Diana 1961-1997: The age of duty and the stiff upper lip is over

Diana symbolised openness and that's why we mourn her. By Catherine Pepinster

The gathering of sorrowing crowds mourning Diana this past week came but a few short months after another great gathering in London: that moment when a joyous, jubilant people cheered Tony Blair as he and his wife swung past the gates of Downing Street to walk hand in hand to Number 10 on a sunny May afternoon.

But these two moments in the history of this nation, which seem at first so diverse, so conflicting, belong together, for they were turning points for Britain's psyche. They were the moments when a younger generation claimed Britain as its own. The present is another country. We do things differently now.

Tony Blair and Diana belong to a post-war generation, who speak a language far removed from that of the previous ruling class. The Queen and Lady Thatcher are of a similar age: just as the baroness kept the gates of Downing Street firmly shut against the people, so those of Buckingham Palace stayed closed, until last Friday anyway when they were forced open by public demand. Both women, now in their seventies, hardly ever dally with emotions. They are resolute, seemingly unshakeable, part of a generation brought up to believe in duty rather than rights.

Diana and the Prime Minister belong to a different generation, who have affirmed a need for something new - people values, if you like. The time for duty and the stiff upper lip has passed. Nothing could have told us more about how we feel about children and their upbringing than the anger felt by the public at this picture of the two young princes being driven to church last Sunday by a silent and apparently uncaring father. The days when a bereaved child, like JFK junior, should stand to attention like a little soldier, saluting his father's coffin, are gone for good.

And what of Prince Charles? He, like John Major, was born on the cusp of two very different eras, as the Second World War came to an end, but the mores of a time still lingered. Both are men who can show signs of a mawkish sentimentality - John Major with his yearning for warm beer, cricket on the green, and old maids on bicycles, and Prince Charles with his desire to revive classical architecture and the Book of Common Prayer. In attempting to construct the present, they hark back to a mythical golden age

Diana had no need of the past. Her own past (with her parents) had served her badly; how ironic that she was Charles's virginal bride because she was a Woman Without a Past. The Princess of Wales embodied her time, and made it her own by way of her influence on her generation's thinking. The way she brought up her boys, for instance, shared and shaped fellow parents' thinking on the need to provide time for children, to talk to them, help them enjoy life.

Women were reassured that their desire to find a fulfilling role for themselves was as valid as their care for their children. Diana more than anybody else made it clear that a woman could be both feminist and feminine. And in choosing her wardrobe and that of her sons, she showed that there was a time for formality and a time for themselves. Lady Thatcher and the Queen, on the other hand, never looked off-duty. Their very regality denies it. John Major and Prince Charles, as ever, typify a strangulated compromise. They might put on a woolly jumper but they just look ridiculous. What Diana realised but also reaffirmed was that in this age, a look, a soundbite, a gesture, are what have meaning.

"She made it okay to be human," said one mourner last week. Pain today is no longer something hidden away. The great communicator, Diana, allowed the British to admit to imperfections. She put them at ease with fallibility, and so they came to be at ease together last week outside the palace gates. Again, the connection between the election crowds in May and last week are there for all to see. Diana has been mourned by a similar crowd - predominantly youthful and multicultural.

But it is in death that she has shown how truly different this nation has become. The buttoned-up British, prompted by a woman of the therapy age, have let loose their feelings and felt it entirely natural to do so. Not that this has been an Oprah-style experience, but a quiet means of expressing loss.

Until now the British way of dealing with death has been to shy away from it. People often want to spare children its traumas, but it is impossible to keep them from the intense emotions of grief. The rituals of a funeral can be a means of allowing children a terrible but necessary realisation of their parent's demise.

Even more important is the need for a child to see the body of their mother and father, or other close relative, for it is the ultimate acknowledgement of death. Without it, a child cannot be absolutely sure that such a profound event has taken place. Taking my young cousin to see my grandmother was frowned on by many, but in seeing her she knew, absolutely, that she was no more, and in that uncanny, utter stillness, she knew death was terrible, but the dead are at peace at last. Diana's passing has taught us all of the rightness of grief.

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