It was 20 years ago today that the world awoke to the news that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a car crash beneath the Pont de l’Alma in Paris. There was universal shock and disbelief; a stunned silence reverberated from continent to continent. How could a thing of such love, compassion and beauty be snuffed out in such a banal way? What cold concrete pillar had the business of blotting out the warm radiance and kaleidoscopic vibrance of a princess we all felt we knew? One minute she was with us; the next she was gone, and the world became darker for her passing.
And now we have Diana memorial playgrounds and Diana memorial fountains and Diana memorial walks and Diana memorial gardens. They are things of convention: childhood glee, emotional flow, elation, gaiety and colour. None of them memorialises her subversive and daring essence; her scheming and manipulating; her rebelliousness, dangerousness and defiance.
In her famous BBC Panorama interview she was asked by Martin Bashir if she thought she would ever be Queen. “I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself being Queen of this country,” she responded. “I don’t think many people will want me to be Queen,” she added, perhaps with an air of self-knowledge that the straitjacket of monarchy could never really contain her spirit. Why would the people want to put a songbird in a cage?
The fact that so much has been written yesterday and will be spoken today to commemorate the day her heart stopped beating is testimony to the undeniable fact that somehow Diana, Princess of Wales, really does live on in the nation’s soul and national psyche: we weren’t forever marking the the decennial anniversaries of the death of Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria or any other royal personage. But this Princess persists in her irruption: somehow her heart goes on.
Perhaps she really has become a queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts. She was, as Tony Blair captured the morning of her death, the people’s princess. And that is how she has remained. “Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty,” her brother the Earl Spencer said at her funeral. “All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”
It’s the stuff of myths, fairy-tales and castles in the air.
She has become the symbol of shared public grief; of corporate emoting; of cumulative and protracted obsession with feelings and intuition. Her bulimia was ours; her borderline personality disorder was the essence of all of us; her feelings of betrayal, anger and thirst for revenge belong to everyone. We knew her because somehow she was in us. We never met her, but we still feel her. We all seem to have lost someone close to us, though she could scarcely have been more distant. She became, in her dying, the whole nation’s near-death experience.
Don’t try to analyse any of this madness: it defies logic. Diana has become a spiritual essence, a religious object of profound devotion, and so empathy trumps all reason. You can’t dish out harsh facts or even give people a bit of pointed common sense when all they want is puppies, kittens and teddy bears. Forget what works: if it feels right, it must be right. And so our public life becomes a mood, and if you dare to you break the charm you will trample on people’s dreams and kill their hopes. And Diana, Queen of People’s Hearts, will hate you for it.