The official commemoration ceremony of the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death is at least something unique in Britain’s long and colorful history.
Sir Winston Churchill was not considered worthy of such a ritual a decade on from his death, nor were Nelson, Wellington, Pitt, Newton, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Kipling, Scott, Queen Victoria, Shackleton or any of the heroes that British colleges or battleships used to be named after.
Of course, unlike Princess Diana, none of them had committed treason, in the full, technical, legal sense of the term, nor died during, and as a result of, what Geoffrey Wheatcroft described (very bravely at the time) as “a liaison with a coke-snorting, starlet-bonking playboy.”
I was in Singapore on my way to London when I read the first reports of Princess Diana’s death. Singapore has its shortcomings, but it a practical, down-to-earth place. I felt curiously embarrassed for my heritage to read reports in the Straits Times of the British press demanding that the Royal Family should “show grief'” and the Queen and Prince Charles should “break down, cry, and hug one another on the steps of Westminster Abbey.”
This, I thought, is crazy. If true, it is evil. But surely it is too crazy; it implies too gross a violation of ordinary human behavior, to be true. If it was true, there was something totalitarian there, something like the atmosphere of a Stalinist show-trial, the demand that privacy and dignity be ripped away to appease the apparent emotional derangement of “the people.” And as far as the media went, it seemed like a killer railing at the lack of public grief shown by the victim’s family.
I didn’t know the half of it.
MY WIFE AND I ARRIVED in Britain a few hours before The Funeral. It is probably the ambition of every provincial writer to be present at a world-historical event in the ancient capital of his mother-civilization. It was the fifth time I had disembarked there and none of those four earlier visits had given me any preparation for the madness we plunged into.
That it was happening in England, the country of the traditional stiff-upper lip, made it more unreal. It was a carnival of ghoulish madness reminiscent of what I have read of the medieval plagues and the Chiliastic panics at the end of the first Millennium. Not that here was much to see on the streets that morning. We walked through a London as weirdly deserted as in The Day of the Triffids or some similar piece of apocalyptic science-fiction. The public-address system of the train we took announced silence would be observed. We finally found a little church in Richmond, where kind people served us tea and biscuits and comforted the grieving as The Funeral was relayed on banks of TV screens.
“Show us you care!” screamed the front-page headline of the Express, alongside a file-picture of the Queen looking cold and remote (six months later there would be no rebuke for the Queen continuing her official duties the day her sister, Princess Margaret, had a stroke). The Sun, a major contributor to the paparazzi culture and celebrity sleaze-mongering which had caused the fatal car wreck, demanded “Where is the Queen when the country needs her?” and claimed that it was “the final insult” that there should not be any half-mast flag over Buckingham Palace (although flags are never flown there when the Queen is not in residence).
There were odious moral assumptions here: that the Royal Family’s grief should be public property, to be displayed for the entertainment of the crowd, that the Queen, an elderly woman with an immense record of public service and ceaseless devotion to duty, had, along with Diana’s ex-husband and children, no right to privacy even at such a moment, and even that the grief of the public for a celebrity they had never met was somehow greater and more valid than that of her own family. It was more than odious. It was insane. To judge from the media, the country was suffering from a national mental breakdown. Some other paper claimed that: “a nation is crying for its mother.”
The Rita Skeeter-type prose of sickly, manipulative sentiment poured on like a Tsunami of vomit. The Sunday Mirror shrieked in a tirade against the Queen that “[t]he people of Britain are suffering grievously.” The media then claimed a victory in forcing the Queen to emerge and go on public mournabout and to display her bereaved grandsons to the ghoulish gaze of The People. This was headlined, not in the trash-tabloids but the Times, as “Diana’s Army Cheers Victory,” the story going on to claim that the Royal Family “bows to public pressure to show its grief.” The conservative Daily Telegraph‘s version was “The Queen bows to her people.” The Sunday Times claimed in a huge double-page spread that the “Palace bows to People’s will,” and continued in pseudo-totalitarian language that: “Britain’s collective grief turned to anger last week as the royal family clung to their Scottish fastness â€¦” The Evening Standard claimed on dubious evidence that “[t]he People of Paris are weighed down by guilt.”
