Was it grief or was it glee?

At Diana's death, many discovered the secret thrill of breaking bad news
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The Independent Culture
I FIRST heard of the Princess of Wales's death in a way that was likely to have been repeated up and down the country. On the Sunday morning in question, while I was running a bath, an acquaintance rang me up. His voice sounded bizarrely guttural.

"Well," he said, without any of the expected early-morning pleasantries and preliminaries. "And what do you think of the news?"

"News? What news?"

"You mean you haven't heard?" he exclaimed with feigned incredulity. (Feigned because, given my "What news?", he couldn't have been in any doubt that I hadn't heard.)

It all came out in a firework display of exclamation marks: "Diana's dead! Dodi's dead! They were being chased by paparazzi! Their limo crashed in a tunnel in Paris! The paparazzi have been arrested! Switch on TV! It's on every channel!"

Like everyone else, I was caught off guard. What was so shocking wasn't only the fact of Diana's death, but how completely out of the blue it had come. Even that early on, though, I was aware of a jarring note. My acquaintance was genuinely distraught - as I was later to discover, he spent the rest of that same Sunday in front of his television set. Nevertheless, during his initial phone call, I could detect in his voice what I can only call a terrible elation - the elation of someone who knows himself to be the bearer, not just of bad news, but of thrillingly bad news. He was horrified, but he was also audibly exhilarated. And, no matter that he himself would indignantly deny such an allegation, I'm certain he would have been obscurely frustrated, even downright disappointed, had I replied to his opening question by saying, "Yes, it's dreadful, isn't it?"

Everyone knows what I mean - the excitement we feel when communicating, to someone who hasn't yet been apprised of it, devastatingly bad news about mutual friends, colleagues and, of course, household-name celebrities. It's a species of excitement that has nothing to do with Schadenfreude, the gloatingly perverse satisfaction that we (or some of us) take in the reversals suffered by our friends. It can perfectly well co-exist with authentic grief. But if anything can be safely filed away under the roomy rubric of "human nature", it's surely that half-suppressed tingle that we experience when imparting red-hot information about an acquaintance's sacking, divorce, accident, arrest, suicide or terminal cancer.

To my knowledge, there isn't, but there should be, a word for it. Especially now, when it has definitively gravitated on to the world stage. For take the case, precisely, of Diana.

Whatever else there was to say about it, the international reaction to the circumstances of her death was a vindication of Marshall McLuhan's theory of the modern world as a global village, one in which, by virtue of the ubiquitous electronic media, anything that happens somewhere will happen everywhere else as well at the same time. And just as a real village would be abuzz for days with the sudden, violent death of its most glamorous and stylish inhabitant, so the entire country was engulfed by the frenzy surrounding Diana's. Just as would be true, too, of a small village, the advent of her death had the result that, for a few brief, but equally endless-seeming days, we found ourselves living together for once, as a real human collective, with an eerily intensified sense that each and every one of us was part of the national scheme of things.

It wasn't as though anyone wished for that death to happen. Even I, actively hostile as I am to the current brainless culture of celebrity, found myself saddened that someone so young, so beautiful, someone moreover who appeared truly not to want to fritter her life away, had met with such a horrible end. But there was no getting away from it. Diana's death - tragic, pointless, ironic or iconic, call it what you will - was also a phenomenon. It was tremendously interesting.

And it was just one of the more recent in a series of sensationally newsworthy disasters that have had the effect of shaking a sluggish world out of a torpor of eternal sameness. For many of us, Gianni Versace was no more than a name, a relatively remote and irrelevant one at that, until he was slain in a Miami street. Fascination with Michael Jackson had been reduced to the decreasing circle of his teenybopper admirers until rumours of paedophilia hit the fan. The coverage of Woody Allen's custody trial was devoured by people who cared little for his films. As for OJ Simpson, there was, world-wide, an explosion of outrage at his acquittal, but there was also (who would deny it?) a wonderfully galvanising undercurrent of relish in that outrage of ours, a relish of which we would all have been deprived had he been sent to prison.

On a different scale, an old friend of mine, a lifelong Conservative voter, confessed to me that, the morning after the last general election, she realised she was actually, secretly glad that Labour had won, simply because its victory made the future look suddenly intriguing. Having droned on for years about Major, Howard, Bottomley and Co, her daily newspaper was readable again, the Six o'Clock News was watchable, Newsnight was unmissable. It was not that she had any confidence whatever in the new government - she simply hoped that, for a while at least (the honeymoon was all too brief), it would revitalise her ebbing interest in the country's political life.

There are exceptions, to be sure, just as there are exceptions on a strictly personal level. None of us is likely to feel any elation, for example, terrible or otherwise, if forced to reveal to friends the death of a spouse, or a lover, or an intimate friend. Similarly, it's impossible to believe that anyone felt it on breaking the news of Dunblane or Jamie Bulger.

Yet, every so often, there occurs an event that makes boring, humdrum life seem almost as exciting and as gripping as a movie, and it would be foolish to deny that, at some maybe only half-conscious level of our psyche, and even as our hearts go out to the unfortunates caught up in it, we revel in its every detail just as we would at the movies. I can even think of a model for all such events - the night the Titanic sank. Or, should I say, the night the Titanic didn't sink. For, as I wrote in my recent book, Surfing the Zeitgeist: "The death of the Titanic is precisely what has kept it alive, what has kept it from sinking out of sight." Perhaps Diana's death, so terrible, yet also so terribly thrilling, is what will ultimately keep her alive too.