I am not, and never have been a Royalist. The last Royal Event I remember actually watching was the TV highlights of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, in 1969, when I was only 13. By the time of the next one, Anne’s wedding in 1973, I was at University and ignored the whole thing completely.
When it came to Chas and Di, I took the day off like the rest of the country, but I didn’t watch the wedding, I went into Manchester, which wasn’t much cop as everywhere was shut for, yes of course, the Wedding. She was pretty fanciable, especially that shot where they got her legs silhouetted in that skirt, and in the evening, I joined a mate at one of the many parties going on: sausage barms galore.
But I was already put off by the New Sycophancy, as I termed it. The Royal Engagement gave a massive boost to the Monarchy, which had me looking at it askance. He and especially she was everywhere, and though millions worshipped her every appearance, I was one of those who didn’t think she was that attractive that she should be everywhere I turned. I had my own list of ladies who I’d much rather have seen floating around my vision that frequently.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, it’s twenty years now, this month, and in today’s Guardian there’s a big, frequently glutinous piece by Zoe Williams that I can’t quite class as Crap Journalism because there is a degree of truth to it, but it’s going on and on about how she irrevocably changed the world, or at least this country, and how we all loved her, which has undergone a pretty near 95% level of challenge BTL.
And I remember that week, because I was there, I lived through it, feeling alienated from practically the entire country, and I think the opposing viewpoint to all the gush needs representing.
By August 1997, pretty much everybody had done with Diana, except for the Press, who would print anything they could attach a photo to. She’d taken up with Mohammed Fayad’s son, she was racketing around Europe, the Princes were back in England. She needed something to revive her brand. Death’s very effective for artists and musicians.
On Sunday, I came downstairs mid-morning, having indulged myself with a long lie-in. I’d left the firm I loathed by this point, was working for myself as part of a small, two-partner firm, but I don’t think I’d opened my office as yet, so I had no plans to go in to catch up on work. Sainsburys for shopping was about the limit of my intentions.
After making myself a coffee, still in my dressing gown, I sat down in the lounge and out the TV on, just to see what was on. I can’t remember whether I switched on ITV or BBC, but there was a quiet atmosphere, and an empty podium: somebody was expected to say something. It was Sunday: I’d probably caught the tail end of the religious programmes. I changed the channel, to BBC or ITV, took another swig of coffee, and looked up in puzzlement, because the picture was the same. I flicked backwards and forwards but both mainstream channels were broadcasting exactly the same thing. Some shit had obviously gone down.
By chance – I won’t call it luck – I had switched on only a couple of minutes before Blair read his People’s Princess speech. I watched it all. That’s when I found out. My only reaction was curiosity. Elsewhere, my future wife was watching the same footage: her first thought was that the Royal Family had got her.
All I thought was, I was sorry for her, dying so young, and as someone who had lost their own father at a very young age, I empathised with her sons, losing their mother so young. Poor buggers. I couldn’t wish that on anyone.
But as for her, well, shame but, and it’s hard to avoid using the words ‘so what?’ She meant nothing to me, either way, and I wasn’t that interested, outside of prurience, in the detals then available. I watched to the end of Blair’s speech, emotional and awkward, but no more than half an hour after that. Every channel was still taken over with the same thing by that point, and I drifted off to get dressed and do something more interesting.
I stayed away from the TV for most of the day: I could see quite clearly how it was shaping up. But I wasn’t prepared for the week that followed.
It’s true to say that that week changed the country, and I’m not in the least convinced it was for the better. There was a tone of what I could only describe as hysteria, that I kept well away from. When it came to the media, TV, radio, the press, it was simple. I didn’t watch news programmes, I only read the Guardian, which didn’t go overboard to the same degree that the headlines in the tabloids indicated, but still featured the story every single bloody day. I watched from the outside, as a Republican to whom anything relating to the Royal Family was alien and alienating.
I don’t even remember having any extreme feelings about the country’s seeming reaction. I couldn’t share it and I couldn’t understand it, but people were genuinely grieving, and I didn’t go anywhere near that. Their feelings, wherever they came from, were genuine and I didn’t feel it was my place to intrude on them. Grief is personal.
The first point at which I began to feel that things were going utterly too far was on the Thursday before the funeral. There’d been talk about Elton John possibly re-writing ‘Candle in the Wind’ (which, once upon a time, had been my favourite of his songs), and no it was confirmed and the lyrics were on the front page of the Guardian. I didn’t get more than halfway down the second verse before recoiling in disgust at the glutinous sycophancy of it. I read no more, and swore to myself that I would never listen to the song.
