There is a traffic jam. My first thought was that someone had moved the Passport Office overnight to Exit 15 of the M1. Then I realise that would be ridiculous. The flashing speed sign says 50. In reality, we were averaging less than 3mph. Everyone behaves badly. There is frustration and a lot of futile lane-switching. Then comes anger and complaining to the radio. Boredom comes and goes. I ring people to tell them I am stuck in traffic. No one actually hangs up on me. Then, gradually, I just start to accept that I am going to spend the rest of my life in the outside lane of the M1.
I knew it was serious when the driver of the car behind me got out of the car and started walking his dog. In the van to my left, the driver is reading a porn magazine. He flips through, sometimes upending it for a vertical view. He looks over at me and I realise there are two other guys in the front seat with him. I will never understand men. So, this is the scene. One driver is walking his dog. Another is reading porn. A passenger in the car in front is opening and shutting his door in an obsessive manner. And there is a man on the verge doing physical jerks.
Where is the Prime Minister when you need him? Surely Tony Blair would know how to get out of this jam. I start to think about his trip down the M4 bus lane all over again. The escapade bothers me. It's not the chaos that passes for his transport policy that I find so objectionable. It is the fact that he is too important to queue. I'm sure that, stuck on the M1 without even a bus lane in which to break the law, he would have either called in a chopper or taken to the verge. The man doing physical jerks has been warned.
The first four people I meet walking to Althorp do not speak English. "Sprechen Sie deutsch?" demands one large woman in a red sweatshirt with balloons on it. She is clutching a bag of Diana postcards. I meet a man who is English who distrusts me.
"You'll just make me out to be hysterical," he said. "That's what the papers said last year but I didn't see any hysterical people here." I tell him that I came last year but saw no hysteria either. He stares at the ground for a long time. He seems upset and stops speaking.
There is a stillness in the air at Great Brington that is extraordinary. The village is tiny and its road is lined with old, old buildings made of Northamptonshire sandstone. The front gardens are full of such things as lady's mantle, loosestrife, mint and roses with floppy petals. Althorp and its Diana museum are a 15-minute walk away. The tourists who make the walk will find only three places to visit: the pub, the church and the post office.
The first two are not exactly friendly. At least they do not insult me at the pub, though the sign on the ladies' toilet does say "Milkmaids". At the church, however, the vicar doesn't want to speak to me.
"You'll not get a controversy here," he says, adding that he has learned the hard way that there is no such thing as off the record. The church is bedecked in flowers, the delphiniums being particularly gorgeous. "Oh don't make anything of that," he says. "There was a wedding on Saturday." The man selling church history pamphlets (pounds 2) says that I am of a generation that does not understand the idea of telling the truth. I do not think he was joking.
Down the road a German tourist wearing a Princess Diana T-shirt is taking a photograph of the post office. It is thatched, and is the only place besides Althorp that sells Diana mementoes. It is nothing like as tacky as the stalls you get in London, but there are a fair number of coasters, thimbles and teacups with Diana's face on them.
There are also loads of Beanie Babies - one of the floppy animals is a little purpurple bear called Princess - and the post office also doubles as a bureaux de changeoffering foreign exchange in six currencies. Since last year it has opened a "Diana picture gallery". There, among the not very special portraits, are postcards selling for 30p each. One of these is of Great Brington Post Office itself and shows the postmaster and postmistress with their dog Tess standing behind a very pink and rather voluptuous hanging basket.
Most of the visitors arrive on coaches and are foreign. Others are British and come in ones or twos for deeply personal reasons. They see Diana as someone who cared about ordinary people and are here for a quiet day out. And, finally, there are a few who are paid up subscribers to the royal soap opera.
On the bench outside the post office I meet three women and one girl who seem to know everything about Diana and the royals. Carole and Pauline are in their fifties, Mariette is 18 and Rebecca is seven. Pauline says she got up at 4am and they got her at 7.30am. They actually met Earl Spencer last year and were disappointed not to see him again. They think the whole thing has been rather spoiled. "Tatty," sniffs Pauline.
Last year it was like a family affair with everyone talking to each other and crying in front of the video.
"This year there is the T-shirt brigade," says Pauline. "There are coachloads of tourists. Most of them are German. You can tell the way they push and shove."
Later, some tourists walk by. "Ask them to move their arms and we'll see if they are German," she says.
They booked their tickets in January. It was important to come on July 1 because Carole shares a birthday with Diana. The little girl has made a "book of love" for Diana and given it to Althorp. She tells me that she has two videos of the funeral and likes to watch them. "I want like some wizard to bring her back to life."
The country is losing faith in the monarchy, they say, and this is because of the way the Queen treated Diana. They believe Diana was murdered. By whom? They look at each other. Not the Queen, I say.
They look at each other again, and say not her, per se. Certainly MI5 or MI6 were involved.
"I think Fergie will be the next one," says Carole.
"To die," she says. "I think it will be a skiing accident."
They want Fergie and Andrew to get remarried and say that Camilla Parker- Bowles is just a mother-figure for Charles. The monarchy will be saved by William, who will be deeply caring king. If Diana were alive, they say, she would have been in Kosovo with the refugees. I say that if she were alive on this particular day she would have been stuck in traffic with the rest of us.
In the Diana picture gallery there is a woman with the most extraordinary fingernails. They are Rip Van Winkle long and are black have colourful swirly pictures painted on them. Her name is Carola and she has accessorised the nails with a tight apricot skirt and matching bolero jacket. She is wearing a custom-made Diana T-shirt. Her husband is named Ivo. He is tall and his left hand is in a splint. They have come specially from Holland.
As we wait for her to buy a picture, he explains that he went to hospital to visit his wife and had an accident there. His hand was X-rayed and it was discovered he had no bone in his thumb. Now he is waiting to have a bit of his hip put into his thumb. He is a blacksmith and she is a nail artist or, as her card says: Carola Mouthaan, Nagelstyliste. Carola loves Diana and has a cupboard full of memorabilia devoted to her.
"She was normal," she says.
What, like Queen Beatrix?
"No, that is boring normal."
As I leave, a man is on the verge photographing the church. He has a handbag, and is with two other men with handbags. I guess they are not British and find out that one is Swiss, one Slovenian and another French. They all live in Basel and are here on holiday. They went to Oxford but thought it was too noisy. So they stopped by here. It is lovely and quiet, they say. And what about Diana? Do they care about her? They all nod. "Yes," says the Slovenian, "because it is a sad story."
After all the tears and flowers, then, there it is: for most people Diana has become a day out.Reuse content