Do I remember where I was? Sure. I was in my bedroom watching TV. It was the early hours of Sunday morning, a sultry late summer’s night.
The newsflash showed the mouth of a Parisian underpass, its concrete surrounds illuminated by the pulsing lights of emergency vehicles. “FATAL PARIS CAR CRASH. Princess Diana seriously hurt.”
At the time, Diana was arguably the most famous woman on the planet. She had married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, just a few months after I was born, and her fame had endured at that rarefied pitch all my life. But the true dimensions of the shock were as yet unfelt; I didn’t even bother kicking my friends, catatonic on the sofa beside me, to impart the news.
Television archives still bear witness to the days that followed as most of us experienced them—through the still-nascent medium of rolling news. The BBC newscast at 7 a.m. that morning opened with an image of a billowing British flag flying at half-mast, and a lento rendition of “God Save the Queen.”
A stonefaced news anchor, Martyn Lewis, opened with the headline: “This is BBC Television from London. Diana, Princess of Wales, has died after a car crash in Paris.”
Lewis’s broadcast shift lasted six and a half hours. By the time he came off air, the whole United Kingdom knew that its most famous daughter was dead, and whatever other issues had preoccupied the country twenty-four hours earlier were lost in the wind.
Books of condolence, often placed on borrowed church lecterns, appeared outside pubs. Crowds of somber people queued in silence, heads bowed, to emote and sign. Great drifts of flowers swelled at the gates of Buckingham and Kensington Palaces. For a week, the entire nation was consumed by the kind of overwrought display of public grief one might ordinarily associate with the mourning of a North Korean autocrat.
Now, Diana Spencer was, I’m sure, a decent, kindhearted human being. Many of her actions over the course of her life, and the eulogies of those who knew her, attest to that. But what drew the rubberneckers in the days after her dramatic death was that she was posh and pretty, vulnerable and demure. Years of media obsession had made of her something altogether more potent than your everyday celebrity: an icon of the national narrative, and an irresistible protagonist in the country’s longest-running soap opera, the beleaguered and ill-starred heroine of “The Royal Family.”
Another video, this time of the funeral. A million people line the route of the cortege, and tens of thousands crowd Hyde Park to watch the coverage on giant screens. Tear-streaked faces. Hunched shoulders. Flowers raining down on the passing hearse. A nation visibly luxuriating in grief.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t grief-stricken. I was bewildered. At root, I suppose I felt that the images were an affront to the pain of authentic loss. My father died when I was four years old. And while I had determined pretty early on that there was little to be gained in obsessing over that misfortune, it was integral to my sense of self. Because of that, perhaps, there was something about the wailing, contagious anguish that felt out of place and even offensive to me and, I suspect, to those like me, who understood from experience the nature of the real tragedy—not the television one—that had just enveloped Diana Spencer’s family and friends.
Watching the episode now, I still find myself recoiling at the mawkishness and presumption of some of the onlookers. “You could see he was struggling as much as we were,” one spectator told the BBC, speaking about Earl Spencer’s tribute from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. “That’s what we needed to see.” Really? The deceased’s brother, struggling as much as you were, madam? In the aftermath of Diana’s death, this kind of solipsism was everywhere.
Even Diana’s sons were pressed into service at the funeral, walking behind the coffin as the throngs of spectators looked on. Their emotional wellbeing, too, was subordinated to the nation’s greed for drama and public catharsis.
At the time, the whole pageant struck me as ingloriously un-British. But then it’s worth recalling the moment in context. Four months earlier, Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party had swept to power in a landslide election. Say what you want about the Blair era in hindsight; that summer, it felt like the country was emerging from a long malaise. The optimism that attended that political transition was rooted in a hope that Old Britain, with its ingrained classism, and all the cultural warfare it had engendered, was being swept aside. The horizon was all Reason. Data. Equity. The unstoppable destiny of a mature society. Most people my age, having grown up against a backdrop of dreary recessional Thatcherism, were all in.
But the national reaction to Diana’s death betrayed the limits of this new credo. The new technocracy might promise miracles, but it would never be able to legislate for the madness of crowds.
To question the public spectacle of mourning was to betray oneself as flint-hearted, even though the reticence many of us experienced had far more to do with the hypocrisy of the national reaction than any particular callousness to the untimely death of a young mother. After all, wasn’t the public’s overinvestment in her life the very thing that had, for so many years, rendered it unbearable to her? Didn’t this performative sorrow emanate from the same part of the national psyche that had greedily consumed Diana’s every act and foible, feeding the tabloid succubus whose ghoulish outriders in the paparazzi would eventually harass her into a fatal crash?
In a famous stand-up routine some years later, the comedian Stewart Lee described Diana, in death, as the “unwitting receptacle for the hysterical, over-emotional, shrieking grief of twats.” Little did we know that such histrionics would soon become our default national pose.
That’s the thing about the week after Diana died. In many ways, it anticipated the neuroses that would come to define the United Kingdom in the twenty-first century. The voyeurism. The groupthink. The deification—and concomitant abuse and exploitation—of celebrities. Not to forget the paranoia: within days, conspiracy theories abounded that the accident had been in fact an assassination, a royal plot to whack the scarlet woman who had become the firm’s bête noire.
Twenty-five years ago, I distinctly remember thinking: if the herd is this pliable, what else might we be capable of?
Diana’s death was the curtain raiser to our age of hysteria. It exposed, in a way few modern events have before or since, that what the British public yearns for, more than a functioning state or a fair society, is a cinematic national narrative, a guillotine to knit before, some small, sad sense of belonging.