NOTE: This column was first published in New Times (Phoenix, Arizona) in 1997, back in its last days as a real newspaper. (Back then, it had about a dozen staff writers, including me. Now it has two.)
This column is about the death of a 36-year-old woman, white, divorced, with two kids and no financial problems but plenty of emotional ones.
She was also a member of the British Royal Family, and so it's necessary to define my own vantage point. I am 31 years old. I've lived in the United States for two years, but I was born and grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. More specifically, and more important to the context of this column, I was born and grew up in Maryhill, one of the city's then-slums. By birth and upbringing, I'm white trash.
In the late '70s through the late '80s, the U.K. was in a state of economic recession worse than any American of my generation has experienced. In Maryhill, people grew up without any hope of ever having a job. I don't mean a good job — I mean a job of any kind. There were people in their teens and 20s who had never known their parents to work. For the poor and badly educated, jobs didn't exist. The only income was the government dole.
In the summer of 1981, the talk of the people as they waited in line at the dole office or the housing benefit department was of an impending wedding. The heir to the throne was getting married, and the poorest people in the country were preoccupied with guessing what kind of wedding dress his bride would wear.
The British monarchy has long been notorious for its incestuous past. But, for all the enthusiasm kings and queens have shown for boinking their relatives, it was a long time before there were any tangible consequences. Although the Royal Family no longer indulges in such depravity in these modern times, it's easy to see that Prince Charles is the result of a few centuries of inbreeding. A weak-chinned, glassy-eyed, big-eared simpleton with a nervous smile and a perpetual look of puzzlement on his face, he always seemed better suited for a straw hat than a crown. If his mother the Queen ever had any plans to abdicate, she abandoned them when her son's shortcomings became obvious.
As Charles hunted and fished and went parachute-jumping and made ignorant political comments and talked to his dead uncle, the Royal Family seemed to be in denial, while the right-wing, royalist tabloids tried to convince the public that His Royal Highness was a dynamic, high-spirited, glamorous playboy, not an amiable fool.
The propaganda worked. But, as Charles turned 30, he still wasn't married, as the person in waiting for the throne is supposed to be by that age, and so he hadn't sired any little heirs-of-the-future. Although there were rumours of entanglements with various women, nothing was ever proven and there were murmurs that he might be gay.
Then he announced his engagement to a pretty, 19-year-old airhead named Lady Diana Spencer. No one had heard of her. She had left high school with mediocre qualifications and, for something to do, was working as a kindergarten assistant when she met her future husband.
The transition from Lady Diana to Princess of Wales was pure media creation. The most famous woman in Britain, and perhaps the English-speaking world, didn't sing, play an instrument, act in films, play a sport, paint pictures, write books or kill people. She didn't do anything. The media did it all. The wedding was broadcast on TV. Slum kids were told by their teachers to write essays describing the event. Teenage girls got "Princess Di" hair styles. They'd bought the hype about the commoner, the working girl who became a princess. Everyone seemed to overlook the bothersome reality that it couldn't have happened to just anyone — that she was already an aristocrat.
By the early '90s, the couple had produced two boys. Mercifully, neither resembled Charles. But the marriage was in trouble. It was reported that Charles had only married Diana to fulfil his Royal obligations, to convince the media of his masculinity and to produce the required kids, and now he wanted out. Diana suffered from an eating disorder and had attempted suicide a number of times.
Keith Mackie, Scottish poet and satirist, wrote:
So Princess Diana unsuccessfully tried to kill herself . . .
Give me a gun and I'll do it for her —
and while I'm at it, I'll kill the other parasites
like we should have done 200 years ago.
Mackie's poem reflected a shift in the public's attitude toward the Royal Family. After years of hardship as the gap between rich and poor was widened by the Thatcher administration, people were waking up to the reality that an unremarkable family was being paid fabulous amounts of public money just to exist.
But if any member of the Royal Family didn't deserve Mackie's spite, it was Diana. She helped destroy the Royals' traditional austerity. When she and Charles split up, and a vicious mudslinging battle started between her and his family, she remained the most popular Royal with the public. A large part of this was undoubtedly because of her vulnerability, real or contrived — she was never afraid to cry or show anger in public.
Not that Diana was necessarily an open or honest person. She was noted for her ability to manipulate the media. Her intelligence was unremarkable, but she had a real cunning when it came to publicity. Although only the Princess of Wales, she was the Queen of the Photo Opportunity. She was photographed hugging homeless people and people with AIDS and leprosy, visiting war zones, taking her kids to Disneyland . . .
Perhaps, as her marriage turned to shit, she had developed a social conscience. Or perhaps she just decided not to go the way of her sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, who married Charles' younger brother Andrew. When that marriage ended, the tabloids demonised Ferguson. "Fergie" — as they'd called her when she was still in favour — was portrayed as a gold-digging, upper-crust bimbo unconcerned with the world's suffering.
Diana made sure that didn't happen to her. When her husband went on TV and confessed that he'd cheated on her while they were together, he was reviled. But when it was reported that she was stalking a soldier she'd had an affair with, she was presented as the victim of a heartless cad who got what he wanted and then left her. Whatever she did, she was consistently packaged as a role model, a paragon of British womanhood.
And, now that she's dead, she's being sold as a secular saint.
Diana was a media whore. She knew how to attract photographers: Run away from them. If you don't want the paparazzi to bother you, you stop for a few minutes, let them get their pictures, and then you go on your way. If photos of you are easy to come by, they're less of a commodity.
But that wasn't Diana's style. She wanted to be a commodity. She knew how to use the paparazzi. It was her style to make sure they knew where she was going to be, and then to complain when they showed up to photograph her. She was so jealous of Camilla Parker-Bowles, her husband's lover, that she'd appear in public in a bathing suit on Parker-Bowles' birthday and put on a show for reporters to distract attention from the birthday party Charles threw. It never seemed to occur to her that Charles and Camilla might not crave media attention as she did.
Diana's life, and the way it ended, reads like a trashy novel by Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins:
Married to a prince while hardly more than a child. Unhappy, neurotic. Jet-set lifestyle. Loved by millions worldwide, but lonely. Finally finds love. Killed along with her lover in a car wreck in Paris, at night, when the drunken driver of their car tries to outrun the paparazzi.
It reads like bad fiction, and in many ways that's exactly what it is. The Diana we know is a fictional character, developed chapter by chapter by the media who picked her up when she was a nondescript teenager. We don't really know anything about her, who she was. I wonder if she knew.
And now she's dead, killed in a way so horribly appropriate to the life she lived. And the TV and newspapers are reporting her death as a catastrophe, like the start of a war or famine. The Royal Family, who hated her so much when she was alive, now eulogises her. Church congregations are praying for her. People who never met her are crying for her, grieving over the loss. What they think they've lost isn't clear.
Her death is certainly a tragedy; so is the death of any 36-year-old who never did anything really bad. But it isn't catastrophic for anyone outside her family and friends. The mainstream media create icons like Princess Diana to lead us away from the real catastrophes. One TV item hilariously described her as "a single parent" — literally true, but how many other single parents live in palaces?
There are real catastrophes, things we should be crying about and praying for an end to. People are dying in the streets of America and Europe. America, the richest nation on Earth, has the highest child-poverty rate in the industrialised world. People are living in sickness and filth in the global ghetto. Meanwhile, a pampered rich girl dies in a car crash, allowing herself to be chauffeured by a man who's drunk. Hard luck for her, sad for her kids — but, otherwise, so what?