Fifth Anniversary

As the media gears up for an orgy of pointless comment on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of Diana — now dubbed, scandalously, the most significant date in twentieth-century British history, according to a poll conducted by the History Channel — it is more pleasant to travel back to a story from the previous week’s newspapers.

For on the August Bank Holiday Weekend of 1997, the young, thrusting, brand new Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague (pictured right), visited the Notting Hill Carnival with his partner Ffion Jenkins, in order to be photographed with a whistle around his neck, drinking from a coconut, and generally hanging out with the kids, in order to show a commitment to multicultural Britain and having fun, two things with which the Conservative Party wasn’t – and isn’t – generally associated. (Around the same time, Mr Hague was also photographed in a log flume wearing a baseball cap).

This particular incarnation of the People’s William was, of course, swiftly abandoned, in favour of a more thuggish persona, a shorter haircut and increasingly harsh policies on immigration, asylum, lauranorder and other issues, as both Government and Opposition strove to outflank one another on the right on most questions of social policy in the period from 1998 until finally (and predictably), Mr Hague was swallowed whole, thoroughly chewed up, and spat out onto the dustbin of history by New Labour at the General Election of 2001.

An interesting moment, though, in the political history of the present, and from whose vantage point, of course, the Notting Hill jaunt now falls exactly at the midpoint of the ten-year-long, continuing saga with no end in sight of the political impotence of the contemporary Conservative Party. For after virtual level-pegging between the two major parties in the opinion polls through the Summer of 1992, in the wake of the surprise victory for John Major in the General Election of that year, the Tories began their general collapse in September, amidst Michael Heseltine’s closure of the pits on the one hand and the pound falling out of the ERM on the other. (Between July 1990 and September 1992, the Tories were never below 34% in the Gallup poll; after that they were never above it for at least the next seven years, probably longer [the numbers I have in front of me only go up to December 1999], and the only time they have pulled ahead of Labour was during the freak politics of the fuel protests in 2000, and even then for one month only).

To end back where we started, at least for the moment: I thought everyone had heard this joke, but apparently they haven’t, and it does survive repetition: What’s the difference between Diana and Lot’s wife?

Diana turned into a pillar of concrete.

Gush

Shortly after the most celebrated drunk driving fatality in world history, people began to talk about the best way of memorialising the Queen of Hearts. Various journalists called for a statue of St Diana of the Underpass to adorn the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square (see Gilbert Adair’s not-very-good novel A Closed Book for a version of this plotline); and the not-much-missed Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, for example, was one of those who thought that Heathrow Airport should be renamed. Private Eye came up with the excellent idea that “the whole of the M1 should be turned into a permanent flower garden” (Eye 933).

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown was given the job of chairing the committee to decide how to memorialise the late lamented. According to James Naughtie’s not-much-read book The Rivals, this was because – astonishingly – he was furious at not having been invited to the funeral. And, in January 2000, this committee announced that there we should get a fountain in Hyde Park.

The Eye again rose to the occasion, announcing that “a spectacular ‘Fountain of Drivel’ two miles high is to be the centrepiece of the �10 million Diana Memorial Theme Park in west London…”. (Eye 994). And now life is imitating satire again: Culture Tsarina Tessa Jowell today announced the final fountain design for the Hyde Park monument, and the drivel is flowing fast, with the evening news bulletins on the radio already filling up with inane opinions about this inane memorial. And the winning design proposal itself, from Gustafson Porter, contained this:

“Reaching Out / Letting In – these two gestures create a balance. Reaching out to those with whom one comes into contact and in turn being affected by their feelings, are both attributes associated with Princess Diana. These qualities of openness made her the ‘Peoples’ Princess’. We hope to create a water feature that can be associated in peoples’ minds with these qualities. We wish this spirit of inclusiveness to reach all those who come across it, whatever their backgrounds, culture or creed. We also hope that they leave having gained from the experience. We are considering the creation of an oval water feature, …. Its character could be historic and formal, contemporary and relaxed… On other occasions it will be a contemplative place, to ride the waves of a diverse world.”

Drivel, drivel, drivel, and much more to come, no doubt, in tomorrow’s papers.

