Vol. 19 No. 20 · 16 October 1997

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Gross Hypocrisy Awards

Written from the Mass-Observer’s perspective, Ross McKibbin’s essay on the mourning and funeral of Princess Diana (LRB, 2 October) placed a premium on immediacy at the expense of other angles of approach. Most of the public’s mourning of Diana was not done in person, in London, where it could be seen by the Mass-Observer, but at home, principally in front of the television. McKibbin has vindicated M-O as a technique and produced a unique record of his own; but he has also come close to omitting the intrinsically mediated quality of the week’s events.

The assumption has been widespread that the act of mourning was a public hiatus, ‘a remarkable moment in the history of modern Britain’, but it is not so. Diana’s death and the response to it occurred within the context of a pre-existing media audience of enormous dimensions, established over a number of years. Tony Blair knew this when he made his statement at 10.28 a.m. on the Sunday morning of Diana’s death – a time when half the ‘British people’ had barely woken up. He left the Tories invisible, without hope of redress. The Birtist BBC also knew it, and pre-empted its rivals just as effectively.

The Gross Hypocrisy Prize – and this in a week where the shade of Tartuffe was as much in evidence as that of Diana – must go to television. By putting a microphone in front of distressed mourners and asking them to emote, they claimed that they were giving the ordinary citizen ‘a voice’. In fact the BBC had planned for the event of her death, as was announced in the following week’s Radio Times by John Morrison, editor of TV news programmes: ‘we had worked to a fictional scenario involving the death of a leading royal in a car crash in a foreign country recently. It proved amazingly prescient.’ The pre-arranged nature of the response was obvious from the precision and uniformity of its orchestration: by 6.40 a.m. on that Sunday morning, the news operation was ‘at full stretch, serving ten BBC national and international networks’. That this blanket coverage was not universally welcomed was made clear by the protests of viewers, who secured the restoration of ordinary programmes on BBC2 that afternoon, and by the response of ITV, which showed ordinary programmes in the evening and achieved very good ratings. (Because ITV is decentralised, ITN cannot impose itself on the regions.) Most ‘national’ media productions have a pronounced metropolitan bias, and the mourning of Diana was no exception. The way the emotional temperature dropped as one moved outside a hundred-mile radius of London was palpable. It is only the London media and the inhabitants of the Home Counties who think that the Queen is necessarily ‘with her people’ (as even the broadsheets had it) when she is at Buckingham Palace. Scots did not take such a dim view of her residence at Balmoral.

When we consider the size of the preexisting media audience and the powerful kickstart given by Blair and Birt; when we consider, too, that Diana’s death occurred at the end of the summer and school holidays – a time when ‘real’ news stories are rare, and when it is still warm enough to have an open-air carnival in London – the mourning seems almost overdetermined: it would have been extraordinary if it had not happened. It’s true that the BBC gave no instructions about the laying of flowers, but anyone who had watched the coverage of the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, of Jamie Bulger, or at Dunblane knew exactly what the conventions were regarding cellophane and messages, and why the association of death with concern for children – at first sight so curious – was automatic. I do not mean to question the sincerity of the public grief, but it should be seen for what it was – the product of a specific and analysable context. ‘Irrational’ feeling may not be ‘rationally’ analysable in its essential nature, but its historical occurrence certainly is.

The analysis Ross McKibbin offers is largely socio-political (and superbly rational, too). While I am convinced that there is an important element of truth in what he says, it remains implausible to state that ‘individual virtue’ or ‘love, care, goodness’ were the whole or even the primary explanation of what took place. If they had been, the remarkable coincidence of Mother Teresa’s death would hardly have been passed over as it was. In its content as in its scale, the mourning can only be explained by the nature of the longstanding interest in Diana. I do not depreciate her real-life concerns, but what she personified was not the battle against landmines and Aids. It was a cocktail of sex, glitz and royalty – which seemed self-evident in her lifetime but which will be hard to repeat: to combine the attributes of a Princess Margaret and a Marilyn Monroe really was unusual. Diana’s media life fulfilled perfectly the formula of the fantasy soap opera: degrees of wealth, leisure and physical preening we can only dream about; a ‘plot’ of essential simplicity and (in its settings) predictability; with a garnish of moral commitment and emotional upset which seemed to make her ‘one of us’.

Once it is accepted that the mourning was the ritual of a media community, then all the contradictions which Ross McKibbin noticed in the social composition of the crowds fall away: a media community can embrace men in suits, Home Counties women who refuse to buy copies of the Big Issue, tourists and picture-takers, as well as the Asians, the poor and the rejected. It is easy to see why Tony Blair took up the theme of national unity: Labour politicians have stated that the funeral rites were, in their own minds, a re-enactment of another recent moment of national unity – the General Election. But though the election was remarkable in its way, the analogy will not hold: elections are not simply media events (though they are that as well); emotional abstention was barely tolerated in Diana’s case and there was no question of balanced access to our screens for those who had a different view of Diana and her death. A media community is at once the most extensive, and by that token the thinnest, community, where solidarity of any kind may be imagined. As Ross McKibbin says, this tells us nothing about social solidarity in ‘real life’.

