From TLD, Whole Number 19 (December 19, 1997)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Don't cry for me, Piccadilly


Each generation of the 20th century can identify a defining event — a shared historical moment that everybody remembers hearing about. For my parents' generation it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For mine, it was the assassination of John Kennedy. I suspect I know what the next of these Magic Moments may be; I hope I'm wrong, but since things are usually worse than we imagine, history will probably bear me out.

From the outset, the public fascination with Diana, Princess of Wales, was understandable, if sometimes a little excessive. She was young, she was pretty, she had caught the public's eye with a fairy-tale entrance. On the other side of the score sheet, she made a lot of bad decisions and shortsighted choices, for which a public soaked in the self-centered morality of the post-'60s world was perfectly willing to excuse her.

Just for the record, let me remind you that Diana Spencer came from one of England's oldest aristocratic families. At 16 she made up her mind to pinch her older sister's beau, and three years later she married him. She came from a culture that recognized that for hounds, horses, and princes, bloodlines matter more than romance. Further, there is a long British tradition, not confined to royalty, that recognizes the unsuitability of baring one's inner feelings in public. By accepting Charles's marriage proposal, she was tacitly agreeing to abide by the rules, rules that were certainly clear enough and not summed up in the lyrics of "I've Gotta Be Me."

But somehow, the public was willing to forgive and understand the bulimia, the botched suicide attempt, the adultery, the finger-pointing divorce, the flouting of convention, the prodigal spending, the tantrum at the loss of the HRH designation. It wasn't really her fault, after all. Somehow it seemed to be the fault of the queen, a fault compounded by Her Majesty's reticence about airing the Windsor dirty linen in public beyond the wry acknowledgment, in Latin, that 1992 had been a very bad year.

Not that any of that mattered during Labor Day weekend 1997. When I turned on the television what I found was absolutely astonishing. Hundreds of people seemed to be filing past the gates of Kensington Palace in London, leaving their tokens of grief. Flowers, mountains of them. Handwritten notes of sympathy, taped to the fence. One of the hundreds of reporters supplying local-color stories stood commenting solemnly on the social significance of what we were seeing. He fingered one of the notes, written on the blank side of a cash-register receipt, and observed that the spontaneous outpouring of loss and affection was deep, heartfelt, and universal, and that the laments of the man on the street were touching in their sincerity. He then proceeded to read one of those spontaneous laments, oblivious to its being a bald plagiarism of W.H. Auden's "Song: Stop All the Clocks."

Granted, O Best Beloved, it's not a major intellectual crime for a network news stringer to be unfamiliar with the work of any number of major 20th-century poets. It is pretty bad, though, when a poem figuring in a pivotal scene of a recent blockbuster movie (can you say "Four Weddings and a Funeral," boys and girls?) isn't recognized by somebody in the newsroom before the network airs the poor slob's gullible ignorance to a transfixed international audience. But issues of CNN's cultural illiteracy aside, there was a borderline creepiness about the anonymous writer's saying of a woman he presumably didn't know personally, "She was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; / I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong." I don't claim to be an expert in psychiatric matters, but if I were searching for a practical illustration of emotional stalking, I could do worse. That the media accepted such a statement — by a stranger, about a public figure — as an acceptable demonstration of grief rather than a clear symptom of pathological disturbance, was an early warning signal that things were starting to turn seriously, deeply weird.

The scene switched to the British Embassy in Washington, where a young woman, in black, lay on the sidewalk, sobbing hysterically, while a reporter's voice in the background intoned something about public outpourings of sympathy. The camera panned over a heap of flowers at least 3 feet high, studded with candles, stuffed animals, and other objects I couldn't identify. I suppose I should be thankful for small blessings. A lady with a predatory smile and a microphone homed in on a small child, asking her whether she felt sad because the princess was dead, and eliciting from her victim the statement that Princess Diana "was a nice lady who helped lots of people."

Then on to our correspondent in Paris, a hapless soul trying to flesh out the bare bones of an auto accident. Surfing through the other networks yielded variations on the theme: none of the networks had the nerve to revert to regular programming, there was a dearth of hard news or analyzable facts, and everybody was scrambling for some unique angle that would fill the unforgiving minutes. During the days that followed, viewers were regaled with in-depth explanations of the French legal system, their first exposure to the Napoleonic Code with the possible exception of the Pink Panther movies (assuming that they hadn't understood the allusions in "A Streetcar Named Desire"). We saw "tasteful" photos of the wrecked Mercedes while being assured that the major tabloids would refuse to publish the tasteless photos of same which were already on the market. We heard endless speculations about the blood-alcohol level of the driver. Lawyers, doctors, monarchists, socialists told us what it all meant.

Attempts were made, early on, to magnify the anxiety of the Egyptians, who were reputed to suspect that Diana's death was an assassination to prevent the future king of England from becoming the stepson of a Muslim. It was a great story, but apparently either nobody bit, or it cut too close to the bone. In either case, it sank without a trace early in the week. (In this country, that is. It's still a big story in Egypt.)

