The people who won't hear a word said in favour of Diana

It's not only hell-fire evangelicals who have doubts about the Princess, says AN Wilson

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AS THE melancholy anniversary approached, the nation overheard a theological debate in Walsall, West Midlands. Sarah Bailes had withdrawn her son Darryl from the Sunday school at the Bethany Christian Fellowship after the little chap became miserable at bedtime. Taught by his mother that the Princess of Wales was a "star in Heaven", he had a picture of her beside his bed. But the Sunday school teachers judged the Lady by the standards of an older and harsher theology. "Princess Diana's lifestyle was, on the evidence, immoral, anti-biblical and not one that a believer in Christ would live", said one of the Sunday school teachers. She was in hell.

Far be it from us to enter into speculations concerning the after-life. Perhaps what was striking about the Walsall controversy, however, was not its oddity, but its familiarity. Almost from the first day, when the shocking news of the motor accident began to be broadcast, there has been a peculiar dichotomy between the supposedly popular image of the Star in Heaven, and the sad reality of Diana the Lost Soul. The Bailes view of the Princess was treated - by the broadcasting authorities, the newspapers (for the most part) and New Labour - as if it were the prevailing view. It was the Bailes view that was on display in the Mall during the days after Diana's death. It was the likes of Bailes who said: "Let's see a flag at half-mast". Spiritual Baileses lit candles, and kept their sleeping-bagged vigil, confirming Tony Blair in his hunch that Diana had been the People's Princess.

It took a pretty thick skin not to be moved by the immediate circumstances of Diana's death: the hideous shock of the crash, the outpouring of public emotion, the pluck of her sons at the funeral. But while few people remained untouched, this did not mean that the Cult of Di had a very wide following. Quite the reverse. Indeed, in what you could call sophisticated circles, it was hard to meet anyone who took it seriously.

Left and right seemed united in deploring what the journalist Boris Johnson called "a Latin American carnival of grief". Eyebrows were raised at the requiem mass in Westminster Cathedral during which Cardinal Hume spoke of Diana more or less as if she were a saint. Would he have done so for any other young woman who, rather than spend the summer holiday with her sons, had passed the final weeks of her life gadding about with her umpteenth playboy lover? Similarly, everyone agreed publicly that William Hague had made a dreadful gaffe in suggesting that the Prime Minister had exploited the Princess's death for political ends. Blair's response - gushing about the People's Princess, standing at the airport to receive her coffin as if he were the Head of State - had supposedly been "just right". Hague was "out of touch". And yet one did not meet anyone during those weeks who was not saying in private what Hague had been rash enough to say in public.

The tension between the publicly said and the privately felt was revealed in the bad-taste jokes that circulated almost from the beginning. I have never heard a bad-taste joke about the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. No doubt they are made at reunions of the Ku-Klux-Klan, but Di and Dodi jokes were the currency of every office and bar parlour. While the public line was that we had all become more touchy-feely, more at home with our emotions, less anxious to use landmines on our enemies, the side of our natures which knew this to be baloney took refuge in appalling humour.

And then there was the embarrassing business of tributes from the "friends". In life, Diana was one of those alarming people who had no real friends. It made her socially (if not politically) a "loose cannon" - as an unfortunate peer once termed her. Most young women of Diana's class have a posse of female chums who share holidays, confidences, shopping trips, and endless telephoned bulletins of their doings and affairs. All such figures in Diana's life had been given the boot in favour of short-term lovers and awkward, sycophantic relationships with writers, dress designers, ballet dancers and the like.

Clive James, one such "friend", penned a tribute to her that must make him blush every time he thinks of it. Like all the other recent hangers- on who claimed that they had known her so well, James made us feel how sad and empty, how hellish, indeed, her life had been. It remained only for the cynical publishers to rush out the Di books, and for the memorial appeal to sponsor its tacky array of memorabilia, for Diana's reputation to be yet further tarnished. Which of us, however impressive or virtuous in real life, could easily survive being eulogised by Julie Burchill? When Professor Anthony O'Hear claimed that Diana represented "fake Britain", many a bosom will have returned an echo. His claim that she stood for "the evaluation of feeling, image and spontaneity over reason, reality and restraint" might have been ignored, had not its sour tone been almost justified by the response of the Prime Minister. A spokesman for Mr Blair dismissed the "old-fashioned right-wing snobs" for "attacking" Diana.

The trouble with Blair's response is that it isn't true. I recently took part in a Newsnight discussion about Diana. Representatives of the very few charities with which the real Diana had maintained contact were wheeled on to sing her praise. My job was to be Mr Nasty. The truth was, however, that I did not feel nasty, either about her, or about the "Latin American carnival of grief" which had taken place after her death and which Earl Spencer has now institutionalised at the Althorp shrine. The organisers of Newsnight, the researchers and the presenter, Kirsty Wark, can hardly be described as right-wing snobs. Yet they all, to a man and woman, before and after the programme, took a view of the Princess which was a good deal closer to that of the Sunday school teachers at the Walsall Bethany Christian Fellowship than that of Clive James. Both in that televised show, and in private conversations, I find myself shocked by the low esteem in which Diana is held. Rugby Council has already ordered the demolition of Facets, a hideous work of sculpture put up at the cost of pounds 10,000 in memory of Lady Di.

The hellfire preaching of the Bethany Fellowship was unseemly. The poor young woman, so beautiful and so mixed-up, has sons, a mother, a family, still grieving. But there is no doubt in my mind that, in the country at large, the balance has now switched. The Latin American carnival of grief (high priests Julie Burchill, Clive James and Tony Blair) has dwindled and become, as religions tend to become, the preserve of children, homosexuals and lonely housewives. The majority, politely silent as the first anniversary comes around, do not believe in hell, but allow her to sink into oblivion; which for her, poor thing, would be the same.

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