LIFE SAID MR WILDE (deftly anticipating Mr Stephen Fry) imitates art.
But Wilde knew more of the truth than ever he said. He knew, his own life being what it was, that life is art. We make a fiction of ourselves and others make myths of us if we are successful at it.
Diana’s self-fiction, a little cheap, a little tawdry, perhaps – hence the love affair with the tabloid press – was nevertheless a startling success. From the first coy photographs of the elusive nursery teacher, to the last buxom moments on the yacht in the Med, she was a star. She was writing her own script. Freedom from constraint, convention, stiffness, protocol is, after all, what we all want now.
She was in charge, but she was also the victim. As the Greek tragedy of her life unfolded before us we all hardly dared to ask how it would end. And we all felt guilty when the actual end – sudden and tragic death in deeply compromised circumstances – seemed to us so appropriate, so inevitable. We were guilty through our tears.
The Archbishop-Fairy-Godmother (who, as a matter of fact knew better all along, and later said so) called it a fairy tale. But fairy tales only have happy endings because they can be ended; life straggles on untidily into grief
This one began with the search for a Virgin Princess (one who would recognize the pea however many the mattresses).
Who can tell whether Rapunzell knew from the beginning that her Prince was a philanderer? And does it matter? To the rest of us the guilt only became apparent on the gingerbread after the kiss-and-tell ordeal by television. After this kiss-and-tell, it seemed, the Princess was in danger of turning into a frog. Beauty had failed to transform the Beast; and she had developed an alarming penchant for Gaston in the process.
In the stories we tell ourselves about each other’s divorces, the adulterous husband is an easier part to sustain than the aggrieved wife. All too easily she can become a self-pitying bore. But not this one.
Once the Princess had ceased to be a Virgin a whole new wardrobe of archetypes became available. Putting on her new frocks, turn by turn, and auctioning them off when they had served their purpose (for charity, of course), this Cinderella set out to have herself a ball.
The first frock was a modest little black number, Greta Garbo out of Coco Chanel. (‘I just want to be left alone’.)
But the ‘alone’ soon became lonesome, and the second frock was much more fun. It was a low-slung, off-the-shoulder, diamond-studded, hip-hugging, devil-may-care extravaganza. It was Marilyn Monroe out of Gianni Versace. (Poor, poor Marilyn; and, come to think of it, poor Gianni).
Marilyn, of course, had famously laid seige to Camelot. But the Wicked Witch, seated beneath her blue plastic pyramid in Camden Town, had promised Sarah that she would get her Kennedy (‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you!’), and condemned our Princess to go after her Onassis. Which duly she did.
The third frock was demur and rather fifties – the sort of thing, ironically, of which her ex-husband might well have approved. It was Eva Peron out of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. (‘I want to be Queen of people’s hearts’.)
And so she was. Not queen for a day, but Queen for a whole week (which is a long time nowadays), when England not Argentina, cried for her. Everything – the army officer, the rugby forward, the duplicitous playboy – had been covered by a landmine. And then it exploded.
The Lighthouses, they said, are going out all over England. And Reg from Pinner, the Gnome with the heart of Gold, provided what every gay icon needs, not a torch song but a candle song, (‘She did it our way’) and sent the Lady of the Lake to sleep: our nonce and never Quean.
But even fairy tales with unhappy endings have a moral. And this one is political.
When, beguiled no doubt by his spin doctors, the President of the (recently) Disunited Kingdom called our heroine ‘The People’s Princess’ (and so shackled his Camelot to her fantasy) what problems was he storing up?
Did he recall at that moment, I wonder, that the man with whom she died, and whose children (the siblings of the Crown of England) she might have borne, was the son of the man who put into the hands of Neil Hamilton the fatal brown paper package which, before all else, had secured his own government’s landslide success?
If he did, then he might also have reflected on the moral of the tale, which is this: that just as surely as life imitates art, glamour mingles with sleaze.
And speaking of sleaze, bribery and corruption (the sins which reduced a once serious political party to a shadow of its former self) one cannot, of course, fail to reflect on the Lambeth Conference.
The ten-yearly gathering of bishops has ended with an unprecedented degree of episcopal acrimony.
The bishops were discussing the question of whether or not the Bible and the tradition of the Church can admit or condone homosexual relations. It is a topic, one would have thought, in which the majority of homosexual activists would have not the slightest interest and a group of bishops could be in no serious doubt. Not so.
This being Lambeth, the debate threw little light on the vexed problem of biblical exegesis, and a veritable limelight on the attitudes of bishops one to another. Everyone at the Lambeth Conference, it appears, was accusing everyone else of attempted bribery.
The acerbic assistant bishop of Massachusetts (Barbara Harris) began the farrago by claiming that the votes of African bishops had been bought by the offer of ‘chicken dinners’ from a conspiracy of American conservatives. An outraged African responded, quite properly, by pointing out that chickens were not unknown in his own country and that it would take more than a barbecue to bribe him.
Then Bishop Prudence Ngarambe (of Kimbungo, Rwanda) alleged that ‘815’ (the Episcopal Church Center in New York) had warned him that he would get no new mission funding as long as his name appeared on the Dallas Statement, which reaffirmed traditional teaching on sexuality. Officials of the American church, not surprisingly, denied the allegation.
All this, though distasteful, was at least predictable. We have learnt, in recent years and through bitter experience, to expect nothing better of liberal bishops and their associates.
But then, more seriously, came accusations that Forward in Faith had been bribing the press.
Ruth Gledhill (of The Times) claimed that the entire conference had left the inner woman unnourished. Only the preaching of Noel Jones (together with the FiF lunch which followed it), she wrote, had convinced her to remain an Anglican ‘after enduring Lambeth’.
Revelations that Stephen Parkinson and I had purchased the occasional veal chop and glass of grappa for the ever-entertaining Andrew Brown (of The Independent, in the happy days when it could afford him) fuelled another vicious round of accusations.
It is time to set the record straight. Though bishops (in the opinion of other bishops) may be bribed by barbecues, both the officers of FiF and the religious correspondents of the national dailies are grown-up enough to know (Milton Friedman notwithstanding) that a free lunch (or dinner) can be precisely that.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.