This is hysterical

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 ├ža 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 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.

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Olympic diary. Again

In 1997 my dad retired, and the whole family went to the Highlands of Scotland for a week.

If you’ve ever been to Scotland you’ll know how strange the following words are: the weather was beautiful.

In other parts of the world they have a climate, but here we have weather. A climate is (or was, before we broke it) pretty much predictable, and pretty much constant. But weather: not so much.

For example, in the Maldives they’ve got a climate. I’m sure the Maldivians have out-sourced their weather to the Germans, because it’s astonishingly well-organised. When it’s time for the rain, a small bell rings, and everybody moves to the bar for a drink. Two minutes and 11 seconds later the bell rings again, and everyone returns to their spot on the beach as though nothing had happened.

But in Scotland they don’t have a climate: they have weather, and plenty of it. I was once waiting for the ferry across to Stronian, a small headland just outside Fort William. The sky was clear, blue and bright; so nice, in fact, that as my fellow passengers and I waited for the ferry to arrive, several of us took our shirts off and sat on the rocky beach, tanning.

By the time we got to the other side of the crossing, 100 yards away, it was snowing. That’s what it’s like in Scotland: if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes and there’ll be something different.

But in August of 1997 the weather seemed to have been imported from the Maldives, and we spent a marvellous week away from the real world, travelling through fabulous landscapes in a rented people carrier and consuming superhuman quantities of beef, salmon, broth and whiskey: all the things that people go to the Highlands for.

We’d rented a remote cottage for the week. Sometimes holiday properties are advertised as having “all mod cons”, but this had, at best, one mod con: a road that ran reasonably close to it. Not even a television, just beds, a coal fire, plenty of scenery, and a pile of jigsaws for when the hoolie blowing outside was too much for even the hardy souls who live up there.

When our week was over, the owners visited from the local village to collect the keys, and things started to turn strange. The woman was obviously very weepy, but trying hard to act normal. Her husband also looked on the verge of tears, and they kept hugging each other supportively, as though experiencing an unspeakable family tragedy. Being terribly British, we didn’t ask. Nobody said a word. We just shuffled around awkwardly and wished they’d go away and have their emotions in private.

The man, who was holding it together better than his wife, asked if we’d had a good time. Yes, terrific. Lovely. Couldn’t have been better.

And then he said something confusing. He said, “I’m just sorry it happened at a time like this. It really must have spoiled it for you”.

We had no idea, but it appears Diana the Princess of Wales had died the night we arrived, and we were leaving on the day of her funeral. We’d managed to miss the whole thing.

And then we drove back into civilisation, and found that Britain had gone insane. The word hysteria is from the Roman belief that women had a funny turn when their womb wandered around their body. Hysteria is from the same root as hysterectomy. For one week, everybody in the country had a wandering womb, and seemingly a brain which had gone out for a stroll too.

In England (world manufacturing centre for stiff upper lips, emotional repression and nihilistic cynicism) millions of formerly normal people were rending their hair and wailing in the streets.

Florists, who were having all of their Christmasses at once, had been so moved they’d only been able to increase their prices by 5000%, and in between bouts of hysteria and self-harming were congratulating themselves on their restraint.

The global news media had gone into “operation shit-fit”, and thrown every resource at repeating the same tiny, slightly sad little story over and over again until every important event had to be paused until the tragedy lifted.

The Daily Express still hasn’t recovered. The Daily Mail has moved on slightly, but only because they realised there’s more money to be made from showing scantily clad teenagers on their website, and then bitching about how scantily clad they are. But in the 10 years following Diana’s death, the Express had only 3 front pages which didn’t show her image or name.

Three. In ten years.

I’m sorry she died, but not that sorry. I didn’t know her, you see. And if I did, I suspect we wouldn’t have got on. She was a bit melodramatic and self-obsessed, and I don’t like either characteristic.

