I am told that Americans are weeping in the streets for Princess Diana. Perhaps in New York or Washington this is true but there are a lot of streets in America and most Americans have never visited those in either city. "How will it play in Peoria?" is the question that politicians here ask if they really need to know what is going on. And last Sunday you can be sure that the people of Peoria - like so many others in middle America - were busy trying to get their tongues around the word paparazzi.
"I think all those papyruses should just be made illegal!" squeaked a woman on a radio phone-in that I was listening to last Sunday in one small town in Oregon on the West Coast. That was one of the better attempts at the word. In just half an hour I heard "pawperawzi", "pappayarazzis" and much stranger. At least one newspaper had the sense to provide a pronunciation guide. Others gave up and called them "photogs".
It was Sunday morning but there was a distinct lack of Christian love on the airwaves. The photogs were to be banished, hanged, imprisoned. The "shock jock" tried to live up to his controversial billing by being pro-photog. He noted the appetite for this kind of photograph especially among tabloid readers. "Well I think this entire programme is tabloid!" shouted the next caller. "Whaddoyou say to that!"
What indeed, except to note that, for most Americans, the news of Diana's death was not only shocking but other-worldly. "What is a paparazzi?" was the question everyone asked. I explained about how the picture of two smudges embracing on a yacht a few weeks ago had earned a million dollars. Eyebrows went up: money is a universal language.
But there were other aspects of the story that were foreign too. Many newspapers in America are tabloid in size, but most are either just miniature broadsheets in tone or sensationalist to the point of absurdity. "Is Elvis Alive?" asked one of the latter last week. "Secret FBI file called the E.P. papers claims The King is ready to come out of hiding!" It is difficult to explain how the British tabloids are different: first you have to get across the notion of a national press (America has none). But then the very idea that the British tabloids can be crucial to an election victory or that Diana would actually talk to any of their reporters is a country too far.
Nor is it easy to delve into the monarchy itself. Americans admire Diana and her Disneyesque world of ballgowns and tiaras, but there is very little real understanding of a world where kings and queens are more than figureheads on playing cards. People go on about the Kennedys being America's royal family, but no Kennedy can reign without permission.
What Americans do understand in their bones is the monarchy as a kind of celebrity soap opera. "You know," said one commentator last Monday on the radio, "the saddest irony of all is that this means Charles never really had to divorce Diana." Less shocking but still jarring was the comment by one caller to yet another phone-in: "Isn't it terrible?" she said. "I just loved Diana. I loved her so much. And now we are stuck with Big Ears."
America's only true national media is television and the coverage was as slick as the radio's was rough. Walter Goodman in the New York Times noted: "Anchors and reporters everywhere seemed to be competing for jobs as designated grievers. On NBC, John Hockenberry floated away on a balloon of banalities as he bade farewell to `something precious and rare and not to be seen again in our lifetime'." Everyone - and particularly commentator Barbara Walters - had personal memories to share. "She revealed that she was a friend of the Princess, information that she said she had hoped to keep private," wrote Mr Goodman. "She expressed shock and sorrow. She revealed their friendship again on a two-hour special on Sunday night and then again yesterday on Good Morning America. `I'm almost embarrassed to talk about her as a friend,' Ms Walters said." The crucial word in that sentence, he noted, was "almost".
Back in small town America reporters from the Oregonian were dispatched to find any resident Brits among Portland's one million citizens. In the end they found two. One was an Anglican priest whose Sunday sermon compared Diana's life and death to that other great British topic, the fox hunt - "Unfortunately the horses and hounds and riders got their kill." The other was a 60-year-old Yorkshire bartender who said that many Americans did not understand the British loyalty to royalty. "They stayed right there with us through the worst of World War II," he said. "They've always united us in the past. At times like this, we become one people."
It was strange to return to England in the middle of the week and be told that the country's emotional reaction was proof of some sort of American influence. Strange because I know plenty of Americans who do not cry at the drop of a sound-bite. Strange also because in 1963 America's reaction to the assassination of JFK was to follow the example of his immensely dignified and controlled widow.
"I refuse to call it hysterical," said a friend who found herself weeping over a book of condolence. "I call it a longing. It is filling some type of emotional vacuum and it is contagious. I cannot stop thinking about it and I want to talk about it. No one really knows what is going on." And, amid all the phone-ins and the newspapers and the television talk, these were the words that finally made sense to me.
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