Twenty years ago I was staying at my grandmother’s flat in Gascony Avenue, West Hampstead. It wasn’t always the easiest living with a person sixty years your senior, but times were tight, and Crankin’ Out, the David Bowie magazine I was self-publishing, had become the black hole of Calcutta financially.
The flat wasn’t roomy, but it did have a garden, and, let’s be frank, I wasn’t in a position to look that gift horse in the gob. Especially when it was not much more than a mile from central London, the area where I was born.
I’m not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but I remember waking a little earlier than normal on Sunday 31st August 1997. My Saturday night hadn’t been a particularly heavy one, but I started to stir around 7:30. I could hear that gran had BBC Radio 4 on in the living room as per usual, but there was something about the sombre tone of the muffled voices that gave me a sense that all was not right with the world.
During this period in the mid 1990s, the IRA’s regular bombing of mainland Britain had ceased, and no one had heard of Al Qaeda. Indeed, 911 was four years away, so Islamic terrorism usually confined itself to the Middle East. Oh, how times change.
In my semi-conscious state I’d assumed the Queen Mother had died. Quite a logical assumption, you’d think. She’d just turned 97 after all. Hardly a shock or even a surprise, so I tried to get back to sleep. Most mornings I get out of bed at half-past eight and didn’t see why the death of a very elderly royal should change that.
I did get up earlier than planned though. Gran walked into the bedroom shortly before 8 and stood by the door and tried to rouse me. I wasn’t impressed.
“What?,” said I, somewhat grumpily.
“Princess Diana is dead.”
I sat up in bed with a jolt, faster than I’ve ever done before or since.
“No, Steven. I wouldn’t joke about something like that.”
She looked anguished but not overly upset. She was approaching 87, so one can only imagine the amount of death and destruction she had lived through, including two world wars.
I leapt out of bed and switched the television on. ITV came on automatically, and the screen showed Jeffrey Archer talking about Diana. I groaned, not in any small part because he was your typical self-aggrandising rent-a-quote media whore. The I noticed the black ticker tape running across the bottom of the screen. “Diana, Princess of Wales killed in Paris car crash.”
ITN had already ended their coverage and had to hand over to GMTV, a station not famous for it’s serious news reporting. Archer was bring interviewed by Fiona Phillips, and drew comparisons respectively with the murder of John Kennedy and James Dean, who both met their ends in moving cars, though at considerably different speeds.
I couldn’t really grasp what I was hearing. Like her or loathe her, the Princess of Wales had been such an omnipresent, ubiquitous figure that at first it just felt just plain weird: “Oh, yet another Diana front page story. I wonder what it will be tomorrow.” “You might not believe this,” said newsreader Anne Davies, sounding as though she couldn’t quite accept it herself, “but I’m afraid it is true.” I switched over to Aunty Beeb, so often the comforting voice of the nation in times of crisis. It was definitely true.
The news of Diana’s death at the age of thirty-six was deeply shocking and yet somehow not entirely surprising. The image of her as a middle-aged, let alone elderly, woman had never been easy to conjure up, and the manner of her passing, pursued through the Parisian night by a rabid pack of paparazzi photographers, seemed almost immediately to make sense; an appropriate end to a life that had long since lost any semblance of reality. It felt, dare I say it, fated.
Interviews were given by politicians even more loathsome than Archer, if that’s possible (I’m talking to you, David Mellor); demanding firm action against an intrusive, wayward press. It was later calculated that Diana’s death generated more newspaper and magazine coverage than any other single event in the history of humanity, appropriately enough for the most photographed woman in the world. In life, she had been a banker for any ragbag publication wishing to increase sales, and in death she continued to work her magic: The Sun sold an extra million copies that Monday.
There were also tributes were relayed from a select bunch of heavyweight international figures almost as famous as Diana herself – Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa – but silence from The Queen. What a week she was about to have.
As that week wore on, the response of some was to question how genuine any of this public passion was, so perfect a media story did it seem. Adrian Mole’s fifteen-year-old sister chose not to go to Kensington Palace to lay flowers: ‘Rosie preferred to watch the Diana-mourning on television. She said it was “more real”.’
I myself got caught up in the hoo-ha and laid a bouquet outside KP, Diana’s home. The perfumed air from the mountain of flowers was extraordinary. I even might have got a little teary when I spied a floral wreath with a card that simply said “Live forever. Noel & Meg Gallagher.” Arch republicans Oasis had the No.1 album that very week with the rather partly titled Be Here Now. Oh, the irony.
Like the majority of mourners piling their cellophaned profferings, I’d not met the woman they were blubbing over. The nearest I got was watching Di and Prince Charles (historically, never a person I was allowed to warm to) presenting an award to Michael Jackson in the royal box at Wembley Stadium, which they helpfully transmitted on the huge video screens just prior to showtime. It was all rather lovely but we were distinctly more amused when Jacko played Dirty Diana later on, despite rumblings he might cull it as a courtesy to the princess.
