Do you remember where you were 10 years ago, on 31 August 1997, on the day that Princess Diana died? I do. I was in Kolkata and my then employer, Aveek Sarkar, phoned to give me the news.
I rushed to office and we struggled with the obituaries for the next day’s edition of The Telegraph, seeking to assess her life and measure her impact. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but I have a horrible feeling that I got everything completely wrong.
For a start, I was unduly sympathetic to Diana, as one tends to be when speaking of the recently deceased. Thus, I seem to remember saying that the tragedy would have the effect of making Brits feel better about their royal family.
What I did not expect was the universal outpouring of grief that followed her death. I had never dreamt that millions of people would weep in the streets or that she would be treated as a modern saint, a sort of royal Mother Teresa.
Nor did the sudden death of the Princess cause Brits to feel warmly towards the royal family. In fact, the royals were held responsible for Diana’s last lonely years and the Queen was berated for not allowing the royal standard to fly at half-mast from Buckingham Palace.
But, reading the books that have appeared about Diana in the decade since her death (including Tina Brown’s much-hyped The Diana Chronicles, which has just hit the stands), I was struck by how much things have changed since those anguished weeks following Diana’s death. The royal family, which was massively unpopular in 1997, has recovered much of its old standing. Prince Charles, once regarded as a lunatic who talked to rose bushes, is now seen as a visionary who drew attention to such causes as organic farming, global warming and environmental degradation long before they became trendy. Camilla Parker-Bowles, treated as the Wicked Witch of the West by the media in 1997, is now Charles’ wife and will probably be Queen.
And Diana’s image has suffered blow after blow as revelations have kept tumbling out. Take her status as the wronged wife. This was based on two bits of evidence. The first was the Andrew Morton book (Diana–Her True Story), which the Princess denied having had anything to do with. And the second was the Panorama interview (“there were three of us in this marriage…”).
As Morton has now revealed, Diana had actively cooperated with him, going so far as to correct page proofs. When the Queen visited India, after Diana’s death, I found myself sitting next to her press secretary at an official banquet. He had been attached to the Prince and Princess of Wales when the Morton book came out, he said, and he had seen and heard the Princess’ denials with his own eyes and ears. He was still shocked, he said, at how convincingly she had lied to all of them about her lack of involvement in the book; he himself had been taken in by her tears and protestations.
The Panorama interview was all about the manner in which Charles had betrayed her. But, as she admitted in the same interview, she had not been faithful either. There was a long affair with James Hewitt (who may or may not be the father of Prince Harry; certainly, Harry looks a lot like Hewitt); the relationship with James Gilbey (who called her Squidgy in that famous taped phone call); a possible affair with Barry Mannakee, her security man; and then, scores of affairs that occurred during the years when the marriage had broken down but before the Wales’ were divorced (Will Carling, Oliver Hoare, Husnat Khan, Ted Forstmann, Dodi Fayed, etc).
In none of these affairs did Diana come off well. Hewitt was your archetypal stud (according to the Tina Brown book, he taught her how to enjoy sex) who sold his story when she dropped him; Diana stalked Hoare with ghost calls till his wife complained to the police; Will Carling was seduced by the Princess and his marriage broke up as a consequence; and Dodi was a coke-snorting waster.
Nor does the attack on the “invasive tabloid press”, which became a standard feature of the Diana obituaries, stand up in the light of what we now know. She made the details of her marriage public by cooperating with Morton and she routinely called up tabloid hacks to offer tit-bits about her private life. Worse, says Tina Brown, she shopped her friend, the Duchess of York (Fergie), by revealing details of her affairs to the press (including the location of the secret European hideaway where the Duchess had gone with Johnny Bryant when the famous toe-job photos were taken).
The Diana that emerges from the new books is a spoilt, selfish, manipulative woman who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, but had the gift of being able to reach out to people who did not know her well (AIDS victims, fans, landmine activists, etc.) and a star quality that transcended her royal status. As Brown points out, the stupidity that Diana joked about (“I’m thick as two short planks”) did not detract from her cunning (an early school report described her as the most scheming child in the class), but it ensured that she remained a short-term tactician rather than a long-term strategist.
In her last few months on earth, even the tabloid press had turned on her; her children were angry and alienated; and she had became a charter member of Eurotrash, dependent on shady millionaires to host her on their yachts and fly her on their private jets.
It is instructive that a decade after that fatal accident, there are few fulsome tributes and even Elton John does not sing that crap version of Candle in the Wind that he performed at the funeral (he sings the original about Marilyn Monroe).
There are parallels with Jackie Kennedy. But while Jackie left behind a legacy of sorts with her publishing career, Diana left behind nothing of note. All we have to remember her by is a show window at Harrods where the appalling Mohammad Fayed displays the ring that he claims would have been Dodi’s engagement present to her.
It is typical of both Diana and Fayed that this ring, meant to mark a bogus engagement that never was, is entirely different from the ring that Fayed first described as the engagement ring purchased by Dodi.
Like the Diana legend, even the trinkets are fake.
(Write to Vir at email@example.com)