As the second anniversary of her death beckons, it is the lack of interest in Diana and her legacy that is so striking. Arrangements for the occasion are doomed to failure.
Visitors potter to Althorp as they do to other stately piles, curious to glimpse the splendour of the upper classes and to see the last resting place of a woman who embodied glamour, status and wealth, leavened by a strong sense of popular appeal. "Sad, isn't it?" they say to each other, as you would expect. "Yes, very sad." And on they walk.
The Palace decreed that next Tuesday should be "spent quietly". No surprise there. They were hardly going to call for a rampant outpouring of hysteria. The Number 10 court which so expertly channelled the aftermath of her death into the greater glory of the People's very own Prime Minister has evidently judged that there is no mileage in marking the date with anything more than a courteous nod towards her good works and graceful memory.
The Chancellor, whose initial enthusiasm at chairing the relevant committee of the great and good, knew no bounds, has gone strangely quiet on the subject. Having first threatened the residents of Kensington and Chelsea with a memorial garden on the scale of Versailles, abruptly ditched the plan, promising something more modest. That was last year. The Department of Culture has not even appointed landscape architects since then. Diana is yesterday's princess.
I suspect that this will be the last year that we have to endure any old memoirs of "My days with Di", written by chauffeurs, dress-makers and people she once shook hands with in hospital. There is nothing left to reminisce about, that has not already been reminisced to shreds. Mohammed Al Fayed's poisonous conspiracy theories petered out into the mundane report from the French investigating magistrate. In as much as there is a definable public appetite, it is for dispassionate reassessment of her life, not a continuation of the frenzied fantasy.
Only The Mirror has opted to wage a fierce campaign against national forgetfulness. "It is almost as she had never existed," complained an extended leader column. "If we are not very careful, there is a real danger that she will disappear. We call on the Government to sort out this mess now."
It is telling that even the newspaper which had decided to mount a "Remember Diana" crusade is compelled to admit, in the process, that the public's memories of Diana have faded. The "mess" to which it refers is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is the lack of a mess: an absence of emotion: proof of the transience of the phenomenon which so perturbs those who have prospered by the Diana industry and are faced with the decline of a prize asset.
As someone who felt sceptical disquiet about the orchestration of grief and even more so about the self-indulgence on so many levels afterwards, I have often wondered what it was that left me coldly at odds with what was portrayed as the normal response to her death. The Mirror's call to arms reminded me of exactly what is so disturbing. It is the determination to keep their own version of Diana on a life-support machine at a time when memories of the dead should quite naturally become more tranquil.
From the start, a complex range of emotions and responses were distilled into the illusion of a coherent whole, any dissent from which was seen as a sign of a woeful distance from the national sensibility. What began as a natural desire in a fragmented nation to feel some sense of common emotion became a kind of ready-mix recipe for whichever ideological, sociological or plain illogical theory anyone wanted to pedal. As such, it satisfied a number of constituencies who would normally be at odds with each other. If you were simply bored and frustrated and needed distraction and visual stimulation, then you got it in spades with all that luxurious footage of Diana in her couture, Diana with her lovely laughing face, Diana doing her good deeds, bestowing virtue on the rest of us.
If you wanted to prove that feminism was not dead, just changing its shape and expression, you could argue that Diana's tearful example and her public emoting, encouraged a buttoned-up country to discover its womanly side and show up the falsity of that masculine stiff upper lip. If you wanted to discern in the protean New Labour project, a radical sense of purpose, you could conclude that the posthumous alliance between Mr Blair and the People's Princess launched an attack on the old ways of doing things and a brutal reckoning with established interests. By a powerful concoction of sleight-of-hand and wishful thinking, a woman who was born, lived and died in great privilege could be treated as a symbol of a meritocracy and the rebirth of liberal Britain,
We saw the power of the modern media to reinforce, magnify and ultimately distort what is naturally there. Think how many wrong-headed conclusions were drawn with such supreme confidence about the lasting impact of Diana's death. Camilla would never be accepted by the British people who would not tolerate her as Diana's replacement. Camilla, of course, has more sense than to even try to be Diana Mark 2 and is being accepted as Prince Charles's natural consort. If they slip off in a couple of years and marry quietly, the country is unlikely to rise in foaming anger.
Revulsion at the monarchy would be such that it would either expire or save itself only be allowing the throne to pass to William, preferably before he was out of short trousers. Now it is true that the royal family is a troubled institution, full of spoilt, limited people who cling onto to excessive privileges and do not take seriously enough the need to embody a very different Britain from the one they were taught about in their constitutional history lessons. But the high point of disillusionment with the monarchy came and went in 1997. It did not result in a palace putsch, much less provide a route-map to the Republic of Britain.
But the most deceptive myth of all was the notion that Britain had become a more caring society just by virtue of identifying with the charitable Diana. By what magical means was a society, in which the caring professions have been steadily down-graded in status, supposed to re-emerge overnight as a bountiful civic society?
Decades of emphasis on the state have drained the will and creativity of the voluntary sector. That cannot be addressed merely by gazing on the memory of Diana with Aids and landmine victims.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations records that charitable giving, and the time spent on voluntary work, continues to decline rapidly year on year. Admiring the late Princess's many good works has evidently not made us much keener on performing any more of our own.
The cult of superficial feeling encourages us to identify with victims, as long as those victims are in the established mainstream of public sympathy at the time.
So the Albanian refugees from Kosovo are the objects of our good- will until they are reincarnated as squeegee merchants or beggars in the street. Kosovo Serbs are deemed too complex a category to think about, being oppressors two months ago and victims of oppression now. Their plight is consequently ignored. Britain's "socially excluded" receive solicitous attention in ministerial speeches, while the wrong sort of excludees - the travellers and gypsies - receive the full force of the Home Secretary's broadsides.
Sentimentality is instant, transient and manipulable. Real feeling and genuine charity are far more demanding. The real lesson of Diana's death is that we be vigilant about respecting the difference.Reuse content