I think perhaps the only person I spoke to that week who shared any of the public grief was my younger sister, who has always been for more conventional than I in her tastes and opinions. There was certainly no sympathy at Droylsden FC, where I was then involved. We were more concerned with the fact that our weekend fixtures had been postponed en masse, because of the funeral.
That was the thing about that day: it didn’t matter what proportion of the country genuinely mourned Princess Diana, whether honestly or hysterically, all the rest of us were roped in. Everything we could have done instead was taken away from us, as if the evidence of our enjoying our ordinary lives was an insult to the rest of the population.
I don’t suppose anyone knows how many there were of each opinion, whether the majority prevailed, or whether they were oppressed into silence. I’d rather have gone to a match on Saturday and so would everyone else about the club, and I don’t for one moment believe we were unique.
The assumption was made, and we were smothered by it. Years later, the presence of a million people on the streets for the funeral procession of the Queen Mother was held up as evidence that Republicanism would never take hold in this country, but nobody seemed to take account of the plain statistic that for every one person out there mourning, there were sixty who weren’t. What the Press, what the mournful wanted to see, they saw and they validated themselves. No-one will ever know how many, like me, were cowed, or fearful, or just plain keeping out of the way in bafflement.
So Saturday came. I had no interest in the funeral, and I had already decided that thee best thing to do was to stay in most of the day. Though I didn’t usually bother, I closed the curtains, isolating myself from the outside world. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I couldn’t even have begun to pretend to share in the majority’s reactions, I would have said something, more than once, or asked that question that dared not be asked that day, which was, “Why?”, and so I acted with decency according to my lights and kept myself away from people whose emotions were engaged.
It was an odd experience. I was no stranger to occasional days spent holed up hermit-like in my house, but these were always lazy Sundays. Saturday were for activity: the match, an long drives every other weekend, or trips into Manchester, to Forbidden Planet, the HMV Shop, Waterstones. With the curtains closed, in August, and the sunshine cool through them, it was a most curious sensation. I was out of time, out of the timestream, forced out.
The following morning, when the Observer was delivered, I did read about the funeral. I hadn’t intended to, but my eye was caught by the report of the Earl of Spencer’s speech. Reading it, and reading the discomfort it had caused, I was almost tempted to wish I’d watched the proceedings just to see this. It was being billed as a nation-changing moment, that by itself would change the way in which we saw the Royal Family, but that of course was bollocks. It made not a blind bit of difference.
Once Monday came round again, thing went back to normal, except for all the crap in the papers, and in the Guardian about how the unloosing of the stiff upper lip had changed Britain and how we’d be so much better for it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dave (Cerebus) Sim, and his infamous argument about the battle between Reason and Emotion, which has its points if it weren’t for his insistence on defining it in strict gender terms. As the overwhelming majority of articles welcoming developments as making the country a better place to be were and still are written by women, the whole Princess Di bit has to be admitted as evidence in favour of his case, much as I’d rather not.
Twenty years has elapsed, and I’ve sneered many a time at the continuing obsession certain sectors of the press still has with the woman they were hounding and execrating and exploiting almost up to the point where the car entered that tunnel mouth. A conspiracy industry has grown up on the back of that drive almost equal to those surrounding JFK and Jack the Ripper, but though I love a good conspiracy theory without ever actually believing in them, I have never ever been the least bit interested in reading about this one.
As for Elton John, well. Inevitably, the revised version of the song came out as a single. It was released in midweek, a Thursday, when the charts still first appeared on Radio One on Sunday night. I was out that Saturday morning, at the famous Sifters, beloved of the recently famous Gallagher Brothers. Sifters was a cheerful pile-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap second hand record shop, with a sideline in the top 40 singles. During the hour I was there, no two minutes passed without someone coming to the counter or calling on the phone to ask for the Elton John ‘Candle in the Wind’ single. It came as no surprise to see it at Number One on Sunday night, nor that it is still the best selling single in this country.
I’ve never heard it. That may surprise you, but even after twenty years, I have escaped listening to it. I evaded it on the radio, I avoided it in public, except once, in Old Trafford, waiting for kick-off, when it was blared out over the stadium PA, and I found that even sticking my fingers in my eras until they nearly met in the middle could not totally block the sound out and I had to hum, loudly, to myself: la-la-la, can’t hear you.
And it’s destroyed my love for the original, too. The association is too direct.
So there it is: my experience of the country-changing experience. I’m not sure what the point was of writing this unless it’s to evidence that the death of Princess Diana twenty years ago did change this country, but not as those who control the press and feed off the hysteria claim.
What it did was to turn us into two countries, although only one of these is allowed a voice, that treats its opinions as universal when there is no such thing. Perhaps we can remember that when journalists tell us what we ‘all’ think.