Mass Hysteria

I was just reading the blog of some Mancunian of whom I was unaware until today. I found his blog interesting despite his (to my mind, rather silly) pro-EU and (evident from his Twitter output) pro-immigration views.

His blog tells of how he and his family were immune from the mass hysteria all around after the death of Princess Diana. I found that interesting, partly because it echoes what I heard from people who were in London when it happened, in 1997 (the actual death was on 31 August 1997). I heard tales of pubs full of blubbing drinkers (days after the actual death), people who did not smile or even look normal in the streets, crowds treating Harrods department store (owned by Mohammed Fayed, the father of the last of Diana’s known lovers, Dodi Fayed) as if it were a shrine, taking flowers there etc.

In fact, I had seen the evidence of that last, because I had been to Harrods to buy a raincoat. I myself was not in England at the time of what I call the Diana Death Hysteria. I was then living in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Only about 70 English/British people lived in Almaty in 1997 (I know that because I had quite close contact with the small British Embassy and in fact visited the Embassy fairly frequently).

I did not have satellite TV and was unaware of the fact that Diana had died until 2 days later, when a colleague told me about it on Monday morning (the death having occurred on the weekend). I was later told that I was pretty much the only British person who had not gone to the Embassy to sign a book of condolence opened by the staff there.

On my return to London a few weeks later, I needed to buy a raincoat (it scarcely ever rains heavily in Almaty), so headed to Harrods in a taxi. When we approached the store, I noticed what seemed to be piles of trash outside Harrods, piled against crowd barriers. I asked the driver what that rubbish was doing there (to me it was reminiscent of the scenes seen during the 1979 “Winter of Discontent”, when rubbish went uncollected) but the driver replied, “that isn’t rubbish, Sir, it’s flower tributes for Princess Diana”. Well…

The phenomenon of mass hysteria or collective grief and/or jubilation has tended to pass me by. I also missed the mass celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 because, again, I was at the time overseas and incommunicado (in Rhodesia). Those who experienced either or both have found it hard to explain what exactly happened to (other) people (I can only assume that my own connections and associates are a hard-bitten lot!).

I am no psychologist (or psychiatrist) but have some tentative theories, revolving around emotional triggers in the population. I have wondered whether such mass emotionalism could be harnessed for the public good in future. In the past, a usually more restrained type of emotionalism bound the British people together. In the 20th Century, that involved devices such as the Union flag, shared “experiences” (even if in reality never actually experienced by many of those emotionally affected), such as the two World Wars, the Poppy Day commemorations, noted historical events and people (such as Nelson, Trafalgar, Wellington and Waterloo, Richard the Lionheart, Florence Nightingale, Robin Hood), music such as “For those in peril on the sea“, the National Anthem, “There’ll Always Be An England” etc. A patriotic and historical pastiche, certainly, neither comprehensive nor even particularly accurate in parts, but true enough and simple enough to bind a people together.

Today, the UK population is so fragmented in terms of race, ethnicity, language, age, (what passes for) “ideology”, culture, even sexual orientation or display, that it is hard to imagine them coming together in collective grief (false or otherwise) or jubilation today. I suppose that some would point to football or cricket games, the Olympics etc, but these are minority interests, despite the large number interested.

If one talks to people, or watches the often incredibly ignorant TV quiz contestants, it is realized that many (and by no means always the “blacks and browns”) know next to nothing of British history, literature, music, or even basic geography. Their world is not even a post-1945 one, but a post-2000 one of X-Factor persons, “soaps”, “celebrities” of whom I at least have never heard, music which is either banal or simply noise.

It may be that the Diana mood of 1997 was an elegiac lament for a Britain —or more accurately an England— which was on the point of disappearing (and now has disappeared).

The blog post which I have been reading:

Almaty when I lived there



2 thoughts on “Mass Hysteria”

    1. There certainly are remarkable synchronicities around the death of Diana. I recall seeing one American documentary exploring astrological “co-incidences” etc. As if it were an occult sacrifice. There might be political reasons too. On the other hand, I cannot see how —even assuming that some secret UK squad *did* cause the accident (using a powerful light flash)— that squad or its senders could be sure of even injuring Diana, still less killing her (or Dodi Fayed).


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