Mix-ups: Princess Di marge, Mrs Bean, misquotations, and some curious DNA

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SIX MONTHS after the death of the Princess of Wales, her memory is being cherished with margarine and - should Mr Peter Bottomley have his way - seat-belts. The former Transport minister has been saying he thinks that a new "Wear Your Seatbelt" campaign should feature history's most famous car-crash victim as a kind of awful warning; and his tactful suggestion coincides with the arrival of the first tubs of Flora margarine bearing her signature (and sanctioned by the Princess's Charitable Trust, proceeds to God knows where) on the shelves of your local SavaCentre.

What a charming dual gesture. Myself, I have no interest in margarine beyond knowing that the profits from its manufacture helped to fund the publication of Cyril Connolly's literary magazine Horizon at the start of the second World War. But I can't imagine what the Princess would have made of this marketing thrust, and its implied connection between herself and a tub of centrifugally-spun designer grease. Were she in a position to care, I suppose she might feel thankful that at least her face hasn't actually been sculpted in the stuff, and that it's not a tube of some intimate groinal balm ("By-Royal-Appointment Ointment") on which her dainty signature now appears.

But the seatbelts issue does make you cringe a bit. As with the famous Cretan holiday firm which briefly called Icarus ("A better way to go ...") it may seem logical but it gives the wrong signals. Saying, in effect, "Wear Your Seat-Belt - Princess Di Didn't!" doesn't carry much suggestion of caring and tenderness. And judging by the reaction to Mr Bottomley's plan, people don't want to think the cause of Diana's death was something as prosaic as seatbelt mis-management. Conspiracy, murder, happenstance, Middle East hitmen, Sandringham guerrillas, divine intervention, alien assault but please not because a few feet of restraining harness were undeployed.

If Mr Bottomley prevails, however, after the Princess Di Seatbelt Campaign is launched we must expect a slew of further bad-taste initiatives: the Sonny Bono Skiing Holiday, the Viv Stanshall Smoke Alarm, the Isadora Duncan Headscarf Campaign, the James Dean Memorial Airbag, the Stephen Milligan Eat More Fruit Campaign, the Michael Hutchence Adoption Agency ...

Chris Smith, our delightful Heritage Secretary, was on Radio Four's Today programme talking about what a good year it's been for British movies. "Ah yes," he told John Humphrys, "what with The Full Monty, Shooting Fish, Wings of the Dove, Mrs Bean ..."

Mrs Bean, eh? You must have seen it. The touching story of a love affair that crossed boundaries of class, taste and protocol, in which Queen Victoria thaws from frozen widowhood to a newly vivid appreciation of life because of the attentions of a rubber-faced twit in a cheap suit who absent-mindedly runs an electric razor over his tongue in the morning, twists his face into hideous gurnings and dips little wooden twigs into bowls of Marmite to make cheap and tasty snacks for his guests. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Rowan Atkinson, it's another triumph of understated British comedy and Mr Smith is right to be proud of it. Next month, The Full Mrs Dalloway ...

That ceaselessly inventive novelist Jim Crace, author of Quarantine, is up to his old tricks again, I hear. A couple of weeks ago, the Daily Express rang to ask if he'd like to contribute to their Saturday "Bookshop" slot, in which a celebrated author is given a measly pounds 30 and told to go mad, blow it all on books and explain the reason for their choice. Mr Crace faxed over 400 words praising the talents of Ellis Winward and Prof Michael Soule and their seminal work The Limits of Mortality, which, Crace explains, "puts notions of Heaven, Eternity and Judgement Day from all world cultures under scientific, unblinking scrutiny". Although the authors themselves, he further explains, quarrelled so badly over the question of whether the word "god" should have a capital G that they came to blows. Readers of Quarantine will remember that a short extract from Winward and Soule's important eschatological study forms the epigraph to that novel. Mr Crace's other choices sound equally attractive - The Poetry of Abraham Howper, "one of literature's first cocaine addicts as well as a pioneer conservationist and ecologist", and the new Penguin edition of the Histories of Pycletius, the second-century fantasist who reported back from exotic bits of the Mediterranean, and whose discoveries provide the gorgeous epigraph (translated by the crusty Edwardian explorer Sir Harry Penn Butler) to Crace's first novel, Continent.

The books people at the Express read this trio of recommended titles, blinked, wondered why they'd never heard of any of them and wondered also how close it was to April Fool's Day. Because Crace's contribution was, of course, a farrago of inventions from start to finish. But stand by for a new Crace novel in which Prof Winward, Howper, Pycletius and Sir Harry form a close-harmony singing troupe.

Strange news comes in from Oxford University, more precisely from the Institute of Molecular Medicine, where a team of geneticists has been exploring the kind of people Europeans spring from. After taking blood samples from 6,000 people, they compared the DNA strand with that taken from the remains of Stone Age people (don't ask me) and found disturbing similarities. Not only did the 6,000 guinea pigs turn out to be genetically similar, they all seemed to be descended from the same people - the race of Britons that stalked the valleys left by glaciers after the Ice Age, 8,000 years BC.

Imagine. We're all just British, after all. In biological terms, we're all as British as Betty Boothroyd. All of us: Liverpool dockers weeping over pints of stout, the Duchess of Kent, pink-necked Gloucestershire public schoolboys, horny-handed Poplar costermongers, exquisitely Frenchified hairdressers in Jermyn Street, whiskery high-court judges, low-rent horizontales in Shepherd Market - we're all just as British as each other.

This is a ghastly revelation. I have spent 40-odd years believing that my Irish-Celtic ancestry rendered my genes a sight more thrilling, more sexy, more dashingly romantic, more charging-into-battle-with-nothing- on-and-looking-like-Mel-Gibson heroic than the gang of stodgy burghers and duplicitous nancy-boys that make up the Anglo-Saxon race.

As for the effete Normans, the ludicrously melodramatic Norsemen, the boringly fascist Saxons, the unspeakable Goths ... Well, can you wonder that we Celts congratulated each other on being blue-eyed, charming and dynamite in the sack? And now you discover that, no foreign influences, like invasions, migrations and simple maraudings, managed to make a dent in the British ur-gene that started us all.

But wait a minute. Look more closely and you find that the research has been done on genes inherited direct from the maternal line, not the father's. They've yet to start on the Y-chromosome (ie bloke) stuff. But surely it's absurd to expect the DNA of Stone Age females to be subject to racial change or to be altered much through generations. It was the men, after all, not the womenfolk, who did the racial marauding, the invading, migrating, rape and pillage. So, until the results of the male DNA come in, I'll stick with my Celtic-hillside fantasies.

Comments