13 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 53


Life goes on

Simon Hoggart

The most startling image of the funeral was the sight of the Queen Mother, walk- ing smartly down the aisle of Westminster Abbey supported only by a stick. What an astonishing tribute this was to the recuper- ative powers of gin.

This stately hobble was even more impressive than Elton John's performance. I am not being sarcastic. There was some- thing deeply moving about the sight of a plump, red-nosed gay in a ginger wig per- forming at a royal occasion of any kind. Since we are likely to hear 'Candle In The Wind' performed 8,479 times in the course of the next week alone, we may as well get used to it. Most people I spoke to found it lachrymose and sentimental, but there are times when only lachrymose sentimentality will do, and the funeral was one of them. (The news of Mother Teresa's death could easily have evoked another song by Elton: `They're Overbooked In Heaven Tonight', perhaps.) The point about the Queen Mum was that this was all meant to be for her. It was for this that the BBC had been practising for decades now, preparing to turn over all the nation's airwaves to our grief, making television a kind of Thames flood barrier against the great surge of our emotions.

Except that they can't now. After this, all royal funerals — the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh, even the Queen her- self — will be a cruel anti-climax. Given the state of the public mood, a decision to cancel normal programming would seem to be just another insult from the Windsors, not unlike those old Soviet news bulletins on Vremna, recording the people's sponta- neous grief at the death of one more Kremlin hack.

This may sound harsh, but life goes on. Even the BBC realised by Sunday evening of the day Diana died that something else was required, even if only to take our minds off the news for a few moments. They ran the first episode of Michael Palin's Full Circle over on BBC 2, and this would be a good precedent for when the Queen Mother dies: keep the martial music, the black-tied news readers, the church services and the obituaries on BBC 1, and let the rest of us watch reruns of Keeping Up Appearances and cookery shows.

(This sense of normality in the midst of sorrow was missing from most of the cover- age. Since I used to live in the United States, I received quite a few calls from American broadcasters last week, and many began with some expression of regret for 'your national tragedy'. They tended to speak to me in hushed and sombre tones, as if it was I who had lost a cherished rela- tive, and talked of 'a nation plunged into grief and mourning'. I had to point out that the roads were as busy as ever, the com- muter trains were packed, the stores were still open. The 96 per cent of people who didn't leave flowers were getting on with their lives.) Also missing was the ambiguity which was an enormous part of Diana's appeal. She was both royal and not royal. She was hounded by the media, whom she courted whenever she wished. Faced with 1,000- 'millimetre lens, she would either run for cover, or else carefully pose. She was an angel of compassion for the deprived and the dispossessed, while living a life filled with yachts, champagne and dia- monds.

All the most popular figures in popular culture are, to some extent, blank slates on which we can draw ourselves. I am sure this is one reason why Diana instinctively pre- tended to be thicker than she was, we could more easily attribute to her what we want- ed her to believe. Tony Blair, who had a remarkably successful week, has something of the same protean quality: you don't quite know what he thinks, but you feel that you probably agree with it. No wonder he has record poll figures.

But, of course, none of this talk is allowed while the nation's grief is being mobilised and formed into ranks. The per- fect voice for this task belongs to Paul Reynolds, who is invariably hushed and respectful, like a Court Circular made flesh. Given the way that the week turned into a coalition of the Spencer family and the British people versus the Windsors, this was rather like having a Baghdad corre- spondent commenting on Desert Storm an important source but far from the whole picture.

Jennie Bond, the BBC's television royal watcher, was never off our screens. As she described her chats and meals with the Princess, I kept wondering why she had not told us about these at the time. She resem- bles those old-fashioned lobby correspon- dents, highly regarded by politicians because they never did anything so disloyal as telling their readers what happened until it was too late. Ms Bond has even begun to look like the Queen, with a similarly severe expression.

Much of the week was filled with talking heads, which is fine, since talking about it, endlessly chewing it over, was the real national response, even more than the grieving. I think the BBC might now reward us all with a year's moratorium on several people — the names of Esther Rantzen and Anthony Holden spring to mind.