Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Diana Phenomenon

Diana mania was once again thrust into the public domain as it was 10 years ago when she got into a car without wearing a seat belt driven by someone under the influence of booze. A prosaic ending and no conspiracy. It seems a bit more low key for this anniversary but even so……

I was going to ignore the over bloated affair, which was making me want to heave due to my republicanism but reading a post on Madam Miaow’s blog made me think about it all again and grapple with the issues. The outpouring of grief displayed by countless people and what it really meant stepping back 10 years.

Similar to Kennedy’s assassination people do have a knack of knowing where they were when something big goes downs. Well, when Diana died I was in a hotel on the outskirts of Reading getting ready to visit Broadmoor High Secure Hospital as part of a group of mental health user activists who had been invited by a now defunct committee attached to the Department of Health. The committee had watched the mental health user movement evolve and were interested in getting us access to the “Specials”.

The user movement at that point was dynamic and organised. We had made inroads, gains and some impact on the mental health system. The “Specials” were a hard place to crack and being able to make contact and organise with the residents was positive.
So, we had organised this event and the morning greeted us with the death of Diana. Her death had a massive impact on the day. As a diehard republican and a socialist I desperately wanted to crack bad jokes about one less royal parasite but bit my tongue I did as Diana was rather admired in the mental health user movement due to her “frank” admissions about her self-harming and eating distresses. I took all this with a large dose of salt being the cynic and I just couldn’t bring myself to sympathise with a woman who represents the ruling class.

Even more so when she was asked whether she would be the patron of an organisation I was involved in which campaigned around and supported women who self-harmed. Her response was she didn’t do “politics”. She brought issues around self-harm and eating distresses to the forefront but refused to back a campaign which had been doggedly challenging the stereotypes of self-harm and highlighting the oppression of women (probably too prole for her liking).

Anyway, various rooms and halls had been organised for this event but hardly anyone turned up. The residents who did were mainly men who only wanted to talk about Diana as many had met her (she was a regular visitor to Broadmoor). No women came to see us so we visited the wards and the grief and distress was palpable. There were posters and pics cut out from mags pinned to the wall. I have really never encountered so much collective grief like this and it shocked me. Women would tell me about Diana’s many visits and how she would chat to them openly about her self-harming and eating distresses. They adored her and she was a kind of goddess to them.

She probably showed these women (and men) kindness and compassion. Many people in the ‘Specials’ have been abandoned by family and friends also vilified and stigmatised as well. So here comes a Princess who wants to chat with them and treats them with respect and dignity.

At the end of the day, I felt emotionally drained and my politics jarring with what I had witnessed. Once I got back to my hotel room I was confronted with images of Diana with her saccharine smile and telly reports which seemed to be on a continuous loop.

But what I experienced up close and personal at Broadmoor was just a taster. The week before her funeral was one mass of misdirected collective grief. She was this signifier of goodness and compassion that people seemed to relate to. It still made me sick to the stomach as I wondered why people were getting to this kind of mass hysterical state. I was surrounded by all this yet untouched by it. Like my reaction to listening to women in Broadmoor was riddled with contradictions as I understood what they were saying but it still felt alien to me.

The group I was part of was meant to visit Ashworth the following week but that got called off due to the funeral. For me it seemed all wrong headed and looking at it pragmatically, people getting upset at someone they never met or knew. One woman said that she never cried when her dad died but cried buckets when Diana died. Was this deflected grief? Are we so screwed up that we can only safely open up when someone of her stature dies? She was elevated to Goddess and worshipped as a kind of religion. A kind of opiate. “The Peoples Princess”, dubbed by Blair.

Diana it seems wouldn’t play ball with the rest of the ruling class where she was expected to “put up and shut up”, become a kind of ice princess, be an obedient wife and behave like the rest of them. Instead she did the opposite.
That week was one freaky and strange week. What made people like this? Emotions and feelings are kinda dismissed and pushed aside in this society that isolates and alienates us from our existence. The “stiff upper lip” still thrives and we sometimes do bury what we really feel yet these emotions, feelings and who we are are bubbling away below the surface and the death of Diana struck a cord and became an emotional outlet a safety valve for grief. People weren’t alone in their grief.

I wanted to shrug all this off with cool political analysis but I couldn’t forget the reactions of the people I had met at Broadmoor and that on an individual basis she was personable and kind.
I do think though, to quote Elvis Costello, “what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding”?