Boris Johnson and The Spectator Magazine have got in an awful lot of trouble this week over the Leading article commenting on the Ken Bigley affair. The focus of attention has been on the paragraph mentioning Liverpool and the character of Liverpudlians. For some, comments that many Liverpudlians have “an excessive predilection for welfarism” and a “peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche” were welcomed as an example of someone finally speaking the truth as they see it. Others thought it was evidence of lazy stereotyping and prejudice. Include me in the latter; as I stated in a comment in “The Filter^” this description seems to have more to do with characters in the sit-com “Bread” than to be a serious examination of the character of Liverpool, but I think everyone by now has read enough about this aspect of the article and will have formed their own opinion.
By emphasising this aspect of the Leader, most people have overlooked the rest of the article, part of which suggests that since the death of Diana, this country has become “hooked on grief”, is guilty of “mawkish sentimentality” and an “apparently depleted intelligence and sense of rationality”. This is a point worth discussing.
In the weeks and months following Diana’s death, we were constantly being told how Britain had changed for the better; we would be more compassionate and caring, we would have a kinder society, the press will have learned its lesson and will be more responsible from now on. The leader in The Spectator seems to be saying that this change has gone too far, and we are now a miserable load of grief-junkies. This is all good journalistic, state-of-the-nation knockabout stuff, but I would contend that as a country we haven’t changed one jot since Diana’s death. If there was any effect then it was that the media decided to lay off Princes William and Harry – for a bit – but that was about it.
When Diana died I was working a night shift with around 15 other people. As the news drifted in that there had been a car crash, that she was seriously injured, and then that she had died, there was of course interest amongst my colleagues and myself. There was shock at the news, and talk of how we would all remember where we had been when it happened, akin to the “where were you when Kennedy died” question. There was interest and curiosity, perhaps similar to the curiosity of the rubbernecker. But sadness? Not really. Grief? Definitely not. Tears? No, not then nor at anytime during the next week did I see anyone in tears. When I got home, before I went to bed, I switched on the TV and saw that every channel except Channel Five was talking about Diana (I don’t think anyone told Channel Five, bless) and I knew that this would be the way of it for the next few days.
By Sunday afternoon I was already sick of the coverage; by Tuesday I was tearing my hair out. Every one of my mates agreed with me. What I couldn’t get into my head was how the TV and Newspapers were constantly talking about a nation in mourning, and yet the nation was getting along just fine as far as I could see. The media images just didn’t match up to what I was witnessing with my own eyes.
Now I know that some people were genuinely moved by the death. The media did not make up the scenes of crying mourners, and the books of condolence did not write themselves, but I don’t think that this was representative of the majority opinion. I did speak to people who said it was all very sad, and who disagreed with me that the Media had lost its sense of proportion; although these were the same people who looked aghast at me when I had suggested a few weeks earlier that 20 pages of the Sunday Mirror devoted to “The Kiss” between Di and Dodi may have been a wee bit excessive. But genuine grief, with my own eyes, I saw not.
I think that is my point really, to those who think we as a society lack a sense of proportion in these matters, and that that Diana “kick started” it all. Even in the days immediately after Diana’s death the nation as a whole did not lose it’s sense of proportion, but the media certainly did. The papers realised that they only had about a week left to milk their favourite circulation-boosting cash cow, and so they went mad. The nation in mourning was a myth.
And what about today. At chucking out time in our nation’s city centres, are you struck by our compassion and mawkishness? Not the first thought on my mind. Part of the inspiration for the Spectator’s leader was the minute silence for Ken Bigley held before the England-Wales football match at Old Trafford, which was booed throughout. How does that thuggish behaviour fit in with the idea of a nation “convulsed in grief”? Everyone I have spoken about this incident said that it was an embarrassing disgrace that the silence was ignored, and said that they did not think there should have been a one minute silence in the first place. Again, this suggests we are not the mawkish nation we have been painted as.
And turning to the specific reaction to Mr Bigley; outside his family, where actually was this grief regarding his death? Anywhere? A church memorial service and a two minutes silence in Liverpool is all I am aware of. You can argue that a two minute silence is too much, you can argue that we do not hold minute silences for lots of other people so why should we hold one for Ken Bigley, indeed you can argue lots of things, but it is all a far cry from actually grieving.
We may have too many minute silences these days, for all sorts of inappropriate reasons, and I would argue against them. We may get our TV schedules shunted about for all sorts of spurious reasons in order to avoid causing offence, and I have argued against this. As Daisy Sampson said yesterday on the Daily Politics , Prime Ministers Question Time almost always begins with Tony Blair saying he knows the whole house will join him in expressing condolences for some thing or other, and that this never used to happen. But is this misplaced compassion, or is it back-covering, knowing that is you don’t do this or that then you may be criticised in the media, or attacked by your political opponents? Is this really indicative of the beliefs of the nation?
The leading article ends by saying that our attitude to risk has changed due to “generations of peace and welfarism” and this is probably true; when times are hard, people have to be harder. But it is a leap to go from there to say that we “wallow in a sense of … victimhood”, vicarious or otherwise, and I certainly don’t think anything has changed due to the death of Diana. In fact, from where I have been standing, the actual, subdued reaction to Ken Bigleys death largely supports this idea.
PostScript: In the phone-in on BBC Radio Merseyside, I thought Boris Johnson acquitted himself quite well. It can’t have been easy, especially when Paul Bigley launched into him and asked him to leave public life. Now I understand he is someone who is currently mourning his brothers death – and as the rest of the Bigley family eloquently stated, everyone reacts in a different way – but can I suggest that this advice really should apply to Paul Bigley himself.