Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ten Years After the Death of a Princess

TEN years ago, at about 3.30 on a Sunday morning, I was standing on a corner on Chase Road, north Acton in west London, waiting for a minicab to take me to work when some folk would be starting back from their nights out. While I was waiting I turned on my little radio, and that's when I heard the news coming in of a motor accident in Paris.

I got the rest of the news over the minicab's radio. Diana, Princess of Wales, had been taken to hospital but after two hours' efforts to save her was pronounced dead, as was her companion Dodi Fayed and Henri Paul the driver. The only survivor of the crash was Trevor Rees-Jones, the ex-SAS bodyguard.

My first thought, as soon as I heard the car had hit a wall, was to wonder if it had been fixed. No particular reason. Maybe I had read too many spy stories. True ones. I'm not sure, but I seem to remember my cab driver was thinking along similar lines.

I was running a paper stall outside a station. That morning the Express was late. It had been recalled so they could change the front page for news of Diana's crash death. But they did not have time to change the inside pages. When I had a chance to look through the papers later, I found the Express had page after page of adverse comment about the princess, her interests, her relationship with Dodi El Fayed. One charming lady columnist remarked that the pair might be happier dead.

Most of my customers were shocked and saddened by the news, though not showing the kind of unrestrained emotion that was to be worked up as the weeks went on. A fellow who ran a garage round the corner showed a different side, saying he was glad the princess and her boyfriend (only he referred to them in obscene terms) were dead. Somehow I don't think his bitterness stemmed from class resentment of royalty and wealthy store heirs. Maybe he was an Express reader.

Not being a royalist, nor fan of High Society celebs, I had not paid much attention to the affairs of the Windsors or their partners, the most expensive soap opera. My interest had peaked early, during the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II when we were given free souvenir mugs at school, and a morning trip to see the film of the conquest of Everest, and accumulated all sorts of Coronation tat from the toy shops. Our street was decorated with flags and bunting for a party. Along with the Union flags and stars-and-stripes, one of the neighbouring streets had a big Red Soviet flag, I don't know whether it was a political statement or just something they had saved from VE Day. Either way, full marks to Fylde Street!

Maybe there was something different about Diana, that people had noticed before the last tragedy. I remember seeing her picture proudly displayed in the window of a curry house in Pimlico which she had apparently patronised. (My old favourite restaurant in Lancaster made do with a picture of Klondyke Bill the wrestler sitting in the ring with his belly hanging out, saying "I always eat here!" He did too, and drank occasionally in the same pub as me - so don't think I've not rubbed shoulders with celebrities). I also saw her signed picture displayed in a cafe near Notting Hill, I think she may have dropped in when working at a kindergarten or whatever in her younger days. I can't imagine the princess slipping up from Kensington Palace for a bacon roll and coffee. But unlike the Family into which she married, Diana had, after a privileged but troubled childhood, tried her hand working at proper jobs, and moved in the same world as the rest of us. It may have influenced her attempts to give her sons an element of normality.

Diana's marriage to Charles may have been made in some Royal PR department rather than heaven. I'd cynically assumed her visits to AIDS patients and homeless persons were part of an effort to give the monarchy a modern image. But besides that west London garage boss with his disapproval of interlopers, once Diana split from Charles and also took up politically contentious issues like landmines -one of Britain's profitable exports -the no longer predictable princess may have earned herself more powerful enemies.

The following week's Express had forgotten its complaints, however, and obviously hoped we had. It editorialised about the princess "we all loved", and in competition with the other papers, offered a special picture supplement in tribute. Nowadays, as though expiating past guilt, it is famous for running ongoing front-page stories claiming new information about Diana's death, and taking every excuse to feature her picture for the cultists.

Over the weeks after the crash I kept wondering if the car's steering column was being checked for evidence of interference, or if it was too badly damaged. The papers did not say. There were suggestions the driver had drunk on top of medication but I did not see any mention of his doctor being asked about what pills he was taking.

Some of the emotion aroused by the death seemed genuine. I remember a black lady crying on the bus, and another at Shepherds Bush station.

On the Saturday morning of the funeral it was a fine day and I decided to go out for a walk. I went up by Perivale where the shops were shut, and over Horsenden hill, stopping to admire its view over London . I took a bus home, but got off at the pub, the Grand Junction. There were a few guys in playing pool. Nobody was talking about the funeral. But on the way out I met Seamus, the old boy who was normally at the corner of the bar, but had been at home watching the funeral on television. In conversation, I remarked that I thought the crash might not have been an accident, that the princess could have been murdered. Seamus looked nervously over his shoulder, frightened, then confided that he agreed, but advised me "don't let people hear you say that".

It seemed we were supposed to have a national consensus not only about "the people's princess" but about the tragedy of her death, and not even a suggestion that anyone might have been happier with her dead than they had been when she was alive. Quite a lot of media commentators seemed anxious to dispel any "conspiracy theories", not by arguing over facts or suggestions, but simply classifying anyone of us who raised suspicions as cranks and nutters.

Ten years later, there are probably as many people prepared to suspect some kind of conspiracy as to believe it was an accident. You can hear people talking about it on the bus, as well as encounter a wide range of ideas on the web, from the plausible to the obviously loopy. "Conspiracy theory" seems to go with pilgrimages to Diana-associated shrines for some visitors to London.

I've seen MI6 mentioned and heard the Duke of Edinburgh accused, but I feel we are being guided hurriedly past what might be more real paths for enquiry. Perhaps the way it is considered safe to keep to a supposed intrigue within the Palace suggests how high the real stakes are.

Whatever the truth, about Diana or about her death, it would seem that a large section of the public needs to believe the best about the "people's princess", and to suspect the worst about the rest of the ruling class and its workings. I think that tells us something new about British society. I am not sure what. But I suspect it is different to what was predicted by the experts.



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