person of the Year are a mixture of the good, the bad and the holy
tvSteven Moffat reveals the actor was dying to take on the role of the Time Lord and says he is excited to see what he will do with the character
sportBayern Munich 2 Manchester City 3: City come from two down to beat reigning European Champions
newsAs the world remembers Mandela the hero, the prison where he spent 27 years seems all the more brutal
arts + ents... and a chance to paint Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel
danceUnder Tamara Rojo's inspired direction, it seems possible that it could challenge the dominance of the Royal Ballet. We meet some established names and rising stars
travelDiscover Uruguay's jet-set beach resort, an Atlantic enclave with plenty of art and culture to explore on the side
Arts & Ents blogs
The 50 Best Christmas songs: Bells continue to ring for the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York'
The X Factor winners: Where are they doing now?
Ben Whishaw to play Freddie Mercury in Dexter Fletcher film
Back from the dead? Family Guy's Brian Griffin 'to make a comeback' after fan petition
Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat says Peter Capaldi is NOT Malcolm Tucker
- 1 Mountain goats' miraculous escape from avalanche captured in dramatic video footage
- 2 It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
- 3 Sir Ian McKellen hits back at Damian Lewis' 'fruity actor' claims
- 4 Kenyan politician Mike Sonko left red-faced after photoshopping himself next to Nelson Mandela
- 5 Selfie at funeral: Cameron squeezes in on Obama snap at Mandela memorial
- < Previous
- Next >