Why do we pretend we've forgotten Diana's faults?

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Let's see if I've got this right. A little over two weeks ago - August bank holiday weekend, say - people were making innocent jokes about how often the Princess of Wales went on holiday. Widespread admiration of her trip to Bosnia, as part of her campaign for a worldwide ban on landmines, alternated with amused attempts to work out whether her latest trip to Sardinia was her third or fourth holiday in as many weeks.

The previous month, plenty of people had recoiled from the showbiz excesses of the Versace funeral in Milan, where the princess was photographed clutching her friend Elton John. And there were perplexed frowns, to put it no stronger, when she jumped into a boat and made a startling promise about future revelations to half a dozen British journalists during a holiday with the Al Fayeds. Yet the last fortnight has seen an outbreak of collective amnesia in which these events no longer have a place in accounts of her life.

This was understandable in the period immediately after her death, when it was apparent that many of the people interviewed on television and radio were suffering from shock. The princess is simply the most famous person ever to have lived, the degree of her celebrity eclipsing even global superstars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Hardly a day has gone by in the 16 years since Diana's wedding when we have not seen a picture of her, read a story about her, or heard her mentioned in a news bulletin. She is embedded in our unconscious in a way that makes her loss peculiarly hard to believe, never mind come to terms with.

Yet there is still a question as to why the outpouring of grief has taken the form it has. Why is it regarded as in the worst possible taste to point out that, less than a month ago, the princess was not regarded with the universal adulation now being afforded her memory?

It is not even as if the rapid re-writing of history does her any favours, for it recasts her as a plaster saint rather than a real woman with faults and virtues; in between the encomiums, Diana herself is in danger of getting lost.

It is perfectly possible to admire her determination to visit Angola and Bosnia, and her compassion, without going into public paroxysms of grief.

In recent days, however, those of us who are not willing to pretend to emotions we don't feel have been getting an ominous message - that we ought to keep quiet. It's a message which is not easy to defy in the face of repeated assertions about the country being "united in grief".

This spirit of intolerance reached its zenith on Wednesday when a Sardinian tourist was sentenced to a week in prison for stealing a teddy bear left outside Kensington Palace. Fortunately, the magistrate thought better of this outrageous sentence, reducing it to a fine, but the hapless youth was punched in the face as he left court by a patriot, 43-year-old Gerard Moorehouse, who announced: "I did it for Britain."

I waited in vain for a report that Mr Moorehouse had been arrested for assault. Instead, the Slovakian ambassador was hauled onto Friday morning's Today programme to account for the actions of two of his compatriots, who had also committed the heinous crime of stealing teddy bears.

The two women were jailed for 28 days for an offence which the magistrate admitted would not normally carry such a severe sentence. "I would not be fulfilling my public duty," he said, "if I did not reflect the outrage of the public."

Whether the two women read English, or understood the messages attached to the teddy bears rather than imagining they had been thrown away, I have no idea, but since the sentences imposed by London magistrates seem to be escalating at an alarming rate, I would like to say that I am not outraged by what amounts to foolish behaviour by a handful of foreign tourists. Nor, if it happens again, do I want anyone to have their hands cut off, or be transported to one of our few remaining colonies, in my name.

One of the things that has been puzzling me all week is to whom the cards and messages outside Kensington Palace and other royal residences are being addressed. When I posed the question to a friend who took flowers to the funeral, she looked at me in genuine surprise. "Diana," she said. "Just like sending a Christmas card." Yet the point about Christmas and birthday cards is that they are addressed to living people. Even condolence cards are normally sent to surviving relatives, not the person who has died.

It would be easy to interpret the millions of messages to Diana as another of the breaks with tradition we have heard so much about since the car crash in Paris. I think, though, they indicate something else. The same friend told me that attending the princess's obsequies had made her feel better about her own mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship, while a reader of this column wrote to explain that Diana's death "gave us the right to mourn our own losses".

What seems to be happening is that genuine grief for Princess Diana is being used as a way of releasing other, previously unexpressed feelings. This is especially true of women who have unresolved relationships with their own mothers and it suggests that the princess is functioning as an imaginary friend, a sympathetic listener who can absorb depths of unhappiness which might overwhelm intimate friends or family.

If I am correct, some of the women who scribbled heartfelt messages to Princess Diana in the last two weeks have also been writing to themselves - and it explains why nothing can be allowed to disrupt the perfection of her image.

This process, however benign its origins, is a peculiarly dangerous one. On Thursday, a review appeared in a national newspaper suggesting that my new book, which discusses the princess's role as an icon, should be pulped.

Calls for censorship, excessive prison sentences, attacks on foreigners: are these alarming manifestations of totalitarianism really an appropriate tribute to the memory of the Princess of Wales?

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