Perfect Light

Jenny Diski

  • Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
    Michael O’Mara, 165 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 1 85479 191 5
  • Shared Lives by Lyndall Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 285 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1164 0
  • Antonia White: Diaries 1958-1979 edited by Susan Chitty
    Constable, 352 pp, £19.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 09 470660 3

One of the mysteries of our time is the hunger we have to know details about the lives of people we have never met. Years ago, walking down Heath Street, I saw, at the bottom of the hill by the station, the most extraordinary glow in the air. I was still too far away to see what was causing the strange disturbance, but as I got closer the picture resolved itself into two figures encased in a golden shimmer, the light zinging around them. Naturally, I was thrilled to be getting my first authentic sighting of extraterrestrials – and in Hampstead, too. Sadly, my vision firmed up quite soon, as they and I got closer to each other, and I recognised the not-quite-extraterrestrial, dumpy, middle-aged forms of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton panting their way up the hill. The glow was not, of course, from their outward perfection, nor their inner beauty and wisdom, but the result of years and years of attention from precision-ground lenses and high-wattage lights being focused and shone at them. They had absorbed the energy, and like fully-charged batteries, radiated it back.

This must account for some of our obsession with the lives of the famous. We invest energy in them and then mine them, as if they were natural resources, warming our chilly everyday selves with the glow we have created.

Imagine a world where, every time you turned on the television, you did not see an actor giving his recipe for world peace, before laying before us his deep emotional feelings (yes, I know that’s tautologous) about fatherhood. Imagine a world in which one-third of every newspaper (I mean, of course, the quality press) was not devoted to in-depth interviews with dressmakers and novelists, so that you were not obliged to know their attitude to contraception and the wall-colouring technique of their favourite room. Difficult to imagine so many blank screens and empty pages, I know, but it’s worth the effort to achieve the rush of serenity to the frontal lobes, where before there was only brain ache.

In a hundred years or so, I suspect that our time will be described, not as the age of Marx or Freud or Darwin (anyway, one has toppled, one’s shaky on his pins, and the last hasn’t got a chance in hell of surviving the Age of Aquarius), but as the age of the personality. ‘Whatever that was,’ they may well add.

For posterity, let me explain about personality. It might be supposed that in order to be one, an individual ought to have one. If this was true in the past (was it? Was drinking too much and killing big fish evidence that Hemingway was someone we needed to listen to?), the reverse is true now. Ideally, a personality should have no more to say than would take up ten minutes of Wogan or Aspel air time, they should wear the clothes of a handful of authorised designers (Armani, say, or Westwood), and they should be falling over themselves to reassure us that any past misdemeanours are regretted and, in any case, not nearly as exciting as we were led to believe. I’m thinking here particularly of a recent interview with Paul McCartney where he explained that when he and Mick smoked what he described charmingly as ‘pot’ together (after dinner, with a nice glass of wine apparently) all that happened was that they ‘discussed art’. I remember ’68, and let me assure you, he’s right, that’s just how it was.

So where, in the personality stakes, does this leave a 30-year-old woman with two kids, a minimum of education and no qualifications, trapped in a dead marriage to an absentee husband? Nowhere, of course, if she happens to live in a housing estate in Leeds: but right bang on top of the interview list if her old man happens to be the next king of England.

Early on in Diana: Her True Story (isn’t that a nice title?), I find myself vindicated in my zinging light theory by best friend Carolyn, who assures us: ‘I’m not a terribly spiritual person but I do believe that she was meant to do what she is doing and she certainly believes that. She was surrounded by this golden aura which stopped men going any further, whether they would have liked to or not, it never happened. She was protected somehow by a perfect light.’ And this before anything more momentous had happened to her than finding herself with Barbara Cartland as a step-grandmother. Diana, apparently, concurs with this: ‘I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead.’

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