Ian Jack – ‘A sentimental education’

Granta editor Ian Jack, writing in today’s Guardian Review, “deplores the media’s role in fomenting grief on the death of public figures”, most recently in the form of the Pope.

However, having said “It is impossible to equate the Pope with the Princess”, Jack does exactly that in a spurious piece which says very little about the Pope and a great deal about his contempt of Princess Diana and her mourners.

As far as I can see the only difference between mourning Diana or the Pope and mourning a relative or friend is that most mourners of the Pope and Diana never knew them personally. Newspaper columnists, however, tend not to criticise people for grieving for relatives and friends. Funny, that.

So what if people feel upset or want to pay their respects when a Pope or a Diana dies? Surely Jack isn’t so lacking in imagination that he can’t understand that millions of ordinary people identify with such larger-than-life figures?

The criticism of those who grieved for Diana has become legitimate not because her legacy is “little more than a dysfunctional memorial in a London park” but because of her mass appeal at the time of her death. But those masses, that spectacle, consisted of individuals with any number of personal reasons for grieving. Those reasons were as simple as a gut feeling and as complex as anything you can imagine. The reporters weren’t out there asking every one of them why they were there, they were just saying “Wow, look at these crowds.” Which makes it very easy for people like Jack to tar everyone who felt differently to him with the same brush.

Jack writes that “not to grieve [for Diana] was to be odd, cynical, wicked”. I don’t remember meeting anyone at the time who felt that way. You felt how you felt, you grieved or didn’t grieve in your own manner and it was nobody else’s business either way. Certainly nobody attacked anybody for showing insufficient grief, or too much – except in the left-of-centre newspapers, of course.

And if you did perchance find yourself embracing a complete stranger, was this such a bad thing? Was it any different, fundamentally, from the embrace you find yourself giving the fellow mourner of a relative or friend whom you barely know? Was it any different, in fact, from hugging a stranger in joy because your team won the football?

I also don’t remember meeting anyone who did not express some regret at Diana’s death. I remember walking down Kensington High Street and everybody talking about it, the signs in all the shop windows saying they were shutting on the day of the funeral, the handwritten tributes on the flowers in Kensington Gardens saying things like “God bless you, sweetheart”. There is no escaping the fact that people were personally affected.

Jack’s beef, finally, is with the media and the way they report such events. Sorry to spring this on you, Ian, but when someone famous dies, it’s news. And for the record, the Guardian was hardly the only newspaper whose coverage of the Pope’s death could be described as overkill.