Friday, May 18, 2007

Where were you when Diana died?

And does it really matter?

On a Sunday morning in 1997, I was in Eton. It was still early in the morning when we triathletes were all called together, shortly before the start of a short course race. The event organizer, describing the course, asked us to be careful, and not quite matter of factly, added that Diana had been killed only hours ago in a car accident in Paris. It seemed incongruous news for the setting, or an incongruous setting for the news. I remember going back to Maidenhead after the race, hungry for news, and somehow, for company, and comfort.

That whole day we watched television, and all the major channels were dedicated to Diana. I remember feeling very resistant to the news, just as everyone else did. It wasn’t denial, but it wasn’t acceptance either. It just didn’t seem right, or feel right. How was this possible? Diana, who had been just like one of us (or that’s how I felt), got married to a prince, something I remember watching in the library of my school in central South Africa, with classmates and teachers watching the screen, for as long as the ceremony lasted.

Back in England, in Maidenhead Berkshire (which is very close to Eton) I remember watching on TV, when Diana’s coffin emerged on the tarmac of some airstrip, the announcer described awkwardly what was happening. “Her coffin is being carried over the airstrip. They’re moving it slowly forward. They’re still moving the coffin, and from here it will be loaded and taken to…”
And yet, many of us were huddled in a lounge, watching on television: the airplane lands, and a coffin is carried slowly towards a waiting vehicle.

Of course, plenty had happened before that. The Queen and the Royal family were in Balmoral, lying low, or hiding out, but apparently doing everything (including hunting) and seemingly pretending that their daughter in law had never been their daughter. Tony Blair understood the ethos, but it didn’t seem enough. Prince Charles had gone to Paris, but only after some hesitation (at first the Royal jet was not going to be provided) which presented the first of a can of worms the Royal Family were unknowingly presenting to the press.

Angry crowds wanted to know where the queen was. They wanted some token, some gesture of sympathy. None was given for a number of days. At a church service the same day Diana had died, as per instructions of the Queen, Diana was not even mentioned.

People gathered in front of an empty Buckingham Palace for several days, and Tony Blair pleaded that the Queen cut short their trip and return to London as soon as possible. But she did not return. Soon people pointed to the bare flagpole at Buckingham Palace. Why no flag at half mast? In fact, Royal tradition decreed that flags demonstrated whether the Royals were in residence or not. The people didn’t care. They wanted a flag at half mast. After some considerable delay, the Royals yielded to intense public pressure, and incredible tabloid scrutiny.

At times one did sense hysteria. It reminded me of religious fanaticism. But it is nevertheless real, and based on a feeling or a belief. It was at times strange to see vivid displays of grief, other times consoling, to see huge crowds of people, mostly silent, looking sadly, almost hopefully at piles of flowers, at the tall gates guarding palaces. One evening I also went. I also wanted to just show some token of what I was feeling. I went at dusk, and bought some flowers on my way to Kensington Palace. There was something humble about the gesture. People were demonstrating their humanity to a fellow human being that we all identified with, and as a result, we also showed and shared our common humanity. I remember walking to Kensington Palace, and seeing the candles, and seeing messages left by children and grandmothers. People, families, couples, bent down to look at the messages. I remember the trees that almost seemed to have their arms around us in the candlelight. But most of all, when I left, a breeze lifted and suddenly the thin, deep, purply scent of thousands of roses pushed deep into my nose. That evening I celebrated a calm, but probably the most elegant and dignified, expression of grief with hundreds of others, for a life lost. And that is very special.

I don’t remember if I wrote in the books that were placed for people to sign. I remember initially thinking it was absurd, for me, since I had never met her. I can’t remember if I did write something. If I did, perhaps it was: “We’ll miss you Diana.”

What made the Royal family’s response, or lack of, so particularly poignant and even troubling, was that people suspected that not only did they not care about Diana, but they were wrong to not care, and even worse, wrong to dislike her. In the movie The Queen this is not acknowledged directly. The Queen makes the excuse in the movie that she was following protocol. But I doubt whether in the privacy of her bathroom, or alone in a Scottish field, she had any genuine sense of regretting Diana’s death. I think Diana was resented to the point of being loathed by the Royals, and this was exposed.

Prince Charles came across fairly positively. So did Tony Blair. But in the end, it was Diana’s brother who said what everyone was feeling. He expressed his unhappiness with the press, he conveyed Diana’s own struggles to find love and happiness. And he became a little choked up towards the end in Westminster Abbey. Following his speech, there was a worldwide sigh of relief. Not relief in the convention sense, but a sort of relieving of tension, the tension of grief and feelings having been somewhat resolved. People outside, masses of them who were watching on specially mounted screens, applauded. So did celebrities present that included Spielberg and Tom Cruise. The Royals of course, did not applaud, but probably felt worse afterward for not at least seeming to care what with the entire world apparently doing so.

I had a dream once, while Diana was still alive. I woke up and was stunned that I had had a dream, such a familiar dream, about someone I had obviously never met. In the dream I was at a social event and I merely commented on something, and Diana turned slightly, looked at me, responded, and there was a brief, probably quite ordinary exchange. But in the moment, in the dream, there was an incredible sense of connection. With her, yes, but also, somehow, with the whole human condition. That’s what I think we all felt she represented, and that’s why her life (and death) mattered so much. Diana seemed to demonstrate every level of the human being. The celebrity, the princess, the excluded, the cornered, the victim, the fighter, the broken, and somehow, once again, the princess.

Elton John’s song, Candle in the wind, still evokes Diana like nothing else. What I experienced in England during those few days, and weeks, was something of what I think it feels like when a person somehow becomes more than a person. People wanted to erect statues and monuments. Some of us felt it was absurd, and yet we felt compelled to pay tribute somehow to her. It’s when individuals have had this sort of profound impact on people in the past that they struggled to convey this magic, and so they wrote stories. They become almost mythical. Jeanne d’Arc was probably similar, and we will probably see the same thing with Nelson Mandela. What we need to remember is to celebrate and care for these people just as much, and each other, while we’re still alive.

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