I had supper with a friend on 31 August 1997. He arrived looking wonderstruck. ‘Are we just going to have dinner?’ he said.
‘Why, you think we should sit shiva?’
‘But if she can die then anyone can.’
I don’t think anyone else ever got around to articulating that quite so precisely.
One friend spent the day of the funeral in his study, locked away from the world, reading Civilisation and Its Discontents. Others I knew wandered around the flower carpet outside Kensington Palace, spying and sniffing the air to gauge whether sentimentality and hysteria actually might achieve what neo-Marxian analysis had failed to do in the 1960s and 1970s. Not being a great one for crowds, I stayed at home with the TV on, just watching and wondering at the events of that week, which really were strange on a scale beyond anything I’d encountered. Some months later, I saw a documentary made on the day of the funeral, in which a bag lady was asked for her opinion on the death of the Princess of Wales: ‘Oh, she’s died has she? I wondered why there were so many people about.’
Ten years on, with so many more screens and pages clogged with celebrity, and the broadsheets gone overtly tabloid, it isn’t entirely obvious what fascinated people so about Diana Windsor, née Spencer, the uneducated, O-level-free daughter of an ancient house, former nanny, Sloane, clothes-horse, playgirl, campaigner, therapist addict. Take the bright lights away and you have a regular messy divorce, friends taking sides, money, adultery, using the kids. The only remarkable thing was that he left her for an older woman. The rest is pedestrian, and the fact that it was a royal divorce doesn’t quite make up for the dullness of most of the characters involved. It was, perhaps, Princess Diana’s contradictions that kept the interest alive. She spent £3000 a week on grooming and hugged lepers. She secretly visited centres for the homeless, taking her sons with her to ensure they learned about privilege, and issued an angry public statement when a tabloid picture showed a suggestion of cellulite on her thighs. But scrutinise the first 36 years of anyone’s life and you will find no end of contradictions (with the possible exception of Paris Hilton’s). It was just that for a brief period Diana had more and grander opportunities for contradictory behaviour than most of us. This might be what celebrity obsession is: watching and waiting for them to get all the usual things wrong, but on a monstrous scale. If we had access to the private life of God (and there’s one who had opportunities and blew it) he’d be the celebridaddy of them all.
Only two factors count: the public has an appetite for the details of public lives that are supposed to be secret, and there are vast amounts of money to be made in giving it this information. What else is there to be interested in? What else can the media do but go on giving us what we’re interested in? You can choose between helplessly watching rich, stupid folk walk into brick walls, and helplessly taking in the global suffering caused by politicians and corporations, and, of course, by our own greed. Better to be unable to do anything about something you don’t really care about. So the books keep coming. They’re still writing about Marilyn and Princess Grace: why, after only ten years, wouldn’t we be deluged with books about Diana? It’s just, you know, the way the world is.
Diana, as the first narrator of her own yarn, seemed to understand that stories have their own needs and immutable trajectories. Diana told Andrew Morton in Diana: Her True Story that she would never be queen. In 1992 I reviewed the Morton book for this paper and mocked her prediction: ‘The premonition is never quite explained. Does she think that death is beckoning, or divorce, or is she planning to become a nun?’ Well, aside from marrying Christ, that was exactly what she did think, and what, indeed, happened. In the Panorama interview of 1995, she told Martin Bashir that she believed she would die young. She wrote to her butler, in a letter to be published after her death, that there would be a nasty car crash, a head injury or something; that she would be got rid of. Diana had a respect for narrative rules that I quite lack, and narrative repaid her by enclosing her possessively in the story.
Diana Spencer, who wasn’t keen on literature, being, as she said, thick as two planks, nonetheless spent her girlhood obsessively reading the books of her step-grandmother, Barbara Cartland. But she was better than Cartland, whose books invariably ended happily for their good girl heroines after a vicissitude or two. Diana understood the more compellingly modern psychological drama of the ineluctably unhappy ending for those who acted out, and did not or could not abide by the rules. She became an avatar of modernity, stepping boldly into her role as victim (‘There were three of us in this marriage’ and overdoing the kohl under her eyes), while fully complying with the requirements of the great amorphous conspiracy that keeps society on a roughly even keel (being easily dismissible as a hysteric and failing to wear a seat belt). With a better education, she might have liked Hardy and read Foucault with interest. ‘She won’t go quietly, that’s the problem,’ Diana said to 15 million people in the Panorama interview, slipping naturally into the third person. It was more like a trailer than a warning.
Still, you wonder, is there really anything more to say? The answer is no, but Tina Brown and Sarah Bradford soldier on nevertheless. Each of them has produced hundreds of pages based on books already written (by journalists, her friends, his friends, butlers, nannies, ex-employers, protection officers, a speech trainer, lovers, paparazzi) and the odd interview with people who have already been interviewed for the books already written. They even quote one another. Certainly the material is almost identical in the two books. They consider the evidence that everyone else has considered and conclude as everyone else has concluded that there were faults on both sides and that the crash at the Pont d’Alma was a tragic accident.
