Hereditas Historiae

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The Sunday Times (News review) – 27 August 2017


Princess Diana: a rustling that rocked the crown

By Bryan Appleyard

While attending her funeral, Bryan Appleyard heard a sound that warned the monarchy was in peril. Does it echo still?


Diana was not a mere celebrity, she was celebrity — utterly, unchallengeably famous. Julian Parker/Getty 

'I arrived at 7am only to find the bloke from The Sun had beaten me to it. Seats for reporters in Westminster Abbey were to be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. In the sacred name of The Sunday Times, I silently laid plans for elbowing my way past Sunny Jim. I’d been given a runner — eager chap — probably because of his toff credentials. He could grab quotes from reluctant aristos as well as from not remotely reluctant celebs. And so we stood there for hours as the great, the good and the merely famous filed past us, some with evident disgust.

We, the press, you see were about as popular as gout on September 6, 1997, because we had killed Diana, and this was her funeral; millions wished it was ours. They had a point: paparazzi had, indeed, chased her black Mercedes into that gloomy, concrete Paris tunnel, but many others played a part — Diana herself, Charles, Camilla, every one of the royals, Dodi Fayed, the driver, the countless parasites basking in her fame, the whole bloody mess of circumstance and stupidity, everybody . . .

Finally we were let in. My runner panicked. They were taking our mobile phones off us and, in those days, they all looked exactly the same. He feared he would lose his and we had only about an hour and a half to file our story after the ceremony. He stuck a stamp on his; smart move, I thought, and did the same.

I have done a few funerals in my time — Pope John Paul II, the reality star Jade Goody, the Queen Mother, George Best and Margaret Thatcher — and usually everything goes more or less according to plan. I scope out the escape routes, I stay sane, even when blocked by a man with a gun at the Pope’s sendoff, I write the stuff, send it and then I lie down for a long time. This was different, though I did end up lying down.

We all know what happened inside the abbey; it was on television and everybody watched. We, the poor, boxed-in hacks, could see little, but we saw enough. Or rather, in my case, heard enough. In my entire career I can’t remember anything — anything! — quite as strange and poetic as the thing I heard that day. It was nothing to do with the ceremony itself; in fact, it was all about everything that was not the ceremony.

I was, admittedly, tired and emotionally strung-out. The day before, I had been wandering: to see the field of flowers laid before Kensington Palace, the little shrines everywhere and among the crowds sleeping rough. I was shocked into submission, all scepticism and moral disdain gone. This one was for the people.

That supreme political tap-dancer Tony Blair had got there first by referring to Diana as “the people’s princess”. Cunning alliteration, but what exactly did he mean? That the Queen wasn’t the people’s queen? That he was anti-monarchist?

Either way, by the time we got to Earl Spencer’s speech, and with Michael Barrymore sobbing uncontrollably a few seats away, I was vulnerable. Apart from the tiredness, I was still reeling from the fact that the already unbelievable drama of Diana had reached such an unbelievable climax — in Paris and, now, in Westminster. Then Spencer rose and, unbelievably, turned the incredulity dial to 11.

For their treatment of Diana, Spencer had trashed the press and, shockingly, the royals and even warned them to take better care of William and Harry. He was addressing Diana.

“We, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men . . .”

The monosyllabic violence of the word “blood” startled me. Then, in the silent, breathless moment that followed I heard a sound, a susurration. It was coming from a long way outside the abbey, but it was getting closer. Was it rain? I found myself murmuring the last lines of Philip Larkin’s poem The Whitsun Weddings — “an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”. I assumed I was suffering an auditory hallucination.

That supreme political tap-dancer Tony Blair had got there first by referring to Diana as “the people’s princess”

But it came even closer and then it was inside the abbey, sweeping up the nave. It was clapping. People across London were applauding Spencer and, of course, Diana. This was not rain, it really was an arrow-shower aimed at the royals, the Establishment, the press, the cynics and sceptics with their fastidious disdain, the whole cold, cockeyed edifice of deference and cruelty.

Then I heard another sound — Republic Britannia was rising from the waves and, with Blair having come to power just four months earlier, who could say it would not happen?

This really was an illusion. It didn’t happen and, ever since, we have been wondering why. This was the monarchy’s most precarious moment in Elizabeth II’s long reign, but she survived. In fact, she thrived. The wedding of William and Kate in 2011, a diamond jubilee in 2012, a 90th birthday in 2016 were all national festivals, no different from the ones before the arrow-shower rained down upon the royals.

