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10 July 1998

The cult of Diana

The cult of Diana moves in mysterious ways, observes Andrew Calcutt reporting on yet another episode in the afterlife of Princess Diana

'We need to beware of clinging to the icon. There is some element of wallowing in her death'. Speaking to the Sunday Times at the start of the annual meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England, the Archbishop of York urged an end to 'the cult of Diana'. Warnings against cults are a bit rich coming from a bishop, but David Hope's comments are welcome nonetheless. Indeed they are something of an antidote to the recent publication of two books which have confirmed the elevation of St Diana the Victim and thereby accelerated the trend towards the degradation of all that is best about humanity.

Julie Burchill's 'Diana' is a hysterical hagiography which, as the distinguished biographer Philip Ziegler said in the Daily Telegraph, 'does not tell one anything new about the Princess, but it reveals all too much about Julie Burchill'. It shows that the patronne of the Modern Review (publication of which has now been suspended for the second time - these rich kids just cannot keep it up) has lost her touch. In painting a portrait of Diana as heroic victim, she probably thinks she has composed an original and hard-hitting polemic against the establishment as embodied in the House of Windsor. But Burchill is like a little dog (a corgi, perhaps), yapping at a dead sheep. The old establishment is already profoundly self-critical (just look at the self-doubt which clouds the life of Prince Charles). Like every other traditional institution in Britain today, the Royal Family is rigid with anxiety, and in this context Burchill's criticisms are as outstanding as a prescription for Prozac in a drop-in centre for the mentally ill. Moreover, in her setting up of Diana (good) versus Charles and family (bad) she is merely adding another line or two to the other, stereotypical soap opera of our day: the attack on masculinity. A biographer of Diana which revealed only its author would not be so bad if the author was herself interesting. But Burchill's tongue-lashing of the Windsors is as safe as their House once was; and La Burchill is now as predictable as the Queen Mum.

Bea Campbell's book follows a similar path, but to an end point which is degraded as well as banal. By telling her story on one the BBC's flagship current affairs programmes Panorama, Campbell concludes, 'Diana joined the constituency of "the rejected" - the survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from world wars and pogroms, from Vietnam....'. By bracketing Diana and her personal difficulties with the Holocaust, Campbell has 'joined the constituency' of the historically illiterate and the morally bankrupt.

Compared to this, the good bishop is good indeed. But, crucifix in hand, he has not remained entirely unaffected by the vampires of victimhood. Further into his interview with the Sunday Times, the bishop tried to separate out the over-the-top cult of Diana from the real Diana, authentic symbol of genuine suffering and healing. But this is a spurious distinction. The icon of Diana symbolises the redefinition of our common humanity in terms of weakness, vulnerability and victimhood; and, as such, it is necessarily a cheapening of the active spirit of humanity and an insult to the sense of ourselves as high achievers. While the bishop's opening remarks were critical of the excesses of the Diana cult, in his subsequent comments he seemed to be striving for a respectable way of revering her. But to respect the icon of Diana, in any shape or form, is to disrespect the image of human beings as active agents in history. Venerating the victim is a desecration of our humanity.

With the first anniversary of Diana's death less than two months away (then again, it seems like every day of the year is a Diana anniversary), the bishop is staking a claim to the event on behalf of the more traditional sections of the Church of England which he represents. His comments should be seen as part of the ongoing rivalry between traditionalists and those who represent the New Age of spirituality in the Church of England. But even the traditionalists are not all that traditional. In the early sixties bishop John Robinson's 'Honest to God' introduced the idea that God is a personal thing. Now, as a continuation of that idea, we have the notion of each to his own, personal Diana. David Hope and his co-thinkers may not like the end results of DIY spirituality; but it has been a growing part of the Church of England since around the time that Lady Diana Spencer was born; and now, as the saying goes, they shall reap what they have sown.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of 'Beat: the iconography of victimhood from the Beat Generation to Princess Diana' (Sheffield Hallam University Press).

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