We had the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death this week. Wednesday was one of those days when I had time to read The Daily Telegraph on my tablet and I came across a piece by Philip Johnston that completely chimed with my own thoughts. I expect most of us have that experience of like minds once in a while and it is something I greatly enjoy. It is usually Charles Moore whose writing style I favour but Philip Johnston has completely summed up my sadness at the loss of our stiff upper lip.
Here is Philip Johnston’s article as it appeared in The Daily Telegraph.
Call me a cynic, but 20 years on, it’s time to hold
back the sea of tears
Since the death of Diana, Britain has become a nation divided by its readiness to emote publicly
It was the smell that struck me first, the cloying, sweet perfume of a million flowers trapped in a sea of Cellophane lapping at the gates of Kensington Palace. The floral shrine that sprang up in the days after the death of Diana was staggering to behold.
We took our children to see it on the Thursday after the crash in Paris, visiting early in the morning before they went to school. It was something they needed to see, a moment in history they would never forget. Nor would I, for that matter. And yet it represented an outpouring of national grief that I found distinctly perturbing and unsettling.
Twenty years ago this week, many of us discovered we lived in a country that had changed in a way we had not realised and did not particularly like. Call us curmudgeons or traditionalists or whatever; but rarely had we felt so out of kilter with our fellow citizens. To witness people weeping openly for someone they had never met and did not know was something I had not seen before, at least not on such a scale and certainly not in Britain.
Suddenly, it became a good thing to display one’s emotions publicly and proudly rather than control them. Britain in mourning at the death of Diana became the antithesis of the stiff upper-lipped, phlegmatic country which we once took pride in being. Such traits, previously considered strengths, were derided as repressed, buttoned-up and fuddy-duddy.
Evidently this was a view held by a lot of people before Aug 31 1997. But it was only in the week after the tragedy in Paris that it became so glaringly apparent. In the intervening two decades, that sense of two nations has intensified. This is just a hunch, but I suspect that people who found the response to Diana’s death mawkish were more likely than not to have voted to leave the EU. We are the sort who find the recent goings-on at the National Trust (to which we belong) mystifying and irritating. We lament the silencing of Big Ben, rarely watch reality TV shows with their whooping audiences and teary wannabe stars and would much prefer it if cricketers shook hands on scoring a century rather than hug one another.
Facebook, Twitter and the rest have become the online delivery systems for this baring of the soul. We try to avoid public expressions of emotion, not because we don’t feel anything but because we don’t think it necessary to prove that we do. Of course, this may just be me; but I doubt it.
All the anguish and recriminations of that extraordinary week in 1997 are being revived for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy; and, again, the national chasm is opening up. A recent poll suggested that the popularity of the Prince of Wales is declining; tendentious reports have circulated that the Queen might abdicate; the question of Camilla’s title when Charles becomes king is being debated once more. The totemic power of Diana’s death to discombobulate the country seems undiminished.
We all know the circumstances leading to the fateful car trip in Paris and why so many people felt Diana had been hounded to her death by the Press and badly treated by her former husband and the Establishment. Many mothers, like my wife with two sons not much younger than William and Harry, felt deeply for the two princes and still do.
There was anger, partly whipped up by Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess” comments, that the Royal Family preferred not to join the national collapse into sentimentality and wanted to grieve in private. For a few days until the Queen came back from Balmoral to London, the Crown rocked.
The legacy of that week is a country in which it seems everything now must be emoted, and to look askance upon excessive sentimentalism is to evince Blimpish tendencies that are no longer to be tolerated. Anyone in public life who refuses to play along with the new post-Diana dispensation is risking their career. Expressing how they feel matters more than what they have achieved. “Just sum up your emotions as triumph or defeat (delete where applicable) happened” is now the default question of every interviewer.
Facebook, Twitter and the rest have become the online delivery systems for this baring of the soul. Their phenomenal success owes everything to the readiness of millions to talk and write about themselves incessantly in front of the entire nation. Disclosure is de rigueur; social media platforms are gigantic public therapy sessions. Again, I suspect those who felt most baffled by the response to Diana’s death are the least likely to be on Facebook or Twitter vouchsafing their innermost hopes and desires to all and sundry.
And emoting has a dark side. The Director of Public Prosecution’s recent announcement that online abuse will be treated by the police on a par with the face-to-face variety is one consequence of a world in which everyone is encouraged to sound off and the means exist to disseminate their bile easily and anonymously. If we don’t exercise any judgment over saying what we feel then don’t be surprised when people whose views we would rather not hear think they are entitled to the same latitude.
It is now said that people will suffer less from mental health problems if they express their innermost emotions, fears and concerns. But this does not have to be done publicly. Reserve and resilience are positive, not negative, characteristics. They don’t signify insensitivity but proportionality. Arguably, we have become a nation that mourns too readily. Terrible tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire warranted a visit from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; but the impact is diminished if smaller events are treated in the same way. Question Time in the Commons hardly passes without reference being made, often arbitrarily, to some ghastly incident or other. This never used to happen. We can’t trace it all to that week 20 years ago, but it is as good a starting point as any.
I am open to persuasion that the British were big blubbers in the past. By all accounts, Nelson’s funeral was a lachrymose affair; and young men wearing black armbands wept for Byron. In mid-Victorian England it was said that men cried over the death of little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, though Oscar Wilde remarked that you would need a heart of stone to read it without laughing. Call me an old cynic, but I’m with Oscar.