Catafalques

We’re seeing the word “catafalque” tossed around in the press quite a lot these days, as if any of us had the slightest idea what it meant. Let the OED explain:

1. A stage or platform, erected by way of honour in a church to receive the coffin or effigy of a deceased personage (Littr); a temporary structure of carpentry, decorated with painting and sculpture, representing a tomb or cenotaph, and used in funeral ceremonies (Gwilt).

1641 EVELYN Diary (1871) 36 In the middle of it was the hearse or catafalco of the late Arch-Dutchesse. 1643 Mem. (1857) I. 46 In the nave of the church lies the catafalque, or hearse, of Louis XIII. 1766 Ann. Register 58 The supposed corpse was deposited upon a magnificent catafalco, or scaffold, erected from the bottom to the top of the church and illuminated all over with wax candles. 1760 POCOCK Tour Scotl. (1881) 242 A sort of small wooden Catafalch placed over the tomb. 1831 LANDOR Fra Rupert Wks. 1846 II. 579 Never drops one but catafalc and canopy Are ready for him. 1834 Gentl. Mag. CIV. I. 104 A rich catafalque was erected in the centre, in which the remains of the Marshal were deposited during the service.

2. A movable structure of this kind; a kind of open hearse or funeral car.

1855 BROWNING Statue & Bust 57 The door she had passed was shut on her Till the final catafalk repassed. 1864 Daily Tel. 16 Sept., The open hearseone of the most extraordinary catafalcoes ever seen upon wheels.

3. transf. (humorous.)

1876 GEO. ELIOT Dan. Der. I. iii, The black and yellow catafalque known as �the best bed�.

The best articles on the Queen Mother so far have come from Christopher Hitchens and (surprisingly?) from Deborah Orr. Francis Wheen said a few useful words on the occasion of her centenary, and Nick Cohen wrote in prescient detail (even down tho the catafalque) about this week’s events last year.

The Queen Mother has died

Score one for all my friends playing in this year’s round of Deadpool.
Today’s press says she used to have her first gin at 11.45am. That’s very fine.
OK — That’s enough appreciative comments about royalty.

Tom writes [6.4.2002]: Another Queen Mum thing for you: this page has a large number of not-quite Burroughsian cut-ups of Blair’s eulogy. All small, and mostly including the word “tits”. Ho hum.

Harry’s Drug Shame

“Etonian smokes dope” is about as much of a non-story as the “students get drunk” stories we were served up towards the end of last year after various goings-on at St. Catherine’s College in Cambridge. The real pleasure of today’s Harry’s Drug Shame stories, of course, is that we will be treated to more of the ruminations and calming words of Lord St. John of Fawsley. The story was of “no public interest whatsoever”, he solemnly told the BBC. Please report further sightings of the nation’s favourite “constitutional expert”.

Chris adds [14.1.2002]: Perhaps there have not been as many sightings as I had anticipated. Here are a couple: “Lord St John of Fawsley told the BBC the News of the World’s revelations were serious, but should not be blown up out of proportion. ‘Prince Harry was the member of the Royal Family who suffered most from the death of his mother,’ he said. ‘The News of the World should have some concern for this boy and not expose him to this kind of publicity because there’s no public interest in that whatsoever.’ [Not everyone agreed with the noble lord: Guy Black, director of the Press Complaints Commission on the other hand said to the BBC that “It is important to underline that this was an exceptional matter of public interest”.] And according to Reuters, Lord St.J. of F. told BBC radio that “the person who has come totally well out of this is the Prince of Wales, who has acted as a responsible parent who hasn’t thought about the public issues but has taken his son along to get expert help”.

Hitting Prince Charles

From the BBC:

The schoolgirl who hit Prince Charles across the face with a flower while he was visiting the Latvian capital has been charged with endangering the life of a foreign dignitary.

Latvian police said Alina Lebedeva, 16, will remain in custody in Riga until Sunday following Thursday’s incident.

The schoolgirl said she was protesting about the war in Afghanistan, but police have taken her actions seriously and the charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.

The Latvian police and the prosecuting authorities need to get a grip.