Merrie England's patron sinner

Far from being a saint, Diana was a tough, raunchy lady who could have rollicked her way round the world for her country
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SO IT IS a year since Diana's death - a year since her apotheosis, and the original steps towards her national canonisation - and it seems to me that the English nation (I'll leave the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh out of this) honours her memory in diametrically the wrong way. It mourns a saint when it should more properly be celebrating a sinner.

Everyone knows she was no Mother Teresa. The image of caring and sharing piety was imposed upon her by the mood of the people and their tabloid confessors, and to my mind it has become a debilitating national legacy. It moves half the populace into mawkish and maudlin sentimentality, and the other half into cynical denial. It encourages phoney emotion on the one hand, immoderate contempt on the other - a new kind of class war.

In death as in life, Diana has been wasted. She used to say she wanted to be an ambassador for her country. People sneered (for she was no saint then), but they should have taken her at her word. She should have been given the Royal Yacht, which nobody knew what to do with, and invited to rollick her way around the world, living it up without inhibition, taking a new boyfriend to every port (or finding one there) and distributing a taste of outrageous English gaiety among all the nations.

Of course the world would have adored it. Diana was one of the loveliest women of the age, and my guess is that left to her own instincts she might have been one of the most entertaining too - an aristocratic Elizabeth Taylor, an English rose of a Madonna, a sea-going Lady Hamilton. Wherever her grand old vessel sailed, with its cargo of elegant peccadillo sustained by all the splendour of the Royal Navy, she would have caused a merry sensation, and the idea of England itself would have been given a much- needed shot of glamour. Did any nation, ever, have a more fascinating envoy-at-large?

Nobody - well, hardly anybody - would have held it against her that she was an unfaithful wife. Most people outside the British Isles, I think, assumed anyway that she was chosen as a royal bride simply because she was of good breeding stock, besides being English for a change. She had done her duty in that respect, adding some well-built young princes to the Windsor stud, and one day she might have become a remarkably gamy, worldly and beautiful Queen Mother - a sort of street-wise Queen Alexandra perhaps with Camilla Parker-Bowles as her elderly lady-in-waiting (or perhaps not ...). In the meantime, since her marriage had collapsed, her husband was in somebody else's arms and her children were obviously very fond of her, they should have let her get on with it. She could be a part- time saint if she wanted to be, but the world would have come to view her affectionately, I am sure, more as a captivating sinner.

I am only half-joking. I don't doubt that Diana had a kind heart, and genuinely believed in her good causes, but her posthumous sanctification seems to me like pretending a tank is a tricycle. All the evidence seems to show that despite appearances she was a tough, raunchy, reckless lady - reckless in the manner of the girl next door, with her indiscretions inevitably magnified by her status in life. Why pretend otherwise? Why not celebrate the wild fun in her, instead of remembering her with sickly reverence? She was not a serene young noviciate at the altar-rail: she was a kid in trainers and baseball cap, out on the town.

I am of the opinion that the English nation has had quite enough, and more than enough, of goody-goodyism, mamby-pambyism, safety first, obedient conformity and all manner of improving politically correct example. Hypocritical journalists, the more slavish sort of feminists, drippy schoolteachers, revisionist historians, second-rate politicians and silly clergymen have combined to tame and dull it, and take the zing out of its attitudes. It has become not just a Nanny-State, but a Prissy-State too. Once one of the great adventuring nations, it has almost forgotten how to do anything just for the hell of it. It puts on a safety helmet when it rides a bike 100 yards. It forbids its already timid children to climb trees or walk to school, let alone abseil down a very small dam without a proper harness. It is miserably subservient to park wardens, rude or patronising policemen and any other self-important nonentities clad in brief authority. It is ashamed of its bold imperial past and afraid to say boo to an ethnic goose.

No wonder its high-spirited young people turn to stealing cars or Ecstasy! Recklessness, raciness, raffishness, naughtiness, cheek - all these words have lost their old nuances of tolerant amusement, and nobody nowadays dares to suggest that a rule might be made to be broken. In short the bravado has left English life, and with it has gone much of the fun. Who better than Diana, from her grave, to give some cachet to its revival? She knew what it was like to break a rule, and the potential penalties. Gays cannot indulge themselves in promiscuity without the risk of Aids, royal princesses cannot play around with rugby players without the possibilities of scandal. So be it. Just as every great city needs its quarter of disorder, to balance its ceremonial boulevards, so every great nation should have an enclave of the communal psyche that is a bit disreputable - not brutally criminal of course, but not pedantically law-abiding either. In England Diana could have been its patron sinner.

At least she would have helped it to make it a stylish reservation. Mr Blair's idea of a national lawless zone is, I suspect, The Full Monty, but it will take rather more than a few male strip- pers to restore the public sense of ornery indiv- idualism, the conviction that an Englishman's home is his - oops, his or her - castle, where he can do what he bloody well likes. It takes style to sanction libertinism. As was said a century ago of the immensely fashionable novelist Elinor Glyn, who enjoyed licking Lord Curzon's toes,

Would you like to sin

With Elinor Glyn

On a tigerskin?

Or would you prefer

To err with her

On some other fur?

What the presence of Elinor Glyn did for Edwardian England, the memory of Diana could have done for this fin de siecle. Elinor made sucking Lord Curzon's toes sound very much more stylish than licking parts of any contemporary politician, and in retrospect erring with Diana, whatever the physical details and whatever the fur, could have given such innocent misconduct a similar sense of class.

Diana as Mary Magdalene, though, has been dismissed from the public mind. Instead we have Diana as Martha, thinking only of her good works and ointments, and surrounded now by the kind of tasteless kitsch that philistine believers down the ages have lavished upon their holy heroines. Her popular image is all plaster and fake flowers, her memory largely humbug.

The last thing England needs, to my mind, is such a new national icon, varnished in virtue. It is not so difficult, after all, to appear holy. Tony Blair is not at all bad at it. Bob Geldof, Cliff Richard, Elton John are all honoured for pious behaviour. No self-respecting financial shark fails to do his bit for good causes, and the rowdiest sporting hero is quite likely to be seen on TV leading a charity walk. It is much harder, though, and more inspirational, to be a frank and beloved transgressor, like the archetypical Magdalene.

Saint Teresa of Avila is beloved because she often lost her temper with God. Good old Lord Longford is beloved, at least by me, because he does not give a damn for popular opinion. Churchill is beloved although he was a boozer and a reactionary, Nelson although he was an adulterer. Diana should be remembered as a champion of risk and delight, rather than of permanently self-sacrificing devotion. She is an incongruous recruit indeed to the soapy pantheon of sanctimony, being more like a giggle on the back stairs than yet another dirge-like performance of Amazing Grace.

Too late! Just a year ago the poor girl, having dined at the Ritz, died with her Egyptian playboy in a Parisian Mercedes - far too soon, but not an unsuitable end for her. They should have given her Britannia while the going was good, and she might still be roaming the ocean waves, refuelled by tankers at sea and admirers on shore, and taking with her something of Merrie England - remember Merrie England? - wherever she disembarked. !