Ed#441 The Princess Died

13 September 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#441 The Princess Died

In February 1981 I was a traveller in Spain. Out of touch with whatever was going on, I bought a newspaper – the International Herald Tribune. There were two stories on its front page that made an impression. The first described a bizarre attempted coup in Madrid: members of a paramilitary group had stormed the Spanish parliament and taken hostage several hundred MPs. Hang on, I thought, I’m in Madrid. Suddenly I had an explanation for the tension I’d sensed in the streets and the urgent conversations I couldn’t understand. My ignorance was embarrassing. The second story, from the UK, was very different: Prince Charles, 32, was to marry Lady Diana Spencer, 19. At the time, the Spanish story seemed more significant. But it faded quickly: the ‘coup’ fizzled and became a political footnote. The Diana story, however, was only just beginning. Now, more than 30 years on, it is still going. Her death, in August 1997, was not an endpoint, just the start of a whole new chapter.

I remember her death, of course. We all do. I was in New York – somewhat incongruously covering the US Open tennis tournament. The first anyone knew were brief reports filtering into the press centre about a car accident; the princess, 36, had been injured. This was clearly a story for my colleagues in Europe. Only when Diana’s death was announced did my phone start ringing. I filed a report about the US reaction and the vexed relationship between the media and celebrities, largely so I would not seem like the only correspondent with nothing to say. And then I became a spectator like everyone else. Watching, from afar, the extraordinary scenes of grief in Britain; then the funeral; the inquests; the refusal to let her be. Just recently, when her oldest son became a father the old footage was played again: Charles and Diana, not quite 21, emerging from the same hospital with baby William in June 1982. Kate, the new princess, had her clothes and gestures and words analysed, just as had happened with Diana.

It’s an endless cycle in the royal world. This becomes clear if you read Hilary Mantel’s two wonderful novels about the court intrigue surrounding King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. These are modern stories; her theme is not so much history as politics. The attention paid to Anne Boleyn in the 16th century, all the conjecture and rumours, is similar to what Diana endured four centuries later. In a speech Mantel made last February, which became briefly controversial when some comments about Kate were reported out of context, she said: “Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation.” In terms of royal reporting, Mantel continued, “a new world began, I think, in 1980, with the discovery that Diana, the future Princess of Wales, had legs… When it was first known that she was Charles’s choice of bride, the press photographed her [at a kindergarten], infants touchingly gathered around; but they induced her to stand against the light, so in the resulting photograph the nation could see straight through her skirt. A sort of licentiousness took hold, a national lip-smacking. Those gangling limbs were artlessly exposed, without her permission. It was the first violation.”

There would be many more. A new movie, harshly reviewed, will spark more debate and discussion. Lost somewhere is the woman whose tragedy, Mantel concluded, “was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfil”.