Random Play by Graham Reid

39

Diana of Wails: The Princess and Me

When I saw all the stories being written about the impending 10th anniversary of the death of Diana Princess of Wales I vowed I would not trouble people with anecdotes about when she imposed herself on my meagre life. So here goes . . .

I shall start at the end because it makes better sense that way: the night of her funeral.
Like many I was curious because I had seen what had happened in the previous days in Britain, so sat in front of the telly to watch the pomp and pageantry unfold.

Suddenly there was the most godawful noise outside, the sound of metal on tarmac, the whine of brakes, and then silence.
My then-partner and I ran out into our quiet suburban street and there, 100 metres away on Pt Chev Road was a mangle of motorcycle. We sprinted down and found an old fellow -- maybe in his late 60s/early 70s -- staggering around bewildered.

We settled him down, arranged for a neighbour to call an ambulance, and when it arrived we reassured him we’d look after his bike and call his family.

Another neighbour and I manfully grappled with the old boy’s monster machine and alternately pushed, dragged and wheezed our way up the road with it. The damn brakes had locked and thing seemed to weigh a literal ton.

We put it on the front lawn (good luck to anyone who tried to nick it) and called his family. By that time Elton had sung Candle in the Wind.

But I remember thinking as we watched the rest of that whole bizarre ceremony roll on an old saying, the converse of which was also true: Even in the midst of death, there is life.

And on that night when people were so preoccupied with death it was salutary to remember that life not only went on, but it sometimes needed to be taken care of.

The first time I fully registered the social impact of this woman was when I was in London in November 95 at the launch of the Beatles’ Anthology series. I was there also to hear for the first time their “new single” Free As A Bird with John Lennon phoned in from beyond the grave . . . talk about even in the midst of life/death!

It was an interesting event in the Savoy Hotel -- the 350-strong media ushered into a ballroom through a back door -- and conducted with all the security of Middle East peace talks. I was the only Kiwi journalist -- I had been invited and scarfed up a free return airfare through the good offices of Air New Zealand -- and it was kinda fun being in the same room as a bunch of cynical hacks from Fleet Street, Wapping Wall or where ever they had come from.

No actual living Beatles -- of which there were three to choose from -- turned up but it was nice to shake hands with Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin, and to eyeball the reclusive press officer Neil Aspinall before he typically did a flit and walked off into busy London streets, an anonymous figure with his flat cap pulled down and scarf wound around his neck.

Jeff Lynne who had produced this “new single” was there too, but that’s enough of him.

Anyway I went back to my hotel afterwards, wrote the feature up and faxed it back to the Herald, and then decided a hardworking journalist such as myself deserved dinner and a drink.

So I ambled into the streets of London town -- and there was no one there. Oxford St was all but deserted and there were only a couple of cabs in sight. It was as if someone had demanded all citizens stay indoors -- and in a way someone had.

I found an Irish pub -- equally bereft of life -- and the answer to my puzzlement was on the small screen: it was the night that the Princess did her big Martin Bashir interview and became, overnight, the “queen of hearts” -- or whatever the phrase was.

I had the bangers and mash incidentally, and they were very good.

The next morning, and in the few following days I was in London, the papers were full of Diana's show: from complete transcripts to interpretation to serious analysis to political viewpoints to satire (not much of that to be honest) and so on.

I traipsed around for a day or two and went to a couple of gigs, then flew home with a pile of these newspapers to read on the flight.

The Beatles’ event -- which EMI and Apple had planned with military precision for probably a year -- was relegated and the Princess was everywhere.
I remember reading the complete transcript and thinking what a sly and calculating person she was, and how she manipulated the medium of television to great advantage.

She was one smart cookie I decided -- all those downcast looks, tears welling up, heavy sighs and so on.

The final time she impacted on my life I will not forget.

People always ask where were you heard that JFK had died (in my case I was in bed), RFK (in bed), John Lennon (watching television), Bob Marley (umm . . .watching television) and so on.
I remember where I was when the Princess died.
I was at work.

It had been decided in the Herald that feature writers such as myself should be rostered on to work Sundays, just in case some big story broke I suppose.

There was some grumbling about this but my editor Jane reassured me that not a lot ever happened: you could just turn up around 10 or 11 and carry on working on whatever story you already had on the go, and probably pop off early.

The first -- and only -- time I worked a Sunday at the Herald was Sunday August 31, 1997.

I turned up and embarked on a leisurely stroll around the office, shuffled some papers, knocked off a story I had been tinkering with, and sat back waiting to get the nod that it was okay to go.

Jane came to me around 2pm -- this was looking good -- and asked what I knew of the Princess of Wales. I shrugged and admitted not much but said -- wag that I am -- that I was sure there was a pretty thick clipping file if a story needed to be done.

She told me the Princess had been involved in a car accident in Paris and it seemed she had been pursued by paparazzi: Could I get about 600-800 words together for tomorrow’s papers?

I went to the fat clipping file and found that famous photo of Diana sitting all alone before the Taj Mahal, and that is what I wrote about: about how that photo captured the complexity of the woman because here she was posed alone with her emotional isolation apparent -- but that she knew it was an image which would become a symbol of her estrangement from Charles.

Remembering her canny telly appearance all those years before, I said that this showed just how media savvy she was, but also how over the years she had learned, to her cost, that while she could court the media she couldn’t control it. And so on.

I mentioned the embarrassing “Suidgy tapes”, how she became the architect of her own misfortune with all those phone calls to that millionaire art dealer, how she suffered the indignity of her lover spilling the beans, how she fought back with that calculated Andrew Morton book, her affairs, bulimia, odd behaviour, the landmine campaign and so on.

I said pretty much what I thought about a woman I rarely thought about.

Jane then came back and said I might need to change the piece, that the Princess had just died.

I looked at what I had written and considered it: but the story seemed to stand much as it was so -- with one alteration -- I filed it and, to the Herald’s great credit I thought, it was published unchanged the next day.

They didn’t use my suggested heading however: Dead As A Dido.

Oh, and the change I made?

I just put it into the past tense where necessary. And that is where Diana Princess of Wales --with the exception of that night of the terrible motorcycle accident -- has remained for me.

And for you . . .?

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