When Princess Diana’s life was suddenly cut short in 1997, Britain experienced its first nationwide emotional outburst of pornographic proportions. Long known for its ‘stiff upper lip’, the British seemingly fell to their knees with hysterically maudlin grief over a woman who was nothing more than a socialite – Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton with a bit of class.
Her death was clearly tragic, she was a 36-year-old mother of two, but the media attention she received both before and after her death was entirely undeserved and downright aberrant in its obsessiveness. I find little to admire in the unintelligent (by her own admission), uncharismatic, enormously privileged and occasionally manipulative Diana. Despite this, Diana was not hateful or even particularly dislikable. The bulk of one’s exasperation should not lie with Diana, but with the media, who, on the morning of 1st September 1997, insisted that Britons across the nation had to mourn a multi-millionaire celebutante they had never met.
The toxic seeds of the international media’s relationship with Diana were planted around 1980, when Prince Charles began courting her. The incessant coverage she subsequently received is rather curious because, like many socialites, the depth of her personality left much to be desired. That didn’t matter of course, as she was tall, attractive, blonde, blue-blooded and the potential partner of the heir to the throne. The tabloids treated Diana as a sex object, a pretty doll whose coy expressions could tame the Prince in time for his kingship.
It is clear to those with even a modicum of emotional intelligence that Diana and Charles simply weren’t compatible. She was nineteen, naïve and neurotic and Charles had neither the time nor the inclination to spend enough time with her – it was a union orchestrated by each other’s families that neither was ready for. Frankly, their doomed marriage was a 15-year hiatus in the relationship between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, which was and now is a far more appropriate partnership.
The media and the public are often keen to glorify an individual when they die prematurely, but with Diana it verged on canonisation. The scores of people who laid flowers at Buckingham Palace and openly wallowed as if they’d lost a child defended their cheap, morbid bereavement by harking on about the virtues of Diana’s charity work.
The images of Diana walking near land mines and prodding terminally ill people are familiar, but what else was she supposed to do when she wasn’t strolling the grounds of Balmoral or building a new gilded existence with the disagreeable Fayed family? Charities have become a fashion accessory amongst A-list celebrities; they’re paraded around much like those ridiculous bug-eyed handbag dogs. It’s somewhat cynical to think this way, and not all celebrity charities are self-serving endeavours (Spielberg’s Shoah foundation, for example), but it’s quite obvious that sanctimony and ‘fitting in’ are primary incentives for many philanthropic celebrities.
It’s often claimed that Diana was a victim of the paparazzi, but she used these free PR agents to create her personality cult. As the frenetic chatter of paparazzos’ cameras started to follow Diana wherever she went, she learned how to present herself and manipulate these desperate parasites.From the battlegrounds of Bosnia to the minefields of Angola, her every precious step was captured and broadcast for the whole world to fawn over. I’d shake the hand of every leper in town if I was adored and almost beatified by swathes of people from the world over!
Unfortunately, it seems many people cherish the image rather than the long, hard graft of real innovation and achievement. Take Norman Borlaug for example, he was an American biologist whose high-yield, disease-resistant wheat vastly improved the food supply in Asia and Africa, causing him to be nicknamed ‘The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives’. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to world peace, but despite his profound betterment of humanity, Borlaug’s mainstream fame is minimal because he was an old bald man from Iowa.
A more direct comparison is Jody Williams, whose extensive work in anti-landmine campaigning and other political activism was also rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Williams was active at the same time as Diana, but heartfelt political principles are of minimal interest to those who enjoy crying, so her committed political career went largely unnoticed by the general public, who found the glamour and fantasy of Diana to be infinitely more watchable.
Diana’s saintly reputation was (and still is) the creation of a mawkishly money-minded press and a disconcertingly large part of the population who willingly indulged it with teary-eyed relish. The other key influence on the event was Prime Minister Tony Blair. Diana’s death occurred at a very opportune time for the newly elected leader; after winning a landslide victory with the New Labour campaign in 1997, he was swiftly handed a chance to connect with ‘the people’ on an emotional level with an intensity perhaps unseen since VE day 52 years prior.
It was Blair who popularised the laughable moniker ‘the People’s Princess’. This is a woman who was bought a £100,000 house for her eighteenth birthday, wore a £9000 wedding dress, and was somehow worth an estimated $40 million at the time of her death – how on earth can she be considered a figure that represented the people?
