When my dad reached 65, the whole family, plus dog, went on holiday as his retirement gift.
We were a working class family from Manchester, and even though dad was a highly skilled engineer who had worked on missile systems and the world’s first supercomputer, he never received the kind of salary that bought international travel. That’s how much we valued the manufacturing sector in my dad’s day. Plus ça change.
So as a treat, we flew him to Edinburgh, carefully coordinated our journeys so one of us could meet him there in a rented people carrier, and then we spent the week touring The Highlands, as he’d always dreamed of.
We had rented a quiet cottage near Ft. William, settled in, had a few drinks, and went to bed.
That was 30th August 1997. I can be sure of that date because, in the small hours of the next morning, Princess Diana died in Paris.
I remember my mum waking me with the news. I got dressed, and stood in the cottage’s small lounge with my family, watching the rolling news for half an hour. It was sad.
And then we made sandwiches and set off on our holiday.
When the week was over, the cottage owners arrived to collect their keys, and were in tears, which stunned me. “What a terrible time to have a holiday”, they said, while we shuffled our feet and looked around awkwardly. “It must have been awful for you”, they said, and we looked at each other, puzzled, because we’d sort of… well, we hadn’t forgotten about it, exactly, but…
Diana and all her attendant dramas were, for me and my family, like a soap opera we didn’t watch. To be honest, we didn’t watch any soaps – we were a bookish, nerdy kinda family – but we definitely didn’t watch royal soaps.
Obviously we knew who the main cast-members were, but we didn’t care very much about them. We didn’t follow the details of who was shagging whom; didn’t care what Major or Butler or Celebrity Gal-Pal had sold what story to what tabloid; didn’t notice how tragic the eye makeup had become during any specific skiing holiday.
I felt no emotional connection to Diana. I wished her no harm whatsoever, but she didn’t enter my consciousness very much. I don’t buy tabloids, I tend to skip celebrity gossip, and I’m vaguely republican in a shrugging “does it really affect me” kinda way. To this day, I genuinely have to concentrate to remember which one of “the boys” is heir to the throne and which is only tangentially related to Charles. I know they’re called Harry and Wills, and I recognise their faces, but their names are interchangeable in my mind.
Diana was as important to me as, say, John Lithgow is to you. You are aware what he does, he seems quite nice, and you’d be surprised and saddened if he was killed by a roaming gang of photographers in a Parisian underpass one Saturday night. But that’s as far as it goes.
So the blubbering reaction of the holiday cottage landlords a week after her death perplexed me. I assumed they must be particularly ardent royalists, or have, to a crippling degree, some sort of congenital emotional diarrhoea. But this was just a taste of the ocean of histrionic slurry awaiting me as I drove back to Manchester again, on the day of her funeral.
The world had gone fucking mad.
Perhaps you still admit to being one of the lunatics, in which case you’re rare, and this blog will infuriate you. Sorry about that.
But I maintain you’d lost your collective minds. Literally millions of people were stood on the streets wailing and rending their clothes. I saw them actually tearing at themselves in grief, on streets in Eccles, for Christ’s sake. Lairy Mancunians called Gaz, Gaz and Gaz, with faces like a knuckle and knuckles like a ball-pein hammer, sobbing en-masse outside the Pig and Fetlock.
On arrival home, my neighbour, a man I scarcely knew, ran from his house in his underpants to throw his arms around me and cry, while I stood patiently holding my suitcase and wanting a wee. It was as if every single person in Britain had been given a puppy for a month, and then had to watch it being fed backwards, alive, through a bacon-slicer one morning, and I’d turned up just as the procedure was ending.
It bore no relationship whatsoever to the actual event, which in essence was: the pretty star of a popular reality show died in a car accident, and then show was unceremoniously cancelled at while you were asleep.
Great for the press, though. Sold a lot of newspapers. The BBC’s Jennie Bond must’ve had a field day.
Could the insane coverage perhaps explain the insane public response? Hmmm, I wonder.
It’s possible I was always going to be immune from the cataclysm of weeping that descended over the nation, due to being a bit of a geeky cynic; or perhaps my family was like the guy in Day Of The Triffids, and our isolation from events during that critical week left us the only ones unaffected by the blinding meteor shower of Dead-Diana-Mania.
But today, I meet almost nobody who admits to being swept up by it all. Sad, sure. But hysterical? Nobody I meet was hysterical. Yet at the time, millions were.
Globally, 2.5 billion watched the funeral. Literally half of the people in Britain watched it, and almost a quarter of us had to take time off work due to the grief.
So surely at least one person in 10 would today admit to being part of the festival of sobbing. But no: practically everybody seems to remember their husband, wife or friends being overwhelmed, but they themselves were models of British dignity, detachment and reserve.
I report this because in my life I remember two instances of mass hysteria, and two instances of mass political protest. And, like a Venn Diagram, mass hysteria and mass political protest overlap in Brexit, right now.
The hysteria is Diana. The protest is Iraq. The cause, with Brexit, Iraq and Diana, is wildly inaccurate and demented press coverage.
54% of us supported the invasion of Iraq a month or so before it started. Today, 38% remember doing so. The war was built on lies, had no plan for what happened after victory, was widely predicted to be a disaster, stoked by loathsome right wing press, secretly promoted by even more loathsome American right-wing pressure groups, opposed by almost every expert, brought millions of protestors onto the streets, nearly broke the governing party, and revolted most of Europe… but scraped together a tiny public majority at one key moment, which then fell apart during implementation.
Good job we’ve learned our lesson, eh? Won’t make that mistake again.
Brexit feels like a cross between the manufactured consent of Iraq and the manufactured hysteria of Diana. And just like them both, Britain is already feeling embarrassed that it got so carried away and has been taken for such a fool. Our cynicism for Britain’s press knows no bounds 99% of the time, but come a war, come a celebrity death, or come a chance to feed our 1000-year-old suspicions about the bloody French, and we’ll lap up any bullshit The Daily Mail spoonfeeds us.
It’s time to slap ourselves in the face, realise the bollocks we’ve just fallen for, and stop this demented moment of collective hysteria. Cos tomorrow, you’ll deny you were ever taken in: but like Diana’s untimely death, Brexit is permanent.