To me, she was a face on TV, and a face I tended to avoid reading about because she was, I’m sorry to say, unimportant to me or anybody I knew. She was important to her sons. She was important to her parents and siblings. She was important to the editor of the Daily Express. But to me she was a soap opera that I didn’t watch, and which got abruptly cancelled early one Sunday morning, making its viewers go fucking apeshit.

It’s true she was a pretty girl, but she was a pretty girl who had a few bits of plastic surgery – check out her miraculous shrinking nose – so clearly not the most beautiful creature ever. And it’s true she did some nice things to people who are poorly, but so does everyone. She was not Jesus. The chances are that not even Jesus was Jesus. Diana the Shagger certainly wasn’t.

The response to her death was nuts, and you know it was. If you joined in, I hope you’re embarrassed about it. You should be, it was mass-hysteria, and you should be better than that. Personally, I’m extremely glad I missed it all – being cut off in a shed in Scotland – because it would have made me vomit myself inside out, like a toad.

I’m sure there are a few people who probably still feel their reaction was normal, but I’m telling you: it wasn’t. It was nuts.

Perhaps it’s something about our national character. Perhaps we’re just so incapable of having normal emotions that when one does happen, we massively over-react and start screaming and gnashing our teeth and rending our clothes.

That level of hysteria seems to be building again, and all because Britain’s athletes had a moderately decent day of bike-riding and playing in boats; a bit like the Secret Seven, but with less blatant racism.

There is still a little bit of racism, obviously, because this is Britain and we’re all a bit uneasy about Johnny K Foreigner, especially if he’s French. I don’t blame anybody for it, as long as we can recognise our awfulness and laugh about it. After all, the French have been our enemies for a very long time, and it’s hard to just forget about that just because we’ve all grown up a bit and realised racism is pretty awful. But it’s still in us.

You think Israel and the Arab states are a bit squabbly? Amateurs! They’ve only been at it for 70 years, but us and the French have been actively hating each other for one and a half millenia.

You won’t be shocked to hear that this unpleasant national instinct is being stoked constantly by the Daily Mail, which claims British GB Team UK of England (sorry, I still haven’t learned the proper terminology) contains “61 plastic Brits”.

A plastic Brit is, according to the Mail, somebody who can’t trace their ancestry back to Richard the Lionheart, or at least to Oswald Moseley, whose cod-Nazi goons the Mail heroically supported in the 1930s, and whose son the Mail heroically smeared in its pages 80 years later. Arguing about whether Bradley Wiggins is sufficiently British seems a strange attitude from the Mail, when you consider how hard that august and noble organ lobbied for Zola Budd to be on the British team in the days of apartheid.

Perhaps the Mail wasn’t wholeheartedly against apartheid, which is why it was still referring to Mandela as a “terrorist” the day before he was released. Nice.

But I don’t honestly care if the British team is full of what the Mail think of as mudbloods. Few of us are totally British for a hundred generations. Think of Churchill, whose mother was American. There are few people more British than Stephen Fry, who is made of tweed and who’s beautiful heart is warmed by his own internal AGA, but who is only a generation away from being Hungarian. Bill Bryson, born and bred in Des Moines, Iowa, feels as British as a slab of cheddar or a stabbing in a pub; and that proud son of the valleys, Sir Anthony Hopkins, is actually an American citizen.

Does any of that stuff matter? What really matters is that the people who count in this country, the people, the citizens, the inhabitants, whatever you want to call them – those people are going fucking nuts again. I was caught off guard today by the incessant patriotic drivel and sporting passion visible on Twitter, even from people who I was convinced were as weary and wary of all this crap as I am.

Perhaps I’m just like nasty, old, flavorless chewing gum stuck the pavement, unsightly and unwanted: when everyone else is getting swept up, I remain unmoved.

I just can’t wait for the hysteria to be over, so we can go back to being sullen, familiar and British. Until then, has anybody got a hut in Scotland I can borrow?