There are many opinions about this and about what Diana changed, if anything. I don’t know which are right or wrong but the forms they take reveal much about who we are.

They broadly fall into pro- and anti-Diana categories. Paradoxically, since we are talking here about a woman who was born into a gilded, privileged life, the pros tend to be on the left.

“ . . . a beatific figure”, wrote one left-wing columnist last week, “complicated by beauty and circumstance (but in the best way), who occupied the nation’s heart. She stole it. We loved her.”

For the pros, Diana exposed emotional illiteracy among the royals and turned her attention to the best possible causes — the poor, the sick and the defeated. If she did not bring down the monarchy, at least she reformed it. Her sons have supported good causes and, in the past few weeks, demonstrated a surprising degree of emotional frankness.

And could the Queen have pretended to parachute into the Olympic stadium in 2012 if Diana had never lived and died? Diana showed that, if the monarchy was to survive, it had to join in.

The antis on the right, meanwhile, see her as a grim harbinger of the celebrity-intoxicated, emotionally incontinent, tweeting, Facebooking, socially disrupted, fatally unrestrained world that followed. Her emotional outpourings were not honest sharing, they were media manipulation.

Right or wrong, this view points to a crucial difference between now and then. Sure, the runner and I had mobile phones to which we attached stamps, but they were not smart, they were dumb. Diana predated the world of the internet and ever-on mobile communications. Yet, somehow, she invented it.

She was the Kim Kardashian of the pre-Facebook world — utterly, unchallengeably famous. People wanted to signal their connection to her and, during the funeral festival, they did so not by holding up smartphones but newspaper headlines. She wasn’t a celebrity, she was celebrity. She could do no wrong because just by doing — by being — she incarnated the people’s sense of a better and more beautiful self. Her touch healed.

Even in death she invented a new way of mass mourning, now amplified by technology. The improvised shrines, notes tied to railings, bunches of garage-bought flowers, open weeping, applause are all now commonplace and all have their online equivalents.

Both left and right, however, feel queasy when another word is attached to these phenomena — populism. This form of people power is said to have produced Trump and Brexit. They too were responses to a complacent Establishment, irate howls from the left-out and the unlistened-to. Was Diana a precursor of even this? Apparently so. Her “psychic and energy healer” Simone Simmons recently revealed the astounding words — “She said we’ve got to vote for Brexit.”

And, though it is true that the monarchy seems to have survived and thrived, something has changed. I don’t hear strong monarchist feelings these days and, though people celebrated the assorted royal festivals, their attachment now feels thinner. You can be unfriended or unfollowed with a click on Facebook or Twitter. Public acclaim shifts, almost literally, at the speed of light.

What I do hear, however, is Queenism. The sheer resilience of Elizabeth II at the age of 91 inspires something like wonder. There is also her strict fidelity to the vow she made in 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service . . .” That word “whole” cancels any immediate hopes Charles may have. And, as this newspaper reported last week, she is still determined not to stand down.

Above all, she has grasped the wisdom expressed by a character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard — “For everything to remain the same, everything must change.” Everything changed after Diana and as a result, everything, supposedly, remained the same. But not really. Diana has had no successor. Her sons bravely keep her flame alive, but neither of them is Diana. The Duchess of Cambridge is game and pretty, but she is not Diana. Charles is not Diana. The royals may hold our ghoulish and gossipy attention but, without a Diana, it cannot be quite the same.

After the service, I had to streak round to Church House, a conference venue, where a computer was set up for me. I achieved a personal best that still stands — 3,000 words in 80 minutes. I didn’t exactly lie down, I collapsed on the floor. Some of my fellow reporters were kind enough to step over rather than on me.

Immediately I sent the damned thing off I regretted the clunky last line — “Diana changed the world”. But it was too late: already expert fingers were trimming my excesses and correcting my typos. I don’t regret it so much now. She may well have changed the world or she was simply the poster girl for a change that would have happened anyway. I don’t know.

What I do know is that on September 6, 1997, I witnessed something astounding, the like of which few or, more likely, none of us will see again. A great death condensed the feelings of a nation into a moment, the moment when I heard a strange susurration sweeping like rain across Hyde Park, across St James’s Park and into Westminster Abbey. I didn’t know what it meant; I still don’t. The only thing I do know is that I was there and that, for now, is enough.'


People outside the abbey began to clap as Spencer criticised the royals. John Stillwell/PA