The royal family, who depend so much on the media, may well be disturbed by the events. The old prop supplied by a Reithian BBC has gone, and if the monarchy does not build bridges to that world where ratings and finance are the real king and queen, it may find itself in difficulty. For the ordinary viewer, however, I doubt whether this was a remarkable moment in our history. The ratings were so high because the event was a one-off, and the elegies to Diana belong to an extraordinary class of event – the celebrity death.

For this reason the dangers that some descried in the public grief are at worst remote, and at best illusory. It is an illusory fear that the mourning was a kind of mass hysteria, ‘of the sort that let the Nazis in’. This is unjust to the mourners whom Ross McKibbin so sensitively portrays, and displays ignorance not merely of German history but (once more) of the difference between real and media events. More genuinely worrying was the mindless conformism induced first by the BBC, but spreading to almost anyone who had it in their power to pay some public or semi-public ‘mark of respect’ without even making the barest attempt to consult the public affected. Second Prize in the Tartuffe Stakes, with a special mention for Self-Awareness and Propriety, must go to the anonymous Oxford University official who thought it relevant to close the Bodleian Library in Diana’s honour; a Highly Commended goes to the ITV programmer who thought that Jane Austen’s Emma – which hinges, after all, on the profound fulfilment produced by someone of Diana’s age marrying someone of Charles’s – was appropriate viewing for the evening of her funeral. But though picking up on the absurdities displayed by what was after all a form of censorship yields a certain ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ frisson, the foundations of this censorship were always voluntary, and commercially, rather than governmentally, driven.

If there is any profound cultural shift at work, it relates to social celebrations of death, which increasingly have been at a discount in this country since 1918. Whatever happens in the future, it will not be a reversion to a so-called Victorian, but really pre-modern type. Failure to live out one’s biological lifespan used to be commonplace, and dying in old age was a cause for celebration. Today in the developed world, it is not. This is why the only deaths which really engage us socially are the deaths of the young and very young. Diana’s own relative youth and her association with children and motherhood were crucial to her mourning.

In other words, the mourning of Diana is to a large extent explicable by the fact that her death was so unlikely. It was unlikely that a woman of such fame, and with such specific attractions, should have died at that age, and it is almost unthinkable that anyone alive today will again see anything like what took place in the first week in September. In this sense, quite different historical analogies suggest themselves. Consider, for example, the extraordinary media obsequies surrounding the sinking of the Titanic – an event which so mesmerised the nine-year-old George Orwell that it meant more to him than the entire reportage of the Great War. Has anything like it ever happened again?

Peter Ghosh
St Anne’s College

Thanks to Ross McKibbin for quoting Ernest Jones’s views on the monarchy. Ernest Jones (my father) also wrote to the Times proposing that in future the heir to the throne should be tested for psychological balance. The Times didn’t print the letter.

Mervyn Jones
London SW1

Nussbaum v. Unger

Martha Nussbaum writes that Peter Unger’s ‘reliance’ on Judith Jarvis Thomson and me for ‘core examples’ diminishes the originality of his book (LRB, 4 September). Her review shows, however, that she has failed to see where that originality lies. While Unger does start from an old example of mine, as he himself says at the outset, this example and the argument I built on it has – twenty-five years later – left many people unconvinced. Unger extends the example in ways that I never imagined, making the argument infinitely more difficult to escape.

The suggestion that Unger’s originality is diminished by his reliance on examples from Judith Jarvis Thomson is even more startling. A significant body of philosophical literature has arisen around the ‘trolley problem’ devised by Thomson (who, incidentally, got the core example from an article by Philippa Foot). Unger has effectively destroyed this body of literature. Thomson and others who have discussed the trolley problem rely on our common intuitions about a series of cases, and then draw moral conclusions from them. Unger has shown that these intuitions are affected by ethically insignificant factors in the way the examples are framed, the order in which they are presented and so on. No one will ever again be able to defend the use of trolley problem examples – or arguments based on intuitions in specific cases of these kinds – without dealing with Unger’s critique.

Nussbaum does not like Unger’s style. I find it original, amusing and engaging, but I can easily see that some would find it extremely irritating. Less understandable, however, is Nussbaum’s failure to discuss the central arguments of the book she is reviewing. Instead she goes off into a long account of ‘what if everyone did what Unger is suggesting?’ This is transparently irrelevant to his arguments, which are based on the assumption – obviously true for the present and the foreseeable future – that a modest donation to an overseas aid organisation, of the kind that a middle-class person living in a developed country can easily afford, can do a lot towards saving lives. Nussbaum’s argument is on a par with the argument that it is wrong to work late in order to avoid driving home in rush-hour traffic, because if everyone did that, the rush-hour would simply come later. I thought philosophers had long ago understood that the argument cannot be applied in so simplistic a fashion. Nussbaum has missed an opportunity to engage with the argument of one of the most significant works of ethics published this decade.

Peter Singer
Monash University


I feel I must take issue in the strongest possible terms with Peter Parsons’s view (LRB, 18 September) that the Greek obsession with fish is a mirage created by the peculiar obsessions of the anthologist Athenaeus writing at the beginning of the third century CE: ‘How would British society look if its historians focused on an anthology of literary references to cod and caviare?’ The implication that Athenaeus was concerned only with seafood or that he had a fishy agenda is simply false. His work concerns all the pleasures of the flesh and indeed he devotes a little space to the merits of sow’s womb and smoked pig’s knuckles.

My book was mainly devoted to explaining the role of fish (and wine and sex) in Greek discourse, thinking that the phenomenon itself was too obvious to elaborate in detail. After many years of denial I had the impression that classicists were finally facing up to the truth. It is no good trying to blame it all on Athenaeus. It is time to put fish back at the heart of the study of Greek culture.

In fact, my argument did not depend on counting the references to fish in surviving fragments. The point is that when characters in comedy talk of banquets or shopping or cuisine in general they end up talking almost exclusively of fish. It is not that fish looms so large in Greek comedy, it is that fish dominates the category of gourmandise. The idea that Athenaeus has carefully filleted these fragments, taking out most of the extra-marine items and leaving a little offal to disguise his propagandistic project is much too paranoid. Moreover many of these fishy chefs are characters in the comedies and it is clear that fishy shopping expeditions and preparations for these fishy banquets must have played a part in the plot of many plays.

Secondly, a love of fish is commonly used to attack prominent figures. Demosthenes’ attack on Philocrates for betraying Athens to Philip in order to indulge his love of poissonerie is paralleled by similar attacks on Hyperides and Cleon. In the spring of 421 BCE all three of the comedies in competition at the festival of Dionysus attacked Aeschylus’ nephew Melanthius for his devotion to fish. Athenaeus does not in fact quote any of them, but one, Aristophanes’ Peace, happens to survive. It describes Melanthius and his brother as ‘skate-hunting harpies, fish doom’. A contemporary, Archippus, wrote a play in which the chorus of fish offered to come to terms with humanity and to abstain from the flesh of those lost at sea, so long as Melanthius was handed over to them in chains.

My third justification for noting an apparent Greek obsession with fish is the intensity of the language used to describe them and the jokes which suggest the most passionate desire. Eels are commonly described as goddesses or beautiful maidens. A ‘boar-fish’ is described as the ‘flower of nectar’. The splendours of the fish-stall are utter torture – ‘but if one of them smiled at me, I would pay all that the fishmonger asked of me.’ Thieves, tax-dodgers and traitors cannot resist spending their ill-gotten gains on tuna-steaks and eels even if it means giving themselves away. When the market bell rings, a lyre-player loses his entire audience but one. He thanks him for putting art above seafood. The man immediately runs off. It turns out that he was simply a little deaf. There are numerous such passages in hundreds of ancient authors whose main concern is not with food at all.

Finally, there is what we might call the metadiscourse of fish, which amply confirms the impression of fish-madness. Plutarch tells us that fish is described as ‘the dish’ because it has triumphed over all others at the table and the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus complains that modern Greeks are only interested in discussing which fish is best at which time of year. Fish moreover is a key theme in Greek self-definition, distinguishing the decadent present from the meaty heroic past, the civilised city-dweller from the fishphobic peasant and the fish-loving Greek from the fish-worshipping Syrian and Egyptian. Most bizarre of all were those numerous savages at the ends of the earth who held up a mirror to Greek habits, eating nothing but raw dried fish which they ground into flour to make fish bread and fish-cakes or fodder for their animals.

A modern anthologist of cod and caviare would have a job matching that lot.

James Davidson
University of Warwick

He thinks we should be told

In his admirable review of Leslie Mitchell’s new life of Lord Melbourne, Jonathan Parry (LRB, 2 October) describes how another eminent statesman

consciously pitched for a wide coalition of support on the same basis of manly, flexible common sense. He adopted a variety of public poses, disciplined the radicals to accept his leadership by asserting his greater popularity, and made the Conservatives seem marginal and disreputable. He personalised politics, presenting himself as the embodiment of progressive Englishness by cleverly defining progress so narrowly as to be almost unobjectionable, and by forging opportunistic alliances with groups across the political spectrum. He minimised hostility to government by decentralising as many unpopular responsibilities as possible. By such means, he secured dominance for himself and a 20-year hegemony for his followers.

Parry was writing about Lord Palmerston. But did he also have Tony Blair in mind? I think we should be told.

Nicholas Faith
London N7

The last two sentences of Jonathan Parry’s review, which follow immediately from the passage Nicholas Faith quotes, read: ‘That was how the Liberal Party developed in the 19th century. It is, very probably, how it will be reborn, under another name, at the end of the 20th.’ I would say we had been told, but perhaps I’m clairvoyant.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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