The second time I was closer, sitting just a block away from her at the 1993 World AIDS Day concert at the arena. Tall and slender and resplendent in an all-white two-piece, she looked fantastic, and was attending in her capacity as patron of the National AIDS Trust, Britain’s leading independent policy and campaigning voice on HIV and AIDS.. On the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death they put out a statement via PinkNews:
“Princess Diana’s tragic death was a catastrophic blow in the fight against HIV in the UK. Ten years on, the NAT has not replaced Princess Diana as its patron, as no individual has come close in terms of raising the profile of HIV in the UK and tackling the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the virus.”
“Just by holding the hand of a person living with AIDS, Diana changed the opinions of millions and broke down stigma and misconceptions around the world. Although many public figures have done invaluable work to tackle the HIV epidemic in developing countries, no-one has championed the cause of HIV in the UK as Diana did.”
“Diana knew the difficulty of fundraising for a condition that was surrounded by stigma and for an organisation that worked to bring about change at a policy level and so played a key role in National AIDS Trust events, such as the Concert for Hope, which brought together leading musicians of the time – including George Michael and Take That – to raise money for the National AIDS Trust and encourage people to unite in the fight against HIV and AIDS.”
As a result, HIV in the UK has slipped off the public agenda since Diana’s death, even though the annual number of new HIV diagnoses in the UK is now almost three times what it was ten years ago. She played an invaluable role in breaking down the stigmatism of the disease, and for that she must be applauded.
But, alas, I was no monarchist. I was chiefly at the Concert of Hope to witness David Bowie in a rather surprising shift of shape: being the show’s stereo MC at the last-minute invitation (reportedly standing in for an under-the-weather Elton John) of headliner George Michael, who’d lost his partner, Anselmo Feleppa, to the disease just a few months before.
But one thing about this whole cult of Diana thing I found intriguing was, without sounding classist, the majority of the disciples who would buy those newspapers and magazines, fuelling this unsavoury supply and demand industry were, in the main, the blue collar working class section of the population. The same is often true of those who follow other celebrities – be they musicians or actors – but at least with those kind of celebrities at least they can cloak their unhealthy obsessions in a love of the work they do. In short, Diana couldn’t sing, though many will clam, slightly uncharitably, she could be quite the actress.
On that dire day in 1997 the response of those at a more elevated social level was to look to their own position. ‘They’re all going to blame me, aren’t they?’ fretted Prince Charles, while Tony Blair, Prime Minister for just four months, saw opportunities as well as challenges: “I also knew that this was going to be a major national, in fact global event like no other. How Britain emerged was important for the country internally and externally.”
Still riding his own wave of acclaim and popularity, Blair encapsulated the mood and seized control. Having decided that he ought to speak to the media on his way back from church that Sunday morning (“Anything before that would look tacky,” he agreed with his spokesman, Alastair Campbell), he delivered one of the most enduring soundbites of modern times: “She was the people’s princess. And that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and memories – for ever.”
It wasn’t an entirely new phrase. The moniker ‘the people’s princess’ had already been conferred on Fergie, the Duchess of York, of Princess Anne (as recently in 1996) and of Diana herself, the title being bestowed upon her by journalist Julie Burchill in 1991.
In November 1993, one month before her appearance at the Concert of Hope, the Daily Mirror had published photographs of Diana taken by a hidden camera above a machine in an LA Fitness gym in Isleworth; although Diana sued for this invasion of her privacy (the paper settled out of court for £200,000 damages and around £1 million in legal fees), the article was largely sympathetic and was headlined THE PEOPLE’S PRINCESS. Same old thing in brand new drag.
“She was a wonderful woman. God love her,” said my gran, with atypical positivity. I did eventually leave her place, and at the very end of 1997, took up residence in a third floor flat opposite Golders Green station, at the invitation of a struggling writer and film maker. His name was Nick Hedges, author of the forthcoming official biography of the master of mime, Lindsay Kemp. Only I wasn’t there too long, as, among a plethora of unsavoury episodes, I discovered the phone lines were being tapped by certain red-topped naewspapers. Nick revealed himself to be the scamster behind faked ‘secret’ videotapes that had emerged the previous year, purporting to show Diana frolicking with her lover and Prince Harry’s real ‘father’ James Hewitt.
They were actually lookalikes, but Hedges got paid handsomely by The Sun, who thought they had the scoop of the century. Now Rupert Murdoch was embarrassed, nay, incandescent. Not only did he demand the handsome fee The Sun had paid the “dodgy pervert” back, but he got Hedges’ book deal with HarperCollins cancelled, including the Kemp tome I’d attempted to badger Bowie into contributing to. The silly fraudster hadn’t realised the owner of Harpers was the very same owner of The Sun, the News of the World et al. C’est la vie.
Fast forward to the 20th anniversary of that tragic week, and I’m writing this very piece in France. Since April I’ve found myself living in France, quite unexpectedly. Not the Parisian capital where Diana met her untimely demise, but a large farmhouse in the south, not far from the historic Gascony province. I completed ownership of it and the two neighbouring properties just a week ago. It’s a far cry from a single room in someone else’s pad. I think I could get used to this.
Steve Pafford, France, August 31 2017