Tina Brown has the social edge, however, on Sarah Bradford, the professional biographer who came to Princess Diana with her ladylike prose after books on such considerable women as the Queen, Jackie Kennedy and Lucrezia Borgia. As sometime editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, Brown had a couple of lunches with Diana (Four Seasons, Anna Wintour, a charity do). Moreover, as she lists in her seven pages of acknowledgments, she knows all (two full pages) the right people (Lord Rothschild, Henry Kissinger, Bruce Oldfield, Emma Soames), quantities (three paragraphs) of the right researchers, and even the right London hotel owner, who made ‘a room available every time I hit town’ for ‘a demanding writer with a moody computer’ in his ‘comfortable, centrally located and fashionably cool’ hotel. The full list of books ‘that have enriched this one’ takes up four pages. And, doubtless with great relief because photo booths are so often out of order, she thanks, too, ‘the gifted photographer Annie Leibovitz’, who ‘with her usual generosity insisted on taking the portrait the publisher required for my book jacket’.
In addition to all this, Brown has years of journalistic experience to draw on for her prose. It shows when she muses about Diana’s final moments after Henri Paul arrived ‘to drive her away through celebrity’s electric storm. Does she think then of her sons, asleep in a Scottish castle? As she slides quickly into the back seat of the Mercedes on that close Parisian night, does she suddenly miss the cool English rain?’ Not that Brown is exclusively high-minded and lyrical, but for salacious gossip she has to rely on the likes of Gyles Brandreth, whom she quotes quoting Barbara Cartland on the failure of the royal marriage: ‘Of course, you know where it all went wrong. She wouldn’t do oral sex.’
Brown has her own views. Diana’s timing was bad. ‘Lady Diana Spencer took her bow at the nexus of a national malaise brought about by a sclerotic social-welfarism that had lost its way and an ever hotter press competition for royal stories.’ I’m not sure whether this passing political analysis means that if Britain had had a privatised healthcare system such as the Americans rejoice in and had refused to assist the underprivileged then the tabloids would not have cared so much about the wayward princess. But Brown is clear that Diana fitted herself for a fairytale and then had nothing to wear when the emperor’s clothes vanished. All the emotional intelligence in the world won’t do if you think it’s OK to hang out with the Fayeds. If only she had gone quietly, become the landmine queen of people’s hearts, the dress-auctioning charitable divorcée, Blair’s roving ambassador of love in a really hugging, mute, big-eyed, wildly successful, mint-green, tanned sort of way. ‘I wish we could leave Diana’s story there. I wish we could leave her as I saw her that summer’s day in New York in her mint-green suit and early tan when she came for the wildly successful auction of her dresses.’ Instead, she let herself down. It wasn’t entirely her fault, Brown allows. It was a lack of love. That ‘always dragged her down’. Her mother left her, her husband left her. She argued with and stopped speaking to her mother, her sisters, her brother, her friends. She nuisance-called boyfriends who were happy to be smuggled into Kensington Palace in the boot of her car but not to leave their wealthy wives, and then she had to go and fall in love with Hasnat Khan, who just wanted to be a good cardiac surgeon and marry the girl of his mother’s dreams. She couldn’t cope with the collapse of the Cartland fantasy almost-come-true; she had the breeding but not the reading.
Finally, though, the weight of Brown’s argument seems to conclude that the descent into the tunnel was set in motion by her descent into bad taste, by being in the wrong place in the wrong season with the wrong people. Brown’s great contribution to our understanding of the tragic end of the Princess of Wales depends on her knowledge of what’s what in a world that the rest of us can only gawp at. Between her book’s gynaecologically pink covers she straightens out her downscale readers on how low Diana had sunk that night in Paris as she left the Ritz:
In August most upscale Parisians head north to Deauville for the polo and the racing or to the cool woods of their country estates in the Loire or Bordeaux … Paris’s most prestigious hotel at that time of the year is crawling with camera-toting tourists and rubber-neckers. At the end of the seasonal exit from town even the more exclusive areas of the hotel – such as its restaurant, L’Espadon – have a louche air of rootless extravagance. South American call girls with hirsute operators from emerging markets and rich old ladies with predatory nephews can be seen poring over the wine list.
Crawling, my dears. Pay attention, Tina’s talking class here, and the price a girl pays when she lets herself down.
For women over 35, glamour has three Stations of the Cross: denial, disguise and compromise. As she entered her 37th year Diana told herself she was looking for love. But what she was really seeking was a guy with a Gulfstream. Her needs at this juncture had more in common with those of second-act sirens like Elizabeth Hurley than with those of anyone currently residing in Balmoral.
Once the princess can’t feel the pea any more, not even when all but one of her mattresses have been whisked away, what is left but a dingy death in a concrete tunnel?