After Princess Margaret, the deluge - or 'Pop Idol', as it is often called

Howard Jacobson
Saturday 16 February 2002 01:00

So Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, goes to't. Nothing in her life became her like the leaving it. After life's fitful fever she sleeps well. Nor steel, nor poison can touch her further. And flights of angels sing her to her rest.

You will forgive my coming over all Shakespearean. But there would appear to have been a serious shortage of poetry, not to say sonorous prose, not to say solemn reflectiveness, commemorating her passing. No flower mountains, no love-you, miss-you, want-to-be-you cards appearing on royal railings, no sobbing queues of clothes-crazed girls with wandering uteruses signing the condolence book in their own tears, and only a modest length or two of black drapery hung about the public conscience.

What ceremony else? Precious little, unless you count the agitation around a televised talent contest that coincided with her demise. The Queen's sister is dead, long live Pop Idol!

I happened to be out of town, channel-hopping on a hotel telly when I heard the news. I had been otherwise sequestered all day, so I only got to learn about Princess Margaret as the votes were coming in for two foetal boys I couldn't tell apart.

It shows how little interest I have in the taste of 13-year-old girls that, rather than have to look at it made manifest for a pico-second, I risked getting Gore Vidal on every channel, remembering all the witty things he'd said to the Princess over half a century. A funny way of delivering a eulogy, to praise the dead for their deep appreciation of your intelligence, but that's a wasp American novelist for you. And at least he wasn't singing.

So tell me – what is this singing thing? Of all the talents in which humanity has reason to rejoice, how come we have chosen to elect singing, rather than, say, metaphysics or plate-spinning or hydroscopy, as the ne plus ultra of our genius? Don't get me wrong – I like a little sing myself. I toyed with being a second George Formby as a boy, and I toy with being a second Placido Domingo now.

I sing in showers. I have serenaded beautiful women into love with me and then out of it again. I have revived flagging dinner parties with my impersonations of Mario Lanza balancing responsibility with romance (not unlike Princess Margaret) in The Student Prince, and I once won second prize at a holiday camp for my version of Johnnie Ray's Cry, complete with handkerchief and hearing aid.

But I attach no more significance to these skills than I do to my adroitness on the trampoline or with finger-puppets. They are but passing lyrical moments in a busy and various life. Nice to sing, end of story. Nice to be sung to, even earlier end of story. Anything further, if it is not a career, is a pathology. And if it's true that 8 million people took the trouble to vote for one or other of those indistinguishable tadpole boys with cherish-me eyes and identically anodyne voices, and another 20 million tried but couldn't persuade BT to put them through, then there is reason to be seriously concerned for the state of the nation's mental health.

Was that Margaret's problem? That she wasn't all-singy and all-dancy enough for our pop-addled population? Not young or pretty enough when she died? Never sufficiently possessed of the easy Helloish manners of the telly star? Not packaged to nudge the podgy hearts of those pre-pubescent hysterics whose preferences determine our culture? Is she unmourned because she was not Diana?

In fact, old newsreels show her to have been every bit a match for Di when it came to trashy attachments to showbusiness values (or the arts, as we were wont to call them then, throwing in the odd ballet dancer and photographer for good measure). But she never gave the impression, as Diana so often did – and as the Blairs do all the time – that it was the stars who conferred dignity on her. No grinning Gaby Roslin would ever have been permitted to drape herself familiarly around Princess Margaret. For which, if nothing else, we should miss her – Princess Margaret, I mean.

As for those good works she didn't meretriciously perform – campaigning prettily against land-mines, standing shoulder to shoulder with victims of Aids, cuddling small children with no hair – we would do well to remember that wearing your heart on your sleeve professionally is itself an offshoot of the cult of stardom, making yourself useful in public lest you are deemed worthless in private. Not a fear Princess Margaret need ever have nursed, at least in her early years, for royalty was substance beyond question once, when divinity did hedge a king.

All gone. Many would say for the best. We cannot believe in the God-given right to rule of people who behave no better than we do. Or who will not at least shmooze us into liking them. So goodnight, not so sweet princess. You are the first of the last. We'll mourn your mother and sister, for old times' sake, and no more thereafter.

Which, though I am no royalist, I regret. By investing majesty with seriousness beyond the common, regardless of individual deserts, we take on a degree of grandeur ourselves. We participate in the idea of authority. We solemnise our society. Those who prefer a meritocracy have to face the fact that merit is a diminishing quantity once the groundlings have the vote. We are down to pop idols now. And we haven't touched rock-bottom yet.

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