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The commemoration industry, and why the Dianafest makes me queasy

August 31, 2017

By Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom - Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral, CC BY 2.0,

I’m not a great fan of anniversaries. Yes, I get caught up in them like everybody else. Significant birthdays. Opportunities to commemorate great events such as world wars, especially those that are within living memory.

But the current fuss around the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death gives me a queasy feeling. TV documentaries, books, newspaper articles, “untold stories”, new perspectives, endless picking over the emotions of the bereaved sons, earnest analyses of the unprecedented emotional incontinence shown by the British public at her funeral. Will we be regaled with this stuff every five years? Isn’t it enough for William and Harry to remember their mother in their own way without being sucked into a media binge not of their making?

In times gone by, we would mark significant intervals – every twenty-five years maximum. Now, it seems, every decade is an opportunity for ritual remembrance. And mostly what we remember are bad things. Commemorating happy events tends to be in the private domain. We celebrate the longevity of marriage, the arrival of offspring. The main exception in our quirky little country is that we go bananas whenever the monarch staggers over the finishing line to another first – longest reign, longest marriage, most prime ministers who have bent the knee and so forth.

The constant orgy of remembrance makes sense when we think of it as an industry. Newspapers need copy. Broadcast media need programmes. Greetings cards card designers need new ideas to sell to their retailers. Historians ride on the coattails of commemoration. It’s an economic activity, and an awful lot of jobs depend on it.

All of which is fine by me. God knows, as artificial intelligence eliminates more jobs every year, we need industries that employ people. The business of human experience is one that will be hard for a computer to emulate. And anything that serves to educate people about history is surely a good thing.

Yet there’s something about the Dianafest that leaves me feeling manipulated. Yes, her death was a major event at the time. And yes, she was a media magnet like no other member of our royal family. But she was also the prototype for every troubled celebrity since who has maintained their public profile by feeding the media monster with their tales of woe. She manipulated the media, and they returned the favour. They are still doing so.

If remembrance is an industry, she has become an industry on her own, like Rudolf Valentino, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix before her. And I get the sense that the current froth is being orchestrated by a bunch of people who don’t give a rat’s arse about the person, only about the commercial opportunities.

Twas ever thus, I suppose. In terms of industries, Diana has a limited shelf life. In a hundred years’ time, she will be a historical curiosity, much as Valentino is today. Passchendaele, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Indian Partition, 9/11, Mosul and – before long, who knows, perhaps Pyongyang – will continue to resonate. Those are the events we should be commemorating, because they remind us of humanity’s catastrophic mistakes. And as long as we remember them, we have a chance of learning from them.

It’s not for me to tell others who and what else to remember. When we look back to Diana, I suspect that many of us are as much mourning the passing of twenty years. That “where was I when…” recollection brings us back to an earlier life that for better or worse will never return.

An entirely different feeling than for those who knew her, loved her and think of her every day.

From → History, Social, UK

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