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).