Diana: The Mourning After by Christopher Hitchens

Princess Diana by Nick Parfjonov
Princess Diana by Nick Parfjonov | Source

Hitchens on Diana

A year after the Pont D'Alma sustained a little structural damage, the British media were beginning to shake off their hangovers, groaning in embarrassment and demanding, "Sorry, was I talking a lot of mawkish crap last year?"

The answer in all cases was "too right you were". The title of Channel 4's documentary Diana: The Mourning After, broadcast in August 1998, summed up that queasy feeling of having indulged too much, having said things that in the cold light of day were humiliating and demeaning. Still, even a year on, dissenting voices were so rarely heard that Christopher Hitchens's documentary had the air of a samizdat film, smuggled from a tiny underground of resistance to the mighty Stalinist cult of Dead Diana.

Hitchens set out to examine the bogusness of "a nation's grief", tried to uncover the few voices of sanity that cut against the grain of contrived hysteria. His findings suggested that the collective hordes of emotive Dianaphiles sobbing in the streets were not only encouraged but emulated by the media. In the aftermath of Diana's death a three-line whip was enforced on newspapers and on TV, selling the sainthood line wholesale.

The suspicion was that journalists, like the public, greeted the death as a chance to wax emotional in print, as a change from the customary knowing cynicism, to wheel out all those portentous phrases they'd been saving up for the big occasion. Sadly, they just seemed to be showboating; the eulogies, laments and tear-soaked platitudes ringing risibly hollow. From newspapers like the Daily Mail, where humbug and hypocrisy are editorial bywords, this was hardly surprising, but the way this suburban sententiousness gripped the country became positively alarming.

Hitchens interviewed Simon Heffer, a Mail columnist given the week off after Diana's death because it was thought his antipathy to the Princess would not chime with the mood of the nation. It was a reminder of the censorious atmosphere that prevailed. Reverence became the orthodoxy and the only acceptable behaviour.

Hitchens also sought examples of the few who had dared to speak out at the time, and found little more outrageous than a woman who had expressed a desire to watch Coronation Street rather than another extended news bulletin, and another who had suggested (quite sensibly) that Diana was a "silly, trivial woman".

Christopher Hitchens by ensceptico.
Christopher Hitchens by ensceptico. | Source

Hitchens can't resist an occasional sneer

Hitchens's film was flawed, partly by his own patrician condescension, partly by a sense that he didn't go far enough. The former was a real drawback. Watching Hitchens and Heffer and Francis Wheen sniggering at a mass cultural phenomenon, however contrived and mediated it might have been, inevitably provoked the question, "who are you, apart from three unattractive middle-aged hacks in bad suits and scruffy offices?" Hitchens sneeered genially at one royalist's tacky collection of Diana kitsch, and he and Wheen snidely deconstructed the lyric of "nancy boy" Elton John's Candle In The Wind.

Such snobbery verging on bigotry was ill-conceived. A more profitable avenue of pursuit would have been the false image that has grown up around Diana, painting her as a global philanthropist with a fast lane to the hearts and minds of every victim or crippled child, rather than a clothes-horse with a taste for shallow celebrities and a desire to leave Britain for good and live it up with the rest of the affluent Eurotrash in some Mediterranean côte. Hitchens touched on this tangentially, and brought up the pertinent revelation that, in her will, one of the world's richest women left precisely nothing to charity.


POSTSCRIPT

Christopher Hitchens died on December 15 2011. He was 62 years old.

A special memorial service was held in New York in April 2012


Diana Trafalgar Square memorial 1997 by Looi.  Spot the spelling error.
Diana Trafalgar Square memorial 1997 by Looi. Spot the spelling error. | Source

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Comments 6 comments

marriedwithdebt profile image

marriedwithdebt 5 years ago from Illinois

I'm a long-time Hitchens fan, but it is tough to watch him meander all over the place throughout his career. I guess being a contrarian requires this skill.


Chaval profile image

Chaval 5 years ago from UK Author

Right, but consistency can be overrated. He's not afraid to change his mind if he thinks an argument is valid, which is kind of admirable. Thanks for the comment.


Sarine profile image

Sarine 4 years ago from Ohio

i wonder if he will be remembered like diana after 20 years? the intellectual perishes; the pedestrian endures. the law of equation slightly tipped towards the latter.


Chaval profile image

Chaval 4 years ago from UK Author

You're right Sarine. Although some would say that Hitchens was as much a performer as a thinker.


Emile R 2 years ago

I wish I had seen his documentary. I'd have given it two thumbs up, simply because I was always confused by the hype surrounding Diana. I'm sorry she died tragically, but she wasn't noteworthy enough to get that emotional over the loss.


Tom 4 months ago

Hitchens ugly? He was beautiful.

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