British Ask if Mourning for Diana Goes Too Far

A museum in Diana's memory opens July 1. Locals worry about a 'riptide' of visitors.

Hans Schreiner and his wife, Ingrid, have driven in from Dusseldorf, Germany.

The middle-aged couple are hanging a bunch of daffodils, purchased on their way through London, on the blue-black iron gates of Althorp House.

"We wanted to pay our respects to Princess Diana," Mrs. Schreiner says, as she stands beside their small car. "This is as close as we can get just now."

After two or three minutes standing quietly in the Northamptonshire drizzle, the Schreiners drive away up the country road skirting the ancestral home of the Spencer family.

Ten minutes later, a bus pulls up outside the gates. A dozen or more people spill out onto the grass.

Their German-speaking guide explains: "This is where Diana lived as a child. She is buried on an island in the middle of a lake close to Althorp House. Unfortunately, we cannot go in to see."

Thousands visit

The guide plays a tape of "Candle in the Wind, '97," the song Elton John sang at Diana's funeral in September. Some of the German tourists have also brought floral tributes, which they place on the ground near the locked gates.

The travelers are among tens of thousands who feel impelled to mark Diana's memory by going to places where she once lived. From Germany alone, three organized bus tours are now available. Althorp House is the high point of the tours.

Asked whether she has heard of a controversy now raging in the British media about whether mourning for the dead Princess of Wales has gone too far, one German tourist responds, "I know nothing about any such arguments - and I don't care."

As the bus departs, another car - this one carrying four English people - stops at the gates. The occupants step out and peer through.

If they could see beyond the winding driveway, they would observe workmen hammering and sawing as they convert a stable into a museum due to open July 1. Visitors will pay 9.50 ($16) to see what Lord Spencer, Diana's brother, calls, "an exhibition that aims to show her as a young woman whose life became extraordinary, but who was part of a family."

Eight months after her death in a car accident in Paris, controversy continues to swirl around the "people's princess."

A mile up the road from Althorp House, inside St. Mary's Church where Diana's forebears are buried, two elderly women speak in stage whispers. They are complaining about an 18-foot memorial Lord Spencer says he plans to erect on the island where the princess is buried.

'Tourists' playground'

"Monstrous," says one. "Totally out of scale," says the other, who goes on to bemoan the fact that, come July, the village will be "turned into a tourists' playground" that will "destroy our peace and quiet."

Worries that hitherto sleepy Great Brington will soon be inundated by what a diner in the Fox and Hounds calls a "riptide of foreigners" are small-scale, compared with the rumpus whipped up last week by Anthony O'Hear.

In a book entitled "Faking It - the Sentimentalization of Modern Society," the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy deplores the outpouring of grief that followed Diana's death. Professor O'Hear dismisses the princess as a "muddled and self-obsessed young woman" and accuses her of "damaging the monarchy and pandering to modern sentimentality."

Rather than being someone to admire, he claims, Diana stood for "the elevation of feeling, image, and spontaneity over reason, reality, and restraint." In the Diana story, he adds, "duty is a notion which is entirely absent."

Predictably, outrage has ensued.

Lord St. John of Fawsley, a former Cabinet minister and an expert on the monarchy, dismissed O'Hear's book as "a farrago of prejudiced nonsense."

But Gerald Kaufman, a senior Labour member of Parliament (MP), sided with O'Hear's view of public grief about Diana's passing. He commented: "I thought the British people were stoical. Instead there was this extraordinary wave of self-indulgent mush."

Chipping in from the other side of the debate, Peter Luff, a Conservative MP, complained: "O'Hear would have done better to keep his mouth shut."

A spokesman for the British Red Cross, one of more than a hundred good causes actively supported by Diana, said, "Grief at her death was a natural reaction, the people's way of saying thank you."

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the middle of a Middle East tour, felt it necessary to enter the fray.

Perspective on a princess

Breaking off from talks in Jerusalem April 19, he said critics of Diana were "snobs" out of touch with the public mood. O'Hear and those who thought like him were "insulting the thousands of people who paid tribute to her," Mr. Blair said.

In fact, just as tart comments about Diana and her legacy can be heard inside the little church near Althorp House, Britain as a whole does appear divided over attempts to put the princess into perspective.

Blair was nettled by O'Hear's suggestion that Britain's emotional reaction to Diana's death is part of a broader phenomenon for which Blair and his ministers are partly responsible.

As well as complaining about Diana and popular responses to her, the book claims Britain, under the Labour government, is "a fake society with fake institutions" in which "image is more important than reality." "Our politicians," O'Hear maintains, "have given up on real politics in favor of gesture politics - all affect, and no effect."

As memories of Diana merge with a nationwide debate about what kind of society formerly stiff-upper-lip modern Britain is becoming, and whether it is acceptable for grown-up people to weep in public, Great Brington has narrower concerns - among them the persistent interest of the world's media.

On the door of the Fox and Hounds hangs a sign saying: "Press and film crews keep out."

"We are worried about the media," a waiter tells a discreetly anonymous correspondent.

"When the Diana museum opens," he predicts, "they will swarm here again in their hundreds."

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