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Diolatry

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Like everyone, I know exactly where I was twenty years ago when I learned that Princess Diana had croaked. I was in my parents’ bathroom and the announcement came on the radio. My future ex-wife, who was in the bath, said: ‘It must be a play. Or a joke.’ It wasn’t a play; few greeted it as a joke. On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land. News sources reacted much as North Korean state television handles the demise of a Kim, or as Spanish telly did when Franco died.

The Diolatry envisioned her as the friend of the friendless against the corporate might of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty; people swallowed Tony Blair’s second-hand oxymoron about the ‘people’s princess’. This was largely fanzine fantasy. After ennoblement by the Tudors, the Spencers made hay of the grass that is flesh, claiming to be less parvenu (‘Despencer’) than they were: the bogus scrolls of true nobility pre-date those of upstarts. People to whom Diana wouldn’t have given the time of day felt themselves bonded to her in mystical kinship. A prominent public figure once thanked her on behalf of the gay community for her work with Aids victims. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I don’t do it for your lot – I do it for their families.’

At the time and since, the September days between Diana’s death and funeral were greeted as the token of an epochal, ardently welcomed slackening of Britons’ emotional sphincter. Forgotten were the billionaire playmates, quack mysticism, passive aggression, the pedalo splashabouts off Antibes. She benefited by contrast with her ex-husband, widely thought to boast the empathic prowess of a verruca.

She was barely cold before the hawkers of commemorative gewgaws flocked to cash in. During a discussion on Irish radio for the first mortiversary I was chidden by the presenter for laughing when another guest listed some of the tat on offer, including musical plates that played ‘Candle in the Wind’; a year earlier, Elton John had plinked out the ditty during the obsequies in Westminster Abbey and captured the moment’s exquisite vacuity. No doubt similar treatment would have been doled out had it been not Di but Blair, then a young Phaethon riding high in public esteem, who’d bought it. In his case we know the sequel. With Diana it’s anyone’s guess what might have followed. I was sadder a couple of weeks later when the Soho lush and occasional journalist Jeffrey Bernard dropped off his barstool. He’d been, as E.J. Thribb noted in Private Eye, the people’s pisshead.

Consumerism commodifies. It processes feeling into sentimentality – grief into mawkishness, for example – and character into celebrity. Diana’s stock soared on the morrow of her death, as befits any newly scarce commodity. The rank-scented meinie were invited to press their noses to the glass and blub along as a participation sport. Twenty years on, you can pick up one of the ‘Candle in the Wind’ plates on eBay for less than twenty quid (plus p&p).

Comments on “Diolatry”

  1. Simon Wood says:

    I went to the Coach and Horses the day of Di’s funeral to raise a glass to Jeffrey Bernard. The place was deserted apart from some bore swearing at the TV plus the perennial sign that said so much more, SANDWICHES £1 ALL DAY.

    However, it had been incredible to go to Marble Arch to watch Di’s coffin pass – you could have reached out and touched it, there was no need for security, we were the security.

    Hyde Park, filled with cropped-haired roofers from Essex, shoulders heaving with sobs, looked like the fields of Agincourt the night before or after the battle.

    Di had been incredibly unpopular before the crash, then she was badly punished – it must be said, it was a hard way to go, dying in an underpass, screaming for your kids. A lot of us have been badly punished for getting things wrong – Jeffrey Bernard lost a leg, for instance. But this was the full English.

    It was a giant leap for British-kind. Well done, Di. Some of us think that it’s Elton himself who should take over from the Queen.

