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London To me Diana's death was both tragic and sad, but no more so than the untimely deaths of many young people which occur every day throughout the world.

What we witnessed during that week however, seemed to be an unhealthy quasi-religious outpouring of emotion. The hysterical response seemed to reflect both a deep and disturbing need within the ordinary British citizen to bond around a cause, and a worrying tendency explicitly to favour superficial and ephemeral values over established, traditional standards.

It should be acknowledged that one or two tangible, beneficial effects have resulted from the public's reaction to Diana's death. Press intrusiveness, at least (and perhaps only) in so far as it relates to the Royal Family, has undoubtedly declined. Also, the monarchy itself has selectively and wisely accepted some of the lessons that surfaced at that time, having carefully modernised certain aspects of their public lives, and more overtly demonstrated their being in tune with the people.

What is clear, however, is that the "grief" and camaraderie, which at the time were claimed somehow to have elevated the human spirit, had very transient effects. This confirms to me that they were neither spiritual nor profound.

For the phenomenon to have continued would have required strong emotional leadership. The tabloid press, which originally took on the mantle, soon shed it in favour of exploiting the lasting photogenic appeal of the Princess. This is perhaps unsurprising given the medium itself survives on transient sensationalism and snap-shot glamour. The rootless stem of a new British spirit therefore soon withered.

The one lasting truth is that, surprising though it was, much of the nation didindeed react in the way it did. They were ready to display and openly share emotion; they were vociferous in accusing the monarchy of persecution; and they did ignore the flaws in the Princess and canonised her vulnerability, her rebellion and her self-promotion. It should never be forgotten that later in the same week Mother Theresa died and there was neither sufficient sadness nor admiration left for her.

I draw from this that the experience was perhaps more an expression of the nation's own health, than its grief - when a child cries it is sometimes hard to tell whether it is hungry or whether it is hurt.

A reasonable perspective is not difficult to find: In recent decades people have been increasingly influenced by, are adopting, and are in danger of worshipping, superficiality. The explosion in information, communication, advertising with its associated (anti-) values, the finger-pointing tabloid press, the unconstrained liberalisation within the arts, the legion of vociferous minority rights movements, and the recent patronising tenor of British politics are all taking their toll.

Their effect is to make us all feel more empowered to judge people, to influence events, and to own 'rights' which previously were earned. We are susceptible to holding or accepting values that have no roots in understanding, reason or experience, and to supporting almost any cause. We are turning our backs on tradition, and we ignore complexity in favour of subjectivity.

Tony Blair cleverly exploits this trend. Rehearsed sincerity can now successfully masquerade as the real thing, and is the more powerful if it is communicated with an evangelical passion. 'New Labour' would not have succeeded without its premise of 'New Britain'. People are ready to receive messages at this level because they reflect the level at which they now live. This shift to the heart in politics is a close-neighbour symptom of the malady displayed so explosively a year ago.

Perhaps the nation had been subconsciously seeking a Messiah - a young and beautiful one would be best of all - to re-set the moral tone, to help cast in stone the flimsy modern values and to champion the fight against tradition. If this Messiah were also persecuted and were to die young and still beautiful, then how much more powerful the new unspoken religion would be, and the more spontaneous would be the outward witness of its unconscious followers.

This, I think, is what we witnessed a year ago, and as a nation it should continue to worry us.

Brian G Birkhead
London, England

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