We are not all part of this

`I didn't know her - I can't mourn for someone I did not know'

Sara Maitland
Thursday 04 September 1997 23:02

At about 7.30 last Sunday morning a friend rang to tell me about the car crash. He really thought I would want to know, that I would be moved, touched, fascinated, involved - as he was; but quite honestly I would rather have been asleep. I was irritated that he had thought otherwise.

Throughout the week my irritation has grown, but now it is directed at myself. I can see, appreciate, accept that there is a huge wave of genuine emotion; a sense of personal loss and grief that I have no doubt is sincere. I am simply not part of this, and I wonder why not.

I'm not unique. There are a few of us; we chat on the phone, bemused, more engaged with our failure to engage than with the event itself. I have identified various different sorts of detachment.

There are those who did not like her; those who took "Charles's side"; those who doubted the sincerity of her charitable activities, or thought she was a neurotic bimbo. There are the sturdy royalists who feel she endangered the unique standing of the Royal Family and brought the monarchy into disrepute. These people appear to resent the fuss that is being made.

There are also those who are anti-monarchists, who have believed that royalty was running out of steam and that within our lifetimes the whole system would collapse and we would become a proper modern nation: this group have spent the week disgruntled. I suspect this is because their hopes have been dashed. Whatever else is going on in the national collective unconscious, it is not a desire to get rid of the glamour, the magic, the sanctity, of majesty.

But I don't find myself in either of these camps: I am neither resentful nor furious; I am bored and baffled. Oddly enough I could belong in either. I am a committed socialist, an anti-monarchist, convinced that the class privilege which flaunts itself nakedly in Britain is the most destructive and regressive element of our national life; and it is sustained by the monarchy. Equally, in as much as I have bothered to think about it at all, I think the Prince of Wales got a pretty rough deal from the media; and that Diana took on a job at a not inconsiderable salary and the least she could have done was stick with the terms of the contract.

Furthermore, as a Christian, I am alarmed by the strong elements of cult which are evolving very fast - paralleling the life and death of Princess Grace of Monaco, though on an incomparably larger scale. I suspect we won't have to wait long for a miracle - already a tabloid newspaper has captioned a picture of Diana comforting Elton John with a reference to her "healing hands".

On the other hand, I think she was remarkably beautiful; I acknowledge how much she did for the charitable causes she adopted; I have spoken to people who had met her and believe them when they say that she had an extraordinary charisma - a combination of glamour and warmth that was irresistible. (I'm less convinced by those who tell me how intelligent and witty she was, but that giggle was very charming.)

But none of this adds up to an emotional involvement; positive or negative. I am, if pushed, saddened that she should have died, but no more so than I would be to hear of the death of any other middle-aged mother who left two teenage children: a fleeting though real regret for anyone who was killed so violently; a passing concern for the boys, though I do not have to worry about them as much as I should about other children who lose their mother so. At least they know their father and the family who will continue to support them.

I didn't know her. I can't mourn for someone I did not know. Though even that is a simplification - I am perfectly able to be both shocked and grieved at the deaths of people I did not know, but that is usually when some sense of justice is touched: the victims of war, or famine, or political oppression. I think that is a different sort of sorrow.

What is clear is that an extraordinary number of people feel that they did know her; their grief is real, tangible and deeply personal. They knew her and they loved her. Or they knew her and they disliked her. I am asking myself if this is a realism and honesty in me, or some failure of my hard-hearted soul. Perhaps I am jealous, and what I really want are designer dresses and an international fan club (after all, when I was 11 I wanted to marry Prince Charles myself). Perhaps I have so over- refined my sensibilities that I hold myself too superior for such mass emotion and devotion.

I wonder, however, if some of my distance from this is because I am completely free of guilt. I was not interested in her when she was alive. I was irked to have to break up a dinner party because all the guests wanted to watch her, to my mind, trivial interview on Panorama. I never bought a single paper in order to see pictures of her. I didn't read the Morton biography. The bitter fact is that the media gave her to us, and the media, we have decided, killed her. Her brother said, and the nation applauded, that anyone who bought a picture of her had her blood on his hands. Well, my hands are clean, so I do not have anything to expiate. One of the social functions of all mourning is the alleviation of guilt.

Quite honestly, I am not entirely convinced by this as an explanation of my absence of involvement. I suspect that how we feel about her death is probably a blown-up snapshot of how we felt about her alive. I wasn't involved in her life and so I'm not involved now. Some people were involved, and so they have lost something I have not lost. I just want to have something interesting on TV.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments