It was one of those “where were you” moments. Everyone remembers them, JFK, 9–11. Different countries have their different “where were you” tragedies, India has Indira Gandhi, Pakistan- Benazir Bhutto. For the British, it’s Princess Diana.
It happened on a balmy Saturday night in August 1997, about two in the morning. Twenty of us or so, all a couple of decades shy of the wisdom we now purport to have, had set off to a nearby town for an evening of interpersonal relationships, psychedelic enquiry and contemporary music, (sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll). We’d hired a bus and a driver for the evening. After the club kicked out, at three, our band of merry revelers snaked our way through the car park to find the bus, laughing and joking as normal, ignorant of what we were soon to learn.
I don’t remember the music event at all, but I do recall I had my friend over from Rome, he just 18 at the time, and had only arrived in Britain the day before. He was about to get a “where were you” night to remember. We found our ride, and cheerily boarded. The whiff of various smokes filled the bus, as we waited for everyone to come back. Then the driver, an ex-military type, gruffly cut across the mirth, with his angry Scottish brogue.
“Have some fuckin’ respect will ye? Diana, Princess of Wales has been killed the night.”
We were shocked, laughed, didn’t believe him. However, as he insisted on playing the radio news all the way home, instead of our requested music, we then knew it was true. A high-speed car accident in a Paris tunnel. News was scant at this point.
As night became day, more details were meanly paid out. The fuzzy mystery that often accompanies national shock. A 100 mile an hour car chase with the paparazzi in pursuit. What stayed in my mind as the tale unfurled, was a photo I’d seen of the ill-fated Princess taken only days before.
In the photo, she is sitting on the diving board of her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayad’s superyacht, The Jonikal. It’s a shot taken through a telephoto lens; Diana looks back at an unknown person beyond the frame. Even from this distance she wears her usual wistful solitary look. Tanned and wearing a one-piece turquoise bathing suit, her feet dangle off the edge of the board. Poor Princess Diana, alone, the victim again, “hiding out” with a billionaire off the cost of Portofino, Italy.
As a recap if you do not remember, Diana had married the stuffy Prince Charles, who will be King of Britain when our current Queen dies. They had married in 1980 as I recall. He, the heir to the British Crown, and she, when she was plain “Lady Diana Spencer”, of the Shand Kydd family, had the bluest and oldest of bloods running through her privileged veins. A commoner she was not.
But it was not a love match. Charles’ persistent and proactive infatuation with (now current wife), Camilla Parker Bowles, a bluestocking polo fan, led to the entropy of his marriage with Diana. If, as many women do, Diana thought she could change her man, she could not have chosen more poorly. She bore him an heir and a spare and got the hell out of there.
Having separated from Charles, she attempted to cast herself in the role of a saint. Charity work makes great PR for the old money rich. Shaking the hands of AIDS victims in an African Hospital. Great “optics” as they call it now. Diana had a keen sense of imagery. She literally walked through a mine field for her African land mines charity. Having split from Charles, and after a fling or two, she had taken up with Dodi Al Fayed. This was another mine field, but this time she trod less carefully.
Dodi was son of a controversial, and somewhat shady Egyptian tycoon father, Mohammad Al Fayed. Al Fayed senior was the owner of one of “Di’s” favorite London department stores, the timelessly posh Harrod’s. Dodi was also, unashamedly, a nouveau riche playboy, and, allegedly to the disgust of the British security service MI5, he was a Muslim. Conspiracy theories as to the cause of their early deaths, even included government sanctioned murder, on the orders of the Queen.
The photo on The Jonikal, and Dodi and Di’s deaths on August 31st, are clearly linked in my mind. That fateful evening, a large group of paparazzi lay in wait at the front door of the Paris Ritz hotel. To evade them, the pair deigned to be smuggled out the backdoor, together with chauffer Henri Paul, later proved via autopsy, to be well in drink and Prozac. Paul led them on a 100 mile an hour car chase, pursued by ravenous “Paps” on scooters. He lost control of the car in a city center tunnel, and all three, Paul, Dodi and Diana were instantly killed. Except Diana wasn’t just killed; she was martyred.
This is where the photo came to life for me. Diana was smart. She had tried to use the press as a weapon against the royal family. She had let her doe-eyes well with tears, in her primetime interview with softball journo Martin Bashir. “there were always three of us in this marriage….” she sniveled.
The British tabloids, or “Red Tops” as they are known, are the shame of our media industry. Known for their salacious headlines they are scandal on the front, soccer in the back. The Sun the best-selling worst of them, (owned by Bilderberg supervillain Rupert Murdoch of Fox), still carried a daily picture of a topless model on page 3 every day until 2015. Think about that- misogynistic softcore porn selling over a million copies a day as late as 2015.
The tabloids couldn’t get enough of Diana. She was widely known in media circles as a convenient “source” for a story. She had tried to wield them as her tool against the royal family. And this brings us back to the Jonikal photo. The photo is taken from some distance, but easily close enough to tell that it’s her. Who do you think told the tabloids she was on Dodi’s superyacht? This photo is not a moment of late summer tranquility, away from the stress of a broken marriage, sheltering with a newfound love- This was posing for the press, this was symbiosis; this was hypocrisy.
A couple of days before the diving board photo, if you’d peered into the dashboard of any British construction worker’s van, you would have been greeted with The Sun’s headline “DI ROMPS ON DODI’S DAD’S YACHT”, or something similar. The Red Tops love their alliterative headlines. The same freelance paparazzi lecherously drank in, through the same telephoto lenses, the pair openly canoodling on the deck; but for whom? Cui Bono? Surely much more privacy below decks. A few days later she was tragically splatted in the tunnel in Paris, escaping the very paparazzi she “claimed” were hounding her.
An outpouring of national grief followed. New young and funky Prime Minister Tony Blair, only three months in the job, choked back faux tears, calling her the “The Queen of our Hearts”. Her funeral was on national TV. Sobbing members of the public threw flowers on the gun carriage that carried her coffin through the streets of London. Their own grandparents had similarly assembled for Churchill’s cortege, but those mourners were of the stiff upper lip old school, hardened by the war.
The very concept of the rabble assembling in their thousands, to blub over someone they’d only known through the gutter press and the TV is not very British, even if she had been a Princess. Churchill would have been horrified. Still, vox populi vox dei, I suppose.
Churchill’s funerial soundtrack would surely have been somber, like Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. For Diana’s her great friend Elton John, reworked his ode to Marylyn Monroe, Candle in the wind. His pleasing tones of “Goodbye England’s Rose” reverberated around Westminster Abbey. It went to number one in the charts of course, as did Tony Blair, for a while.
And you can believe, it was all covered, in the tabloids, that all those people read. The Sun even carried a special black commemorative edition. But if those same mourners had never gorged on their daily diet of celebrity scandal, tits and soccer, there would have been no oxygen of publicity, no paparazzi hounding her, or, as I allege, acquiescing to her.
We have a saying in Britain, “Fly with the eagles get shot with the crows”. So be careful young Meghan Markle, you won’t avoid them by “resigning” from the Royal Family, and fleeing over the pond. The public must have their bread and circuses.