Diana 1961-1997: The commentators - A magic mix of star and healer

"The whole nation," said anybody who was asked the question on television or radio yesterday, "is in mourning." We were all, said Mr Blair, experiencing a grief that "was deeply painful for us".

But why? Most government MPs - with their capacity to influence legislation - have more constitutional importance than Princess Diana; and certainly all ministers exert greater power over our lives. Diana was not a JFK, let alone a Nelson Mandela or a Gandhi - an exceptional person whose sacrifice, bravery and vision can shape continents. She wrote no poetry, novels or plays, starred in no great movies, saved no lives through her scientific discoveries, never risked her life to save others. She was the divorced wife of the ageing heir to the throne of an almost purely ceremonial and increasingly discredited monarchy, and the mother of the heir's probable heir. In any cold sense she was simply the Duchess of York with knobs on.

I have always looked at the monarchy and its relationship with the nation with the eye of an untrained anthropologist. When my eight-year-old friends were saluting the flag in the Church every Sunday, I was out with my little placard demonstrating on behalf of imprisoned Greek leftists, or to show solidarity with Civil Rights in America. So I could understand the emotional attachment as such, without actually sharing this particular reverence for the HRHs and HMs, a reverence that seemed - via the BBC and the press - to bind the British together. Coronation, Jubilee, Royal Wedding, a combination of ceremonials that made it never seem far-fetched to me that there is, apparently, a tribe of head-hunters on a Melanesian island which reveres the Duke of Edinburgh as a god.

With the tide of religious faith withdrawn, people desired a common experience, a group of individuals with whom one could - very loosely - identify, a set of characteristics which helped to define the collective, a shared national conversation, a collection of taboos and restraints, a permanence that defied the shocks of war and civil strife. And even now the tug is there. In the Great Haseley horticultural show yesterday, deep inside the large, damp marquee, I saw that the second and third prizes for the 50th wedding anniversary flower display, had gone to compositions featuring the Queen and Prince Philip, their faces appearing through the blossoms like images of deities in an oriental temple.

But this was almost certainly the work of old people. The monarchy itself was too snooty, too dim, too stiff and unattractive to survive scrutiny in the satellite age. What saved it as a source of interest and discourse was Diana who - in life - became a combination film star and faith healer, the magic mix of flesh and spirit. "She had this extraordinary gift," the Catholic Lord St John of Fawsley said yesterday. "She could reach out and touch people spiritually and physically." She could do this because she had "suffered", in ways which many women could easily identify with, and because she was - at the same time - wonderfully beautiful. If she had had the face of Princess Anne, no magical powers would have been adduced to her.

She also embodied the tradition of "The Holy Fool", the innocent who wanted the world to be simple and good, who wished to be the "Queen of Hearts". The only times affection for her weakened, was in those moments when she was suspected of scheming and calculation.

Otherwise, her reputation grew as global therapist. Listen to these words of the Prime Minister yesterday describing how those who would miss the Princess most would be "the sick, the dying, the children and the needy". This is a verbal altarpiece, an apotheosis in words, for a woman who was fast becoming a kind of Lourdes on legs.

Her early death ensures a renewal of this semi-religious mythology. Now we have Diana the martyr, those clear eyes looking down from that sympathetic, sad but smiling face. She, who died for our sins, because we had to buy the newspapers that printed the photographs, taken by the professionals - maddened by greed - who eventually killed her. We therefore crucified her, with our strange appetite for celebrity. And, however much we attempt to read paparazzi for Pharisee, we know that it is really our fault that she died. It will not be long - and I say this in no spirit of levity at all - before some start to claim that she is not dead at all.

And then there is that other true myth, just about to be born; that of The Two Sad Princes, now motherless - updated versions of the Princes In The Tower. Will we now do to them what we did to her? Or rather, will you? Myself, I have other Gods.

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