The Things That Shaped Our Year: Diana

From the death of Diana to the birth of Dolly, and from the rise of Bridget Jones to the fall of the Spice Girls - our writers choose the 10 people and events which made 1997 so special
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The Independent Culture
"You Will have a big surprise coming soon - the next thing I do." It seemed such a typical Diana thing to say, back then, in July. The Princess of Wales had leant out of a boat in St Tropez, and grabbed hold of the floating raft of reporters and photographers, teasing, almost flirting, half-threatening the paparazzi. Seen now, it has all the elements of a tableau, the combatants frozen in time before everything spun into fast-forward, hurtling out of control towards a tragic end in a Paris subway. What would Diana do next? We couldn't know, not then.

Six weeks later, the emotional landscape of a nation was irrevocably altered. The Prisoner of Wales, as she had jokingly called herself, was dead. Long live the People's Princess.

The great British stiff upper lip trembled and then, suddenly, gave way to tears. Royal gardens became valleys of decaying flowers, long and silent queues of condolence formed outside the Palaces, people wept as they hadn't wept for the loss of their own loved ones. "Diana the martyr," Prince Charