The most important event in history. And Diana’s dead too.

Today is the anniversary of the most important event in history: the day humanity took its first step towards living in the universe rather than just on this planet. On October 4 1957, human beings launched the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Within 12 years we were walking around the surface of our celestial next-door neighbour. Two wonderful moments.

If the flight of Sputnik represents the most important event in history, the death of Princess Diana continues to be treated as though it was pretty vital too. And as it happens, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik happen to coincide with the start of Princess Diana’s inquest.

Like most people, I’m not very interested in dead princesses. Although the media would have you believe otherwise, practically no one I knew thought that Diana’s death was anything but a tragic but, from any impersonal point of view, relatively inconsequential event. True, Radio 4 went completely gaga for a week, with literally not a single non-Diana programme for days on end. The other media were almost equally deranged. Collectively they managed to create the impression that the world had gone into shock, whereas I knew only a single person who thought there was anything special going on.

So why the furore all those years ago, and the continuing media fascination? To which I reply, what furore?

Here is some simple arithmetic. Suppose that when Diana died there were a little less than 60 million people in Britain. Suppose also that about 2% of them were much affected by her death. That’s about 1,200,000 people – quite a number, but a tiny fraction of the population as a whole. Assume also that 5% of those affected individuals bothered to express their feelings in some public way. That’s still 60,000 people. I don’t know how many wreaths and crosses were laid for Diana, but 60,000 sounds about right.

So 0.1% of the population of Britain were affected enough to do something about it? Why would anyone imagine that this was the earth-shaking historical event it was reported as? Evidently a million people marching against war in Iraq wasn’t significant enough for the government to notice it, so why should 60,000 be taken as so much more seriously?

But there is another lesson to be learned from these events, which is tied directly to the discrepancy between the public image and the numerical facts. This is that, although the death of The People’s Princess was nothing special from the point of view of history, it was a fabulous story. And the media are interested not in what is important but what sells copy and puts bums of seats. And so are politicians, starting with the buffoon who invented that ludicrous soubriquet.

On the other hand, if there is a competition for the most boring media event in history, then surely one very powerful contender would be that climactic event of the First Space Age, the first Moon landing.

I sat there that night, expecting to be enthralled, but in reality it turned into five or more hours of grainy images and nothing happening, waiting while they got ready to open the door. It was a complete drag, as we used to say. I was even tempted to go to bed (though I resisted – just).

So I have always felt that there was a strange paradoxical tie between Princess Diana and Neil Armstrong’s respective entries into history. Armstrong’s was assuredly one that will be remembered for centuries, yet it was excruciatingly tiresome to observe and of no obvious significance in itself, while Diana’s will be forgotten by everyone but cultural historians in due course, but has been amazing (or, I should say, appalling) to witness.

Which only goes to prove that great history and a great story are only tangentially related phenomena. And that we generally don’t give a damn about the for history, while a good story has quite a few people gaga too.

So where are the social systems that help us to appreciate the history through which we are living? Certainly not the media or our education systems. And there is no folk history worth the name any more. And what is the fate of those who are ignorant of history?

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