I’m not a novelist (or a Royalist or, God save us, both) but I’m somewhat surprised there seems to be no new fiction recording or reflecting on the extraordinary events of late August/early September 1997. Yes, there was something dramatic happening with a Mercedes and a gilded couple in a tunnel in Paris, but I’ll be honest, at the time I was far more captivated by the death of 122-year-old Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the oldest living person (still holding the record, 20 years on) who, at the age of 13, had met Vincent Van Gogh in a sweet shop and had (rightly) considered him an ugly drunk. I expect that in 100 years someone who once resided in Prestwich, Manchester, and had the misfortune of meeting Mark E.Smith in a local pub, may have the same opinion.
Poor Jeanne’s demise was always going to be trumped by the death of the Papers’ Princess. Funny how the more interesting narrative is overtaken by events. I think Mother Theresa died at the same time as Diana, and the latter was buried with her Rosary. Or something. Certainly, she was not seen dead in one of those sandals.
To me, there seems a missed opportunity in a novel set in the short time between Diana’s death and its public announcement. The hours (minutes, possibly) before the UK turned from a bastion of queue-tolerating, potato-rootling, umbrella-manufacturing nuggety stoicism into a flood of blubbering self-pity of Dambuster proportions. Because it really was that dramatic. At the time, I was working for the Portsmouth News, a paper best described as one ‘of record’ that rarely, if ever, ventured into celebrity car-crash stuff, metaphorical or otherwise. Yet, as I diligently carried out local newshounding amid the madness of that week I heard the words, ‘You lot killed Diana’ hurled several times in my direction.
‘Not me,’ I’d attempt to explain, ‘I was at a meeting of Emsworth Parish Council, listening to a three-hour debate on road-roar along the A27. I didn’t do it.”
Sadly, my pleas went unheeded and within days, I too was checking Books of Condolence and counting the average fall of tears within the south Hampshire catchment area. Someone from the paper (a features writer) was sent to The Funeral, and forever after, any piece by him was mockingly entitled by the News’s sub-editors as ‘The old man shuffled forwards…..’ referencing his fawning opening line about Earl Spencer from that sad Saturday in Westminster Abbey.
For whatever reason (and there are always more than one – truly, you could put the blame equally on a range of characters including Noel Gallagher, JK Rowling and Tony Blair, all active during that very odd, hot summer) Britain was never the same again. I didn’t watch the funeral for one reason – a fear of being contaminated by planet-threatening levels of nasal discharge. Instead, I went for a long walk and thought about donkeys. Don’t ask me why; it’s a long time ago now. But I think I made the right call.
Twenty years on, only the film ‘The Queen’ has addressed this tectonic shift in British social history. In 2017, wouldn’t we, couldn’t we have expected a ‘Midnight’s Children’ or a ‘Saturday’ equivalent? This strange hinterland of experience, shared (and shaped) by millions, seems to have been hijacked by the ‘Oh, wasn’t She lovely, though?’ beige brigade, who see no further than the most simplistic narrative. Let’s not forget, there were bigger issues going on at the time which even She acknowledged and supported. Do we care much about those now? Or are they seen as some kind of Legacy thing, frozen in time in the prism of Princessly perfection ,like no Disney film could ever quite capture?
I guess there’s occasion for more anniversaries. 25 years, 30 years, 40, 50, ad infinitum, until either Us stop caring about Them or Prince George is seen riding the streets of London on a bicycle, smoking legal weed on his way to work at Subway. And no-one knows or cares. Maybe that would be the best legacy of all.