The photograph above is one that I took of the funeral procession for Diana Princess of Wales in 1997. Although I had moved to Dubai the previous year I was in London on business and a spot of leave at the time of the funeral. Ann was with me.
I am a firm Republican who would abolish the monarchy. I am the last person to wave a flag when a Royal goes by. I am also not a “Celeb” freak – I’ve never read let alone bought “Hello” magazine. So what was I doing in Hyde Park for Diana’s funeral and even laying flowers among the hundreds of thousands of other bunches?
I have just watched the “People” magazine documentary about Diana on Netflix – it’s a bit gushing but it pretty much gets the story right. Roll back seventeen years from 1997 to 1980 when on my first overseas assignment at the age of 33 I moved to The Netherlands. The house we were lucky enough to rent backed onto the Rhine Schiekanaal in the lovely town of Leiden. Our Dutch neighbour told us that the best way to see our part of Holland was from the water – the rivers, canals and lakes. We should get a boat, ideally a small motor cruiser. We did! But what should we call her ? Well a few months earlier in 1981 Lady Diana Spencer had got engaged to the Prince of Wales. So we called our boat “Lady Di”. This was all a bit weird but that summer, before and after Lady Di’s wedding at the end of July, we cruised along the waterways flying the Red Ensign and with the boat’s name prominently visible. “Lady Di” people shouted when we went by, and waved.
Over our years in The Netherlands, Scotland, Hong Kong, London and Dubai we watched the Royal marriage story play out. We saw the two of them in Sydney for the Aussie bicentennial. Even for the anti-Royal like me it was fascinating – part soap opera, part comedy, part farce, part tragedy. The Netflix documentary covers it very well with interviews with many of the observers of or participants in the events of twenty or thirty years ago. It is in fact only in part a “Royal” story at all. Yes the key players are the Royal Family – especially Charles. But as you can also see in “The Crown” Diana was never really one of them.
Diana was a reluctant Royal, maybe not initially but it didn’t take long. She matured rapidly from the shy schoolgirl to the canny, charismatic Icon she became. I can think of no parallel in any sphere of life in my lifetime (maybe Jackie Kennedy, briefly). Fame, so sudden, blossomed rather than withered her and enhanced her infinite variety. She took to it in a quite different way to (say) the conventional, dull and dutiful Kate who was to marry her elder son.
Diana was anything but dull and dutiful. As soon it started to be clear that the Charles/Diana marriage was an unmitigated disaster she was empowered to be herself not a Kate-like appendage. “Jackie O” had done the same when, similarly alone, she had needed to find herself. Applying a blame judgment when a marriage breaks down is rarely fair – there is always fault on both sides. But with Charles and Diana you have to blame the Prince not the Princess. He had an arrogant, anachronistic and rather misogynistic belief that he could do what he liked and his spouse would turn a blind eye. He did, Diana didn’t.
The story of Diana as well-told in the Netflix documentary is unique and uniquely fascinating. Watching it I had no sense of voyeurism. This is because Diana really did relate to people and people responded to this – even cynics like me. The universally loved People’s Princess (Aargh – but she was). There was no snobbery about Diana though she was, as the daughter of an Earl, hardly a commoner. But she had the common touch – a rare social intelligence almost entirely absent from her husband and her mother-in-law. The Queen initially staying aloof in Balmoral after Diana’s death goofed big time. Tony Blair rescued her – though this is unmentioned in the documentary for some reason.
Charisma is hard to define and genuine rather than confected charisma rather rare . In my lifetime Sinatra, Garland, Monroe, Mohammed Ali, Mandela, Obama. You’ve either got or you haven’t got style – they all had it. Diana had rather more.