And the reporters and commentators could not stop talking, despite the fact that they had nothing constructive to say for much of the time between death and funeral. Ever since the Gulf War (although I suppose the seeds were planted in 1963), the media, and particularly television reporters, have assumed that without their avuncular guidance and interpretation of current events, the public will not be able to cope with what goes on in the world around us. Any right-spirited person will readily agree that watching people getting maimed and killed via live hookup and Scud missile is sobering stuff, but the world is a violent place, and learning to cope with it is part and parcel of being a grownup. The media were particularly anxious to be soothing in the wake of Diana's death, anticipating a backlash against the paparazzi and wanting to distance themselves as far as possible from the red-headed stepchildren of the industry.

Meanwhile, an awkwardness in diplomacy and social protocol was brewing as Hillary cut short her Martha's Vineyard vacation to accept her invitation to the funeral. It wasn't going to be a state funeral, and it wasn't going to be a private funeral, and nobody knew exactly what to do about it. Obviously, various countries were obliged to send representatives, but they couldn't send official ones. There wasn't any precedent that covered the fact that Diana wasn't a member of the Royal Family but just the mother of some of it. Prince Charles wasn't a grieving widower. The sister-in-law who had been a partner in her early escapades wasn't a sister-in-law any more.

Dysfunction ran in the family: Diana left both a mother and a stepmother, neither of whom was on particularly good terms with her, although the relationships improved with each retelling (and there were many, on all the networks). Protocol officers' punctilio notwithstanding, the public clamored for a meaningful funeral service. They finally got an uneasy amalgamation of Verdi, Holst, and Elton John, which held together as well as it did chiefly by merit of the Book of Common Prayer.

Other occurrences of the week, such as the death of Mother Teresa, were significant only as they could be tied, some way, to Diana. Mother Teresa provided a bright spot, however, in that until she died, there was no evidence that the saving grace of unhappy current events — the sick joke — was going to surface. As long as nobody is making truly tasteless quips about something, an abnormal state of affairs is holding sway. It was a great relief to find, in my e-mail, the suggestion that we could all honor the memory of both Mother Teresa and Diana by serving a curry dinner and then sticking our fingers down our throats.

I had actually crawled out of bed in the middle of the night 16 years previously to watch Diana's wedding. But instead of watching the funeral live, I set the VCR and got a good night's sleep. That was a good choice, as it turned out, because much of the funeral coverage consisted of watching nothing happen, live. Fast-forward has its uses: I was able to whiz through Barbara Walters telling us, for the 18th time, that she had been in this very spot for the wedding 16 years ago — to say nothing of running past Dan Rather being endlessly pompous about everything.

Various networks filled the time by cutting away to local coverage of the clean-up events, such as the return to the British Embassy in Washington, where a family of five, dressed in their polyester best, stood by while the mother explained to the cameras that she just had to be here because the princess meant so much to her, and she wanted her children to be a part of all this. A reporter asked one of the children what she thought about what was happening. "I don't know," the kid replied in a singsong voice. "Are you sad?" asked the reporter. The kid looked totally bewildered, thought for a minute, decided that she probably was, and buried her head in her mother's skirt. The mother, meanwhile, was crying and repeating how important it was to be here. The oldest kid was staring at his feet, undoubtedly thinking that here he was on national television, and if the guys saw it, they'd all know his mother was weird.

After a few more platitudes, I switched back to Dan and Barbara, just in time to hear the phrase: "... this very spot, 16 years ago, for her wedding." Apparently nobody had had the guts yet to remind Barbara that she was standing in front of Westminster Abbey now, whereas 16 years ago she'd been standing in front of St. Paul's Cathedral a mile away.

The funeral itself was, mercifully, covered by the BBC, a body that retained some sense of propriety from decades of covering royal affairs. In fact, the camera work was magnificent, and the sound pickup was superb (though that was unfortunate as regards Earl Spencer's vitriolic and spiteful rant against his nephews' other relatives). Nobody does pomp and circumstance like the British.

After six days of emotional excess, I was deeply upset to discover that Sir George Solti had died unremarked while everybody was busy elsewhere. He had brought more joy into my life, and the lives of most of my near and dear, than Diana ever had.

And now she belongs to the ages. These days, that means that she is the subject of at least six new books, a docudrama (surely!), the Franklin Mint, the postal services of a couple of foreign countries, and a slew of causes that can invoke her name as a way of raising money and eliciting celebrity intervention on their behalf. Earl Spencer pointed out the irony that a woman named for the goddess of the hunt would be pursued so relentlessly. He missed the real irony — that a woman named for the goddess of the moon would, at least for six days, drive all the world mad.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where popular rumor has it that she stands 17th in the Stuart line of succession to the throne.

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