  2. Timothy Rogers says:

    Not hailing from the UK, I’ve never understood all the fuss about Lady Di. There is some kind of turbid underwash of sentimental fondness for the Royal family that afflicts some Americans, often derived from old movies and, more recently, popular BBC series shown on public TV. WWII and the “cult of Churchill” (to which FDR never belonged – his sentimental misjudgments were reserved for Stalin) nudged things along too; WWI certainly didn’t. But many of my fellow Americans had a hard time fitting D into this picture – her stormy romantic life resembled the affairs depicted in the glossier soap operas that dwell upon the lives of the wealthy, while her grisly end resembled the kind of car-chase scenes that seem to be the main point of many a Hollywood thriller or police-action movie. On the other hand she didn’t “earn her fate”, because no one does when they’re the victim of a pointless accident. What’s going on with all those Brits who think she earned the status of a secular saint? Enlighten me. (Of course we have our counterpart phenomenon, the over-reaction to the death of some entertainment celebrity who bites the dust before his or her “natural” time has come, with the requisite pilgrimages, relic-hunting, and memorials, The King – Elvis – being a case in point.)

    • Bob Beck says:

      Albert Camus is supposed to have remarked somewhere that he knew of nothing more “stupid” than to die in a car accident (though I have yet to trace this to an undisputed original source; and it’s sometimes rendered as “absurd”).

      As I recall it, of the four people in the car that crashed, the only survivor, a bodyguard, was also the only one who’d been wearing a seatbelt.

  3. semitone says:

    Glen. A not very bright but not very wicked woman died in tragic and very public circumstances, and the nation reacted with general immoderation. Most of your readers will agree (as I do) with the points you make about consumerism and mawkishness. But there’s no need to be a dick.

  4. Lashenden says:

    I went to Diana’s funeral, mainly out of curiosity glossed with an affectation of mass-observation style domestic ethnography. After the general hysteria of the previous days, it was pretty obvious that something interesting was likely to happen. I took the earliest train to Charing Cross and walked down the Mall at about 4.30am in order to choose a suitable spot. I had a good view from an office windowsill a few metres up the road from Westminster Bridge, opposite the Foreign Office.
    In many ways everyone is spot-on about the commodification of emotion surrounding Diana’s death, but nonetheless the previous comment that described the event itself as ‘incredible’ is also entirely accurate. ’90’s consumerism had no script for public grief – no media package for what to wear or how to conduct oneself as an audience member for elite mourning. The templates of earlier generations, regularly exercised at the demise of monarchs and war leaders, had been discarded so long ago that people seemed to be entirely thrown back on their own cultural resources. I witnessed extraordinary scenes all morning long, and will assert that the reactions of the crowd were as spontaneous as any choice could be in a spectacular society. A very well-known example would be the ‘flower-throwing’ that occurred as the hearse returned from Westminster Abbey. This was entirely an invention of the moment – most people lining the route had brought flowers (because that’s what you do at funerals) without having any clear idea of what they were going to do with them, and as this was the last moment at which their bouquets had any validity they just launched them at the object of their grief in a despairing, heedless kind of way. My personal choice to attend was deeply rewarded- those are the right words – by such experiences of seeing ‘culture’ invented or adapted around me from moment to moment.
    The commodification of that culture could also be witnessed almost simultaneously. I made it home again by about 2.30pm just in time to see the first media edit of the event I had attended be cycled endlessly in print and video. Key images had already been selected (the ‘weeping policewoman’ on the mall stands out for me here, an individual who I had seen myself with much dryer eyes only hours before), and the complex events of a couple of hours earlier had now been given a false coherence and a drastically-narrowed interpretative range. The subtle textures of shared experience and intuitive response that remain my abiding memory of the day had already been entirely erased from the record. Although we all understand these ideological processes in theory, it was a startling and sobering lesson to see them play out in real time.
    Before long, we’ll experience the funeral of the present monarch. This will be a far more epochal event; I recommend that, despite your ethical doubts, you should physically attend and share in the unpredictable behaviour of your fellow-countrypeople. Do it because it will certainly lead you to question your (mediated) assumptions, and because it will enable you to see media commodify your experience of the nations’ shared attention before your very eyes.

  5. Timothy Rogers says:

    A shrewd assessment of several things and events, and it demystifies the spectacle for me (somewhat).

  6. R.Poisson says:

    I was also staying in an upstairs bedroom at my parents house. First thing I heard about it was my dad shouting “Christ we will never hear the end of this” through the floor. How right he was.

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