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The age of Dyra

The myths of Diana and Myra live on.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Politics

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In recent weeks, the British media have returned to two of their favourite female topics.

The (mis)trial of former royal butler Paul Burrell prompted a recapitulation of the life and death of Princess Diana – while the death of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley spurred a reprise of her crimes and subsequent incarceration.

The legacy of these women has loomed large in recent coverage. This is odd, considering that neither Myra nor Diana did anything of historical significance. Though tragic, the murder of five children in the early 1960s has not changed the substance of our lives 40 years on. And neither through good works nor bad behaviour did Diana alter the character of our world today.

It isn’t even realistic to claim that their actions were representative of the rest of us. The chain of events that led a Catholic girl from the typing pool to the cesspool of kinky killing was as arbitrary as it was unique. Diana’s circumstances (Sloane marries Prince and travels the world laying hands on the sick) is about as far removed from everyday experience as you can go.

Neither Myra’s crimes nor Diana’s pilgrimage tell us anything about the way we live. These two figures are significant, not for what they did, but on account of what we have projected on to them.

Myra, the anti-Diana, ‘the most hated woman in Britain’, and Diana, the anti-Myra, ‘candle in the wind’ and latterday saint: these are mythical creatures of our creation, whose existence depends not on their mortal flesh and hardly on their earthly activities, but almost entirely on our continued readiness to identify them – with and against them – as mirror-icons of good and evil, victim and perpetrator.

The new myths of Myra and Diana are fully in line with ancient tradition. Over the centuries, the Royal Family has played a largely mythical role, whose main function is to symbolise continuity by maintaining the myth itself (‘the King is dead, long live the King!’). Criminals, too, have served society as heightened images and histrionic narratives. Whether the received accounts of their crimes are true or false is usually secondary to their theatrical role.

While the existence of myth has been continuous, the human characteristics represented in various myths are particular to specific periods. The myths of Myra and Diana are cases in point.

The snapshot of Myra, dyed blonde hair and blank stare, soon became an icon of alienation – at a time when alienation was itself a fashionable condition. In the 1960s, youth culture came into existence largely as an expression of alienation from the politics, economics and associated rationality of the older generation. It promised a new way of life based on the excitements of feeling and feelings of excitement.

For opponents of this orientation such as Pamela Hansford Johnson (1), and also for some of its pioneers like Jeff Nuttall (2), Myra’s mug synthesised the unwillingness to connect with the old lifeworld and the willingness to kill for kicks. This was a syllogism in visual form, suggesting that to be alienated from traditional society was to be in danger of becoming another Hindley.

The obverse of the Myra mugshot is the footage of Diana interviewed by Martin Bashir on BBC1’s Panorama. Her pleading eyes and talk of ‘battered this and battered that’ have come to symbolise the abusive domination of feeling and emotion, personified in Diana, by the instrumental and coldly rational, characterised by the rest of the royals.

This is doubly ironic, in that the role of royalty has long been to operate on an emotional plane (see above) – there’s no reason for having them; and also the reaction to Diana’s death, and the canonisation of Diana as a latterday saint, showed that the trend was really in the other direction – that is, a societal turn away from rationality towards emotion.

In Beat: The Iconography of Victimhood from the Beat Generation to Princess Diana (3), I observed that by the week of Diana’s funeral the psychosocial priorities associated with the counterculture had made their way from the anti-establishment Institute of Contemporary Arts all the way up The Mall and across St James’ Park to envelop both Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

Myth has been a continuous part of human life since the Ancient Greeks and beyond. But the significance of the role of myth – its social weight relative to other attempts at representation and self-knowledge – has been discontinuous. In progressive periods, the mythical tends to wane. In regressive ones, it waxes. During the years of Myra’s imprisonment, it has done both.

In the 1960s, the counterculture was characterised in part by a turn towards emotion and description rather than rational consideration and explanation. But within its amorphous mass, there were also other, counter-trends that held out the possibility of a new and more rational critique of society, as the basis for reconstructing it.

As well as the sensory overload achieved through heavily amplified music and LSD, this was also the age of the Sociological Imagination (4) and New Society (5) – in each case not only the titles of influential publications but also catchphrases summarising the expectation that a new society could be achieved by the development of a critical rationality that was also creative. In this context, the myth of Myra was far from dominant, but was little more than a sub-plot in the putative story of our future lives.

During the 36 years that Myra languished in a succession of jails, the balance between myth and rationality has changed dramatically. From being relegated to the sidelines, myth has come back to centre stage. Myths like Diana and Myra are now the fountainhead of public policy. The latter is increasingly derived from such myths, rather than developed in spite of them.

We live in the age of Dyra – the fantastic combination of Myra and Diana myths; and we, not they, have created it.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) On Iniquity, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Macmillan, 1967

(2) Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall, MacGibbon & Kee, 1968

(3) Beat: The Iconography of Victimhood From The Beat Generation to Princess Diana, Andrew Calcutt, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998

(4) The Sociological Imagination, C Wright Mills

(5) New Society magazine boasted columnists such as John Berger and Paul Barker.

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Topics Politics

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