My favorite quote, however, came not from the British tabloids but the U.S.’s National Enquirer:
We apologize for the Princess Diana Page One Headline “Di goes sex mad,” which is still on the stands at some locations. It is currently being replaced with a special 72-page tribute issue: “A farewell to the Princess we all loved. Diana — her final hours.”
Publications and people of higher intellectual credentials joined in. The London Spectator, which prides itself on cool-headed cynicism, apologized for having run an advertisement for Mercedes cars. Paul Johnson (Yes, Paul Johnson!) claimed that “It is not often an entire people speak, and they are asking that a woman, cast out in life, be listened to in death. A new spirit is moving across this country!” He continued that: “In all sincerity, and at the risk of seeming blasphemous, I am reminded of the Blessed virgin who, told of her destiny, announced with proud modesty, ‘I am the hand-maiden of the Lord’…all the original saints were chosen by popular acclamation.” Months later he wrote that: “I now pray to her.” (To her, not for her.) Piers Paul Reid also likened her to the Virgin Mary, while John Mortimer QC drew significance from the fact that the funeral had passed under the arch of a house where the Duke of Wellington had once lived.
I HAVE TROUBLE NOW BELIEVING the notes I made at the time, but they say that Conservative Party leader William Hague suggested Heathrow Airport be re-named Diana Airport, and was criticized for the moderation of the way he put the proposal (but then, Liverpool’s Speke Airport, originally named after an African explorer, really was re-named John Lennon Airport not long after, in honor of the popular drug-culture icon and IRA supporter of that name).
The papers raved against the “loathsome” paparazzi they had paid. Denouncing media intrusiveness, the Daily Mail published a covertly obtained photograph of the Prince of Wales with the caption, “Charles weeps bitter tears of guilt” (it re-published this a few days a go, in tasteful commemoration of the anniversary).
Ten thousand tons of flowers and legions of teddy-bears, were for some reason piled up in front of Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace. Two elderly Czech ladies who took two of the teddy-bears (clearly abandoned property) were seized and sentenced to a month’s prison, even though the judge accepted that they had only taken the bears as a tribute to Diana and had had no criminal intent. The sentence, he said, must reflect public outrage. Sentencing for this particular crime was not consistent, however: another tourist who took a teddy-bear was fined a mere $200 but then beaten up outside the court.
On the day of The Funeral, as my wife and I walked the London streets looking for an open tea-shop, a man was being beaten up by a mob not far away for the sacrilege of washing his car. Mr. Mark Woodsworth, aged 31 and about to marry, paid tribute to the deceased princess by hanging himself. Professional suicide counselors and organizations asked that a National Diana Helpline be set up, though in the Daily Telegraph one Christine Doyle bravely reassured readers that the mourning need not “have a damaging impact on our collective psyche and our physical health.” Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky wrote that he had seen nothing like it since the death of Stalin in Moscow in 1953, when “a massive and unrestricted brainwashing campaign by the media and the government wrought the populace into a state of hysteria and idolization.”
Weirdest of all, almost none of the real individual people I actually met, either among my own or my children’s circle of friends, took any of it particularly seriously. The gentle old barman at my club, who made no bones about the occasional spot of cross-dressing, lamented the loss of a fashion exemplar. That was about it.
A swarm of wasps entered the floral tributes banked up outside the gates of Althorpe House, causing children, as the Observer thought worthy of reporting, to scream: “The bees are eating the princess!” Something important had happened, but it was hard to say what. Public life had entered an area where the political and the mystical came clammily together in the exaltation of unreason. Some vast, useless force had been unleashed, a harbinger of the cultural incoherence and breakdown of Blair’s Britain and what was briefly known then as Cool Britannia.
Well, I had been present at a great historical event — how else can you describe something that consumed more media-space than any other in the history of the world?
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