Friday, 28 September 2012

Stranger in a strange land

In the grey-blue time just before dawn the clock radio clicked into life, tuned to the usual news programme. Half awake and thinking of nothing in particular, I rolled over, expecting to give about half my attention to whatever mix of triumphs, disasters and strange new things was catching the media’s attention that morning.

But something wasn’t quite right. The newsreader’s voice had moved beyond authoritative to sombre. There seemed to be just one story. Something serious. An accident. Who was it? What was that? Some reference to the monarchy.

The queen must have died – I imagined BBC staff going onto their highest state of alert, opening sealed envelopes and activating a set of heavily-rehearsed contingency plans for The Big One, the death of a monarch and the ritual of national mourning demanded by protocol.

No, it wasn't the queen, it was ... oh, right, Diana Windsor (née Spencer). Was she back to being a Lady now? Or a Princess? What was the correct title of a divorced ex-royal spouse? I'd never been interested enough to find out.

It was a sort of hollowed-out 9/11 / death of JFK moment - I still remember hearing the news, although it had no significance for me. It was a personal tragedy for one family, but no sadder than the thousands of other news stories that involve somebody's untimely death.

Then something weird happened - the media-choreographed Mexican wave of sort-of-spontaneous public grief. Not the restrained, establishment-sanctioned sorrow of a John Snagge formally confirming a the end of a royal life, but not wholly spontaneous, either. I don't remember meeting or seeing any actual people sobbing uncontrollably, but there were enough people out there who apparently cared enough to leave heaps of floral tributes and crowd together in front of TV cameras to provide archive footage of A Nation In Mourning.

So I think I might give Ian Hislop's forthcoming programme, Stiff Upper Lip - An Emotional History Of Britain, a listen. The  proximate cause of Di-mania wasn't any more significant than any other family tragedy, but the collective wobbling of the national upper lip was a memorable and disturbing change.

For a republican* like me, it's highly unusual to feel sorry for the royals but I did feel a twinge of fellow feeling for Liz when she was stalked by all those needy, ranting, emotionally incontinent headlines ('Show Us You Care', 'Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?' and 'Your People Are Suffering'). I don't give a stuff for the monarchy, but she was the one who'd lost a former daughter-in-law, not the millions who'd never met either of them, so it was pretty obvious that, for once, it was her family, not her people, who were suffering and she deserved to be left to deal with a death in the family in her own way.

Then there was the slow motion car-crash of Tony Blair's valedictory speech. The big eyes, chokey voice and significant pauses couldn't disguise the hollow stupidity of the phrase, 'the People's Princess' ('This was the Plebs' Aristocracy and that is how it will stay, how it will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever').

I heard commentators assuring me that his performance had 'triumphantly captured the national mood.' Jesus, that would have been embarrassing. What sort of person would happily swear allegiance to a nation of muddle-headed celebrity-worshippers noisily obsessing over their media diet of unrelieved grief porn? I suspect, and like to believe, that the 'national mood' didn't include large chunks of the population who quietly continued thinking for themselves, being stoical about troubles far more immediate and personal than the death of an aristocrat they'd never met and maintaining a sense of proportion amid all the noise.

It's normally right wingers and reactionaries who get all nostalgic for the good old days of the stiff upper lip. In general, I don't feel any connection with those sort of people and the sort of world they want to go back to. A Britain before significant levels of immigration? As I see it, humans from everywhere have always travelled to seek a better life and always will. You can no more blame the poor for trying to move to lands of opportunity than Canute could blame the tide for coming in. I'll only start to worry about immigrants if life in Britain ever gets so grim that they stop wanting to come here. Political correctness gone mad? So, it's now considered wrong to abuse and discriminate against somebody purely on the basis of their race, sex, sexuality, disability or whatever. That's worth celebrating - why would anyone but a bigot have a problem with it? Respect for authority? We're all entitled to be treated with a basic level of civility, unless we've forfeited it by terrible behaviour. As I see it, Lord and Lady Muck, the people with the key to the executive toilets and other Very Important People warrant exactly the same level of civility as other humans, not the higher level of deference that some of them feel entitled to.

But I must admit that I do have a hankering for the days before the Di-ification. It makes me  feel as out of place as the most harrumphing Disgusted-Of-Tumbridge-Wells reactionary. A fondness for the stiff upper lip is seen as right wing / ruling class nostalgia - remember all those old British war films featuring impeccably-spoken chaps of the officer class setting their jaws to do deeds of understated heroism in the face of everything Jerry or the cruel sea could throw at them. But there are people from all walks of life who just get on with what they need to do, without turning it into a public melodrama. Ordinary people, living hard lives, doing what they can do to the best of their ability, the mostly unnoticed people who keep organisations, families and societies going.

People out of step with the modern world of relentless self-promotion, where it seems to matter less what you do than how loudly and insistently you shout about it. Where nothing's real unless it's been on telly (a quiet message to every prospective self-marketing reality TV star and his or her ego - put it away and do something more worthwhile, because I'll never be anywhere near as interested in you as you are). Where faux outrage over irrelevant nonsense counts as news. Where you are a product. Where it doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong, so long as you're sincere. Where the shoutiest solipsists get to choose their own reality.

As a dad, I'm seldom prouder than when my kid takes a tumble, then - rather than rolling about and making a noisy, tearful fuss about it - picks himself up, reassures anyone listening that he's fine and just carries on. It gives me hope for a better future.

*although I think that the royal family are so hugely irrelevant that abolishing them probably wouldn't make the top few hundred in my fantasy wish list of thing I'd most like to change if I was running the country.