Do I believe in the cult of Diana? Well, partly yes and partly no
The battle of the Queen of Hearts versus the Madame of Media threatens to crush those who believe in neither
Tuesday 25 August 1998
"What did Diana mean to you?" the reporter had asked. Presumably she had been hoping for a nostalgic exegesis of all Diana, Princess of Wales's furry connections with the world of Welsh women. Pain, suffering, understanding, empathy, beauty, loss, charity - all these and more would have tripped off the lady's lips. After all, she had come a long way to take part in the sponsored Diana walk, due to amble along the route taken by the funeral cortege a year minus a week ago. But no, three increasingly grumpy "what- did-Diana mean-to-you?"s elicited only the one unsatisfactory word, "charisma".
To add pointlessness to verbal failure, only a few hundred walkers, out of the 15,000 that had been expected, turned up. First they wouldn't talk the talk, then they refused to walk the walk. A fiasco.
So, is this how matters stand in year 1 anno Diana? A pile of Diana memorabilia that no one wants to buy, a groaning shelf of commemorative programmes that no one wants to see, a skip full of articles that no one wants to read? What will we do with the landmine shows, the dead children shows, the "ordinary people on that special day" shows? Does no one care? Was it all a dream?
The Independent's poll, published yesterday, was certainly prayed in aid of this argument. "Britons reject much-heralded `Diana effect','' said the headline, glossing over our own, relatively muted heralding of the "Diana effect". "Only one in seven thinks that Britain is a better country as a result of Diana's death," said the accompanying article, skating briskly over the ironic possibilities of that particular question. And "only 17 per cent" had said that Diana's death "changed the way that I think about life".
Our own editorial, commenting on the poll results, placed the blame with the media. "Primary responsibility for stoking the emotional overkill," it argued, "must lie with the press and broadcasters." Amen to that. But, also yesterday, our Review section led with an admirable piece all about spirituality in the wake of Diana's death. This put me in mind of Carly Simon's hit, "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you". As, of course, does this article.
The poll and the non-walk certainly provided welcome ammunition for the anti-Dianas, who now seem to be everywhere. For them Diana Week had been a brief moment of media-inspired hysteria, a spasm, a worrying but ultimately meaningless foray into a park by a load of women with nothing better to do, and by gays looking for a Nineties Judy Garland to worship. The anti-Dianas had sat at home watching all this and muttering "silly buggers", and time had proved them right. Never join anything. Never trust crowds.
Anti-Dianas are in the ascendancy partly because anti-Diana-ism is more interesting and novel - more of a story in fact - than Diana-ism. And partly because some vastly over-inflated claims were made for the significance of the events themselves. The battle between the two positions, Queen of Hearts versus the Madame of Media, threatens to crush all those who, like me, subscribe to neither view.
I am largely indifferent to the monarchy, and bored by tales of Wills, Harry and Zara's tongue stud. Camilla and Charles are more intriguing, but - as with many areas of media colonisation (the Spice Girls, David Beckham) - what is of interest or significance is usually extracted in the first five minutes, leaving us with months and months of pith and wind. And I have never read an article about Fergie. The day when Diana died I feared an explosion of sentimental, monarchic rubbish that would cover everything in a metre-thick layer of bullshit.
That didn't happen, and something else did. The bullshit-purveyors were left peddling their wares to no one much, while hundreds of thousands of British people did things that they hardly knew they had it in them to do. They went to the park and talked about death and love in quiet voices, and their applause for Earl Spencer spread through Hyde Park and in through the doors of Westminster Abbey. The tabloids and the self-appointed encapsulators of schlock TV weren't in charge; they spent a week sprinting, trying to catch up. Nor was this mass hysteria, or, if it was, it managed to be the least hysterical hysteria that I've ever seen. The only evidence adduced for this "hysteria" was the punching of an Italian flower-nicker by some beefy idiot. And that was it. Well, I've seen more hysteria at a school concert.
To see whether any of this feeling has endured, we should look again at that poll. Forget "only", and focus on the fact that almost one in five people answered "yes" to the question, "did the death of Diana change the way that you personally think about life?" I think that this is a staggering result. It means that every fifth person you meet in the street believes that their life has been altered by the death of someone they had never met, and who exercised no power over them. Are they bonkers?
Or are they reflecting on a moment of crystallisation, a moment when trends in British society became evident to everyone, and which helped to construct a language in which to talk about them? It is a fact that we have been living through a feminisation of society, and that this has raised questions about emotional literacy. It is also true that the death of ideology, and the failure of religion, leave us without overarching or supernatural structures from which to derive moral strength and direction. Morality hasn't "gone away", as some claim, but it is uncomfortingly down to each of us to construct a morality of our own - a way of dealing with being human. There are some of our fellow citizens who became aware of bits and pieces of this while lighting candles or writing cards.
Naturally, some of this is good and some of it is bad. That's dialectics for you, folks. What is positive is the rejection of the tabloid agenda; is the demand for emotional honesty; is the emphasis placed on empathy and tolerance, rather than judgement and condemnation; is the death of deference. What seems to me to be bad is the tendency towards voyeurism, a lack of intellectual rigour, an impatience with complexity.
It is, of course, an unsatisfying response to the question, "did Britain change on the day Diana died?", to reply that we shall not know for some time yet, and that it may just have been an extraordinary stage in a process that was already well under way. Personally I suspect that it has meant the eventual end of the monarchy, but I am far from sure. In the meantime, were I stuck under a dripping tree with a cross Radio 4 reporter, and were she foolish enough to ask me, "What did Diana mean to you?", the answer'd be, not a lot. But her death did tell us some interesting and important things about what kind of people we've become, and what our values are. And the news was mostly good.
The reporter would not, I suspect, be pleased. That's tough. Life is not arranged for the convenience of reporters.
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