The footage of myriad plebs flocking to Buckingham Palace and even camping around it so they could mourn an aristocratic celebutante they had never met is pathetic in the true sense of the word. They were shamelessly caught up in Diana’s cult of personality, exposing much of humanity’s need to worship someone or something, whether it’s Jesus Christ or Kim Kardashian’s arse.
Blair wasn’t the only public figure to endorse and exacerbate the media’s campaign of crying, Elton John and Bernie Taupin rewrote Candle in the Wind to fit the occasion. Of course, all proceeds went to charity, but it is clear that the song’s purpose was to vastly inflate John’s ego, not his $450 million bank balance.
Candle in the Wind 1997 is the anthem for the infantile, protracted emotional outbursts that have become so commonplace, whether it’s Jade Goody’s made-for-TV cancer battle or the never-ending Hillsborough disaster. The lyricism of Candle in the Wind is very much to the taste of those who thought it was appropriate to give a kitsch teddy bear to a dead stranger, highlights include: ‘For our nation’s golden child’, ‘All our words cannot express / The joy you brought us through the years’, ‘From a country lost without your soul’.
Where does one begin with these stupid lyrics? I’m sure Elton felt much joy when he rubbed his sycophantic shoulders with Diana at glitzy, gaudy high society functions, but what joy did she bring to the rest of us lowly serfs? The most offensive of the song’s claims is that Britain – the first industrialised nation who conquered much of the world, contributed significantly to science and the arts and defeated some of history’s greatest tyrants – was ‘lost’ without the soul of some posh totty. Elton and Taupin were right about the ‘nation’s golden child’ bit though – she had a 20 million pound jewellery collection.
The solemn dignity of Henry Purcell’s March once flooded Westminster Abbey for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695; I wonder what Purcell would have made of Taupin’s claptrap and the melodrama of John’s pianism? I shouldn’t think anyone else gives a toss though, because a 2002 poll revealed that the British public considered Diana to be the third greatest Briton of all time, putting her ahead of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Tim Berners-Lee. I know, it is just a list, but it’s still a disconcerting measure of the public’s preference for vapid celebrity over true understated genius.
The whole Diana issue is wrapped in another layer of stupidity when one considers the monarchy and the population’s relationship with it. Britain’s former draconian rigidity and pomp and circumstance was largely eroded by two World Wars and cultural revolution, causing the Royal Family to look terribly archaic and useless. The perpetually sour-faced Queen and her clan have devolved into little more than a tinselly tourist attraction for American and Commonwealth tourists to gawp at.
The cultural bastardisation of the Diana debacle stressed just how absurd the notion of royalty is. With their divorces, syrupy concerts (more of that in a minute) and Nazi themed fancy dress, the Royals have dumbed down along with the rest of mainstream culture, reminding us more than ever that they too are homo-sapiens, African apes with tiaras and fascinators. The French realised this in the 18th century, and even though I understand and enjoy the allure of tradition, it’s about time we did, too.
I may disagree with their unearned adoration, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the Royals as people. William and Harry appear perfectly affable, so it was particularly disappointing when they organised and hosted the Concert for Diana in 2007. The show commemorated what would have been her 46th birthday, which was almost 2 months before the 10th anniversary of her death and the subsequent destruction of British values.
Elton John returned, opening and closing the ceremony with a selection of naff ballads. The rest of the concert comprised 26 acts, ranging from Duran Duran (Diana’s favourite band) and Tom Jones to Kanye West and ‘P. Diddy’, or ‘Puff Daddy’ or ‘Diddy’ or whatever juvenile pseudonym he was using at time. Musically, P. Diddy’s performance was very lacklustre, he instead channeled his efforts into what he called ‘Diana’s rebirth’, which saw him walking to the front of the stage and asking the audience to join in with him shouting ‘We love you! We miss you!’ Diddy’s self-serving display left me utterly incredulous.
Using a format similar to Red Nose Day, the concert was punctuated with short films of charity workers and other interviewees relentlessly praising Diana as if she was the Earth’s first faultless human being. The last film that championed a real-life figure so spectacularly was Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935).
Whether it is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the sob stories in the weekly pabulum that is The X-Factor, or the death of Jade Goody (don’t get me started), an unhealthy appetite for vicarious bereavement and the 24hr media circuses that satiate it continue to rage on. The masses may eventually get a grip, but the damage has already been done. There will always be two categories of people: those who cried when Diana died and those who rightfully did not.