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Cut off mid-stride

August 31, 2017

It was twenty years ago today. My partner Mike and I were at the tail end of our summer break on the island where we had a second home.  In two days we would be heading back to Vancouver, him to start the new term teaching at the University of British Columbia, me to get back to mischief at the Greenpeace office. We’d been for our favourite walk on the island. When we came home I put the radio on while I was making dinner. And I heard the announcement: Princess Diana had been involved in a car crash in Paris.

Bloody hell. I told Mike and we turned on the news to see what else was known. A frustrating half hour of watching CNN waffling about all the things they didn’t know and speculating about what might have been. Then I switched over to the reasonably new CBC news network. Relief. There were simply showing the BBC news feed. They didn’t know much either, but at least they weren’t speculating. By that time it was known that the driver and Diana’s companion Dodi Fayed had died at the scene, but she was still undergoing surgery. Unusually, we kept the telly on during dinner. That was when they announced that Diana had died. We turned the television off, finished dinner.

What a shame, I said to Mike. What a stupid bloody waste.

In February 1981 I was working as a feature writer for a magazine in London. When the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer was announced, I was assigned the job of writing a story about her. There was no chance of getting an interview and there was no internet in those days. Writing a story about Diana involved going to the vault (the archives) and signing out the bulging file of every cutting about her from every paper written since she’d first surfaced as possible contender for the role of Princess of Wales. It was a thick and highly sought after file. (There were dozens of other magazines in the building.) The file disappeared from my desk when I was in the pub at lunch time. Fortunately the bloke in the vault remembered telling someone from one of the women’s mags that I had the file. I marched into her office and retrieved it.

A not very fully formed picture emerged from the file of a not very fully formed teenager who’d failed her O-levels and was working as an assistant at a posh pre-school. The best thing that could be said of her was that she was clearly the virgin required for a future queen. The worst thing that could be said seemed to be that she bit her nails. I wrote the story and moved on to something more interesting.

A few weeks after Diana’s twentieth birthday everyone in the country was given a mid-week day off to watch her wedding to Prince Charles and organise celebratory street parties. (There were indeed hundreds of these across the country.) Some people I knew took the ferry over to France for the day to avoid the whole thing. I didn’t. I invited some friends over to the flat. We sipped bubbly whilst watching the ceremony. (Oops, she got his name wrong. Does that mean they aren’t really married?) Then we went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Then we went to the pub. Not a bad summertime Wednesday. (Or was it Thursday?)

I then lost all interest in the Princess of Wales. Although I do remember Buckingham Palace informing the press that the official title by which Diana should be referred was Princess Charles of Wales and the press as one telling Buck House to get stuffed. As far as they were concerned she was and would always be Princess Diana – or, for the red tops, Di.

Losing interest didn’t mean I could be ignorant of her doings. The poor girl just needed to sneeze to be on the cover of the next day’s tabloids.

I did enjoy seeing how pissed off Charles was (he really couldn’t hide it) that his young wife was wildly more popular than he was. And I did smile when ginger Harry was introduced to the world, growing to look more and more like James Hewitt every day. (Officially, Diana did not start her affair with Hewitt until after Harry was born. Or so they say.)

The first time since her appearance on the world stage that Diana actually interested me was in April 1987 when she opened the country’s first medical facility designed to treat people with HIV/AIDS. At that time the attitude of most of the public towards the disease, fueled by a rabid tabloid press, was fear and fury. At that time the disease was a death sentence. Indeed, a very dear friend of mine had succumbed to it in 1986. Diana walked into that facility and talked to the skeletal patients. And she shook their hands. Without gloves! as the press was keen to report. Almost overnight the attitude towards AIDS changed around the world.

As far as I was concerned, if Diana Spencer had been placed on the planet to do only this one thing, she had just justified her entire existence.

Moving to Vancouver in 1990 offered no respite from the war of the Windsors. As I discovered, despite no longer being a colony, the Canadian media slavishly devoted as much air time and as many column inches to Diana as the UK press.

I did revise the opinion I’d formed whilst writing that engagement profile years before. I’d thought at the time that she wasn’t particularly bright. She may not have been a genius intellectually, but she was certainly a PR genius, running rings around the House of Windsor from the separation through the divorce.

And that’s when she suddenly became fully formed. Freed of royal constraints, she put her celebrity to extraordinarily good use, championing causes she could never have touched as a Royal.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines may have worked tirelessly for years to end the devastation caused by landmines, but it was this image that finally gave momentum for the international ban.

Diana, Princess of Wales, walks in one of the safety corridors of the land mine field of Huambo, Jan..

In June 1997, when she was the keynote speaker at an anti-landmine conference, Diana was a woman just hitting her stride. Yes, she was a pampered clotheshorse, chased by the press and paparazzi wherever she went, but she’d made a decision to use the media’s interest in her to focus their attention on the issues she championed.

If Diana had still been alive when the Nobel Committee (which never makes posthumous awards), she would have been included in the 1997 Peace Prize. (God, can you imagine how much that would have pissed off the Royal Family?) Instead, two and a half months after making that speech, she was dead.

A car accident, twenty years ago today. So banal.

What a stupid bloody waste.

I said that when I heard the news and I still think the same. Perhaps that’s why I’ve astonished myself by watching all the twentieth anniversary tributes to Diana that have aired in recent weeks. A last glimpse of that woman hitting her stride.

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