THE PEOPLE'S PRINCESS

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The Independent Culture
It was a cloudy morning, the last day of summer. Most of us were still getting up when we heard. Those who'd risen early felt odd about those still sleeping who didn't yet know. Passing people in the street, or park, you wondered if you should say something or would that be unkind? You knew only that years from now they'd still remember this Sunday morning, where they were and what they were doing and who brought the news.

When I went upstairs to tell my children, I did so slightly warily - knowing that here was someone over 30 they'd actually heard of, and that the death would shock them even more than the deaths of their favourite film stars or football players. Hard to say why, but what other public death could touch so many people in Britain and beyond, regardless of age, race, belief or gender? It'll be sad when the Queen Mum goes. The Queen herself, and Prince Charles, will be respectfully mourned. If it had been Tony Blair, there'd have been the same sense of a life cut brutally short, and the same pity for the children left behind. But Diana - this was different, more intense. She felt like family.

That was the trouble, of course. We knew more than we should have. Her privacy was a public event. We got too close and she died in the intensity of the gaze. The culture of intimacy which she lived through, indeed helped to invent, will survive her. But it will never be the same. Some of us, while she was alive, would have settled for a lot less coverage. The attention was all too much. But the papers went on selling. Over this past week, it's been all too much again. But still there's the demand for more.

Even those who hated the paparazzi failed to see where the hounding and snapping might lead - forgot how vulnerable Diana was and missed the tragic script, the all too likely ending: "Those whom the gods love die young." There are more banal morals to be drawn from her death, to do with drink- driving, reckless speed and the wearing of seat-belts. But there's a mythic dimension, too. There's no getting round it: fame was part of what killed her.

In classical legend, the tall and beautiful goddess Diana, bathing in a grotto, is spied on by Actaeon, who - out hunting - has stumbled by accident into her private place. Diana, furious, takes a terrible revenge, turning Actaeon into a stag so that he is destroyed by his own pack of hounds. The Princess of Wales had no such retaliatory magic: there was the odd angry spat with the hack-pack, nothing more. Among the uglier suggestions offered by a defensive press last week was that she colluded in her own death, in effect brought it on herself, through a love of publicity. She did love the camera. But there were also moments when, like her classical namesake, she wanted to hide. The snappers wouldn't grant her that right. And despite her alleged manipulative skills, she was helpless to control them.

She had 16 years of being looked at. Except for the last four months, they were years of Conservatism. From the start, she was its acceptable face, the blonde beauty to Mrs Thatcher's blonde beast. As a glowing, unknown bride, she seemed to promise that fairytales could come true for everyone - boy meets girl, wedding bells ring, and fortune cascades down throughout the land. For a time, Diana made royalty glamorous and patriotism chic. I remember watching the Royal Wedding on a French campsite, on a television set specially rigged up for holidaying Brits but taken over by other Europeans. Diana wasn't just a feelgood factor at home; she was our most successful export.

As patriotism became jingoism, with the Falklands, so the dream faded, the wide-eyed foal became a brood mare, and the marriage began to show cracks. Diana's weaknesses were well-publicised (bulimia, post-natal depression, low self- esteem), but to the impartial her strengths were far more noticeable. Her weaknesses were her strengths, allowing millions of ordinary people to identify with her and making her responsive to the maimed and vulnerable. She was, in Auden's phrase, "silly like us". She made mistakes with the opposite sex. She had style, even in adversity, but could be endearingly awkward, too, ill-at-ease with her body. Though she liked to touch and hug, there was a gawkiness and uncertainty, a glance that said: "How do I look?"

She cared deeply about her image, but didn't mind taking risks with it - as when, at a time when the tabloids were full of ghoulish myths about Aids, she posed with Aids patients. She was immensely rich and privileged, but without hauteur - un-posh and almost classless when she spoke. She wasn't a kept woman, either: she spoke of her "work" and took it seriously. Believing, rightly, she was the Royal most in touch with popular opinion, she poured herself into public activities with enthusiasm. She might be new to the job, but she made the Windsors look zombiefied and grotesque. It was as if Eliza Dolittle had fallen into the clutches of Herman Munster & Co.

The Royals hadn't bargained for this. They thought that because Diana looked shy and innocent under her bridal veil, she would also be eternally submissive and biddable, grateful for what she'd got. But independence and self-fulfilment mattered to her, and though an icon of femininity she had also been touched by feminism. She didn't like Charles sneaking off to his old lover. She believed marriage could be more fun than this. She prized present happiness above the distant prospect of being Queen. Above all, she didn't see why she should shut up and make do. If the years of 1981 to 1997 are remembered as the era of Diana, that's in part because she helped to kill off the old British habit of deferentiality.

She killed off British reserve, too. Emotion, not intell- ect, was her moral guide. She liked to talk - to friends who, if need be, would make her feelings publicly known. Later she talked herself, on Panorama. Asked if she had been unfaithful with James Hewitt, she replied, disarmingly: "Yes. I was in love. I adored him." Charles, asked about infidelity in his interview, raised an eyebrow while shiftily owning up, his manner worldly and ironic and man-to-man. The contrast couldn't have been more to his detriment.

Emotion drove Diana's charity work, too. When she held sick or injured children, she was moved to tears - the appropriate reaction, rather than the usual, royally neutral "plucky little fellow, keep your pecker up" sort of response. Tory diehards and Windsor lackeys, unappreciative of her role as Saint Diana, said she was a loose cannon, but that wasn't how the rest of the world saw it. Trusting to feeling, she won the public's trust, and made the rest of the Royals, soullessly carrying out official duties, look like corpses. Unwittingly subversive, by the time of her divorce, she had become a strong argument for republicanism. It's sad to think of the princes returning, full-time, to the Palace of Stiffs.

The media said Diana was cranky, fitful, empty-headed. There were those O-levels, or lack of them, and the astrological claptrap. Some of us would have liked her to be interested in books as well as pop music and dance. But her instinct was sharp, and though always careful to say she was non- partisan she grew politically astute. Latterly, with the selling off of dresses for charity and the campaign to ban land mines, there were signs that, in middle age, she might devote her beauty and celebrity to the fighting of just causes. Where Dodi Fayed would have fitted in is not clear. But in any case fate chose her to be a Marilyn Monroe, not a Brigitte Bardot.

I met her once, at a Red Cross fund-raising event. "Met" is pushing it: I stood in line, along with various other writers, and she shook my hand and passed along. But I have the photograph. She has dipped her head to make her eyes bigger and is giving me That Look, the look that said (slightly mischievously) we're in this together, the look that made you think of Byron ("so young, so beautiful,/So lonely, loving, helpless"), the look you knew she'd given everyone else in the room but which sent you away feeling the charity work was worth it, that with a bit more effort the world, in time, might be a kinder, better, more tolerant place.

It's cruel to think that Diana could find peace only in death. "The grave's a fine and private place," wrote Marvell, "But none, I think, do there embrace." The sense of violation at someone dying so young is why many of us who don't give a toss about the Royals have felt ourselves surprised and half-ashamed by sadness this week. Of course, public mourning is an opportunity to cry for ourselves, for our own losses. But there's also genuine grief for Diana - not just as an idea, or image, or icon, but as somebody we thought we knew. She taught us something, too, something about surviving misery and setback and, rather than turning inward, becoming a force for change and good.

Now the funeral's over (such heavy pomp for one so frail), and all the words have been said (so many of them, so few for the Fayed family), and it's time (at last) to get on again, that's the best way to remember her - not as a beauty, or celeb, or Royal, but as someone who showed us ourselves, and our nation, and where it should go next. !

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