Goodbye England’s Rose?

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Sean Faye considers why we can’t get enough of the world’s most famous princess.  The “Glums”. “Squidgygate”. The “War of the Wales’”. Perhaps, dear reader, you are staring at the page, wondering whether I am simply quoting some Oxford lingo about Proctors’ meetings you haven’t heard of or, perhaps, the new street slang for the come-down after taking ket. If this is the case, it is clear that you are not and probably do not consider yourself a fan of the late Princess Diana. Attempting to visualise what such a ‘fan’ may look like, you may imagine regiments of seventy year-old women with their collection of commemorative jubilee plates and mugs – the type that insist on watching the Queen’s speech every Christmas. Such a quaint and remote image of harmless old dears might be one I would myself laugh at with my contemporaries – gently dismissing their outmoded deference before a quick nod to, like, ‘our generation’s totally post-modern apathy in an age of moral relativism.’ But the joke is on me. The minute anyone my own age leaves the room the pretentious bullshit is gone and Diana’s 1996 Panorama interview is already at hand, downloaded an hour ago on Youtube. Knowing every utterance from the Princess before it comes and being able to work myself up into a frenzy time after time over the shocking revelations about the Windsors, I should really face up to it: I have long been a Di-hard fan (see what I did there?) my enthusiasm and devotion to each detail of her life bordering on pathetic. That was, however, until the past year. 2007 was supposed to be Di-tastic – the ten year anniversary of her death, and the public inquest that would uncover the sensational plot behind the supposedly accidental car-crash. What the public actually got was hours of wasted screen time on the BBC whilst the increasingly- repugnant Joss Stone ‘rocked out’ to the memory of Lady Di and Princes William and Harry had yet another try at proving how down wit’ da kids they are in an interview with the toxic Fearne Cotton. Whilst it’s clear that this was an expensive televisual absurdity, it is not as ludicrous as the ongoing publicly- funded inquest, which has so far re-told the same old details about Diana’s romances in a more costly and less interesting format than recent documentary ‘Di’s Guys.’ With all this, even I was questioning the increasingly indefensible presentation of Diana’s life and death as relevant current affairs. My occult passion aside, I was forced to ask: does Diana really warrant column inches, news coverage, memorial concerts and public inquests a decade on from her death? Why is Diana still a winner for journalists, television channels and pop stars alike?. When I came to write this article even I, who will not hear a word spoken against Diana in conversation, have found many problems with the ongoing response after her death and its expense for the taxpayer, (the inquest still drags on). However, the one thing I believe is the reason for Diana’s endurance is something that I think people who groan about her may not fully appreciate. The Seventies were not a particularly good time for Britain. Increasing unemployment, the Winter of Discontent and economic recession certainly caused a downer for the media. When Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles and became HRH The Princess Charles (‘Princess Diana’ was never her proper title but a media-given one) it was a massive TV event, the most watched event in history, in fact. When Diana showed herself to be much more open and natural with the public she generated a furore around her both inside and outside the somewhat shabby, musty royal family. Her popularity in the Commonwealth and USA meant that she was a global celebrity and the fact that she was royal meant that this celebrity had a glamour that no music artist or film star could ever quite manage to emanate. Her different media incarnations ‘fairy tale princess’ ‘betrayed wife’ ‘femme fatale’ and, at the time of her death, ‘saint’ allowed her to be re-invented and freshened-up in a way even Madonna could not aspire to. Yes, the 20th Century had other great stars with equally shocking deaths: Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Elvis, but Diana was the first to live through the development of the global, 24- hour media and was perhaps the first who was able to consciously use the media to serve her agenda, at once both charitable to those in need and vindictive to the family she felt had rejected her. On her final holiday with the Fayeds in the Mediterranean “invasive” shots were taken of Diana kissing Dodi. Media insiders have indicated that the paparazzi were conveniently there at the right time, having been called personally by the princess herself on certain occasions. This media-aware celebrity is a worn-out image to us in 2008, wearied by Jordan and Peter’s infinite ‘look we’re fascinating’ shows, Jodie Marsh and her search for a husband etc. However, they are the limp, flagging end of a trend set by Diana which she managed to pull off with infinitely more finesse. Put simply: Diana changed what celebrity meant, she was the first monopolising force in the British tabloid press. Her death left an enormous vacuum into which ‘Spicemania’ slotted neatly and later was refined to the more manageable ‘Beckhamania.’ It’s hard to believe that the ‘celebrity for celebrity’s sake’ has not been around for ever but it, all of it, the weeklies like heat, the celebrity circuit around London, the constant exposing of private lives in the press, began with Diana. In addition to her historical importance as a pop culture revolutionary, she caused or at least coincided with a dynamic change in the emotional life of British society. Apart from the usual pseudo- sociological comment about how Diana’s death and the communal grief that ensued caused a more ‘touch-feely’ culture, there are actual significant points to be made about how Diana’s popularity for her charity work, despite betraying the British ideal of emotional restraint, juxtaposed with the rise of New Labour. Tony Blair’s celebrity politics, calls for reform and dispensing with formalities of government was an ideal bedfellow for the Diana-era. Now, I’m not saying New Labour is a child of the Diana phenomenon but it certainly lent itself to and seized upon the cultural shift caused by Diana and her death. Masses of people crying in public, a general appetite for sentimentality and a need to discuss ‘my feelings’ are all part of the change Diana helped to engender and this, along with her historical importance in the chronology of the British media are what should still be discussed in history books and biographies, not repeated stories in the press that give the illusion we are talking about a person who belongs in our world today. So should we still be writing and reading about Diana? On the one hand, my answer to this has to be, at least partly, yes, because I am writing about her now, and to write about how she shouldn’t be written about is just stupid. There are plenty of criticisms that can be fairly levelled at Princess Diana – she was a privileged aristocrat who achieved her fame and status by marrying, nothing more. If you are a monarchist, her unseemly display of her marriage’s breakdown and her own adultery was probably quite unpleasant for her sons and did untold damage to the moral sheen the Royal Family had enjoyed throughout the 20th Century. If you despise the monarchy, it could be that the media’s portrayal of Diana as a tormented saint who was driven to bulimia by an archaic and uncaring family life is a hard pill to swallow given the amount of women who suffer actual domestic violence and eating disorders in private without the option of a separate palace and a lucrative divorce settlement. Yes, Diana did work for charity – but should this be regarded as a bonus for a Royal who gained a significant amount of material advantages by historical accident. Of course, you may not care at all. Indeed, perhaps what should be remembered, above all, is that this moral evaluation is not even of a living person, but a woman ten years dead. Apart from forming her memory amongst her immediate family, these questions are no longer relevant. To the common dichotomy often used about Diana: saint? Or media whore? A third question ‘who cares?’ is easily added. Most readers of this article will have been under ten when the Princess of Wales died. How could she be even remotely relevant to people our age, who don’t even have a sentimental attachment to the living Diana? Even my enthusiasm about her is quasi- historical, like others’ love of Tudor Queens or Napoleon biographies. Yet clearly there are others who would disagree with me. Even if Diana’s life character and media persona belong to the realm of popular history books and biographies awaiting purchase by the annual exodus of sun-worshippers in Heathrow, the rather limp suggestion of a political scandal behind her death is used as means to keep her in the current media. Like the editors of the Daily Express, jokingly referred to in Fleet Street as the Di-ly Express, who run endless headlines about the alcohol consumption of Diana’s driver Henri Paul and photo-fits of her and Dodi’s ‘secret baby.’ It is clear from this that to some people, somewhere, Diana is good money for old journalistic rope and she still gets magazines and papers off shelves across the world. The people who complain that they shouldn’t be forced to keep on reading about Diana or enter into some communal grief over her death are usually like those bores that go on and on about Big Brother being trash but continue to read about the new romances of ‘Chiggy’ for months after the series has ended. Even the incredibly dull memorial service of last summer, which looked like a pale imitation of Diana’s chic, star-studded funeral, drew millions of viewers. The Diana-brand goes on into perpetuity because there is still outstanding public demand for it. Simple as. And what about that the intrigue surrounding her death? Perhaps Diana only remains famous because the circumstances of her death have provided media moguls and have-a-go conspiricists to run with the greatest story of political assassination since John F Kennedy. I don’t believe Diana was murdered. Some of the conspiracies are rather amusing for their sheer absurdity, however. The idea that Prince Phillip, a man in his mid-seventies at the time, heard Diana was pregnant by Dodi Fayed and thought a) Oh no. A Muslim baby! and then b) We’ll simply have to get MI6 to run her off the road in Paris, is hard to swallow. Switched blood samples, a delayed ambulance, a white Fiat Uno and a secret wedding ring all complete the (absolutely fictional) picture. It all has the makings of a good detective novel – but this novel has now been serialised over a decade. The conspiracies are wearing thin. I am a Diana fan who recognizes she is longsince dead, its time for the judiciary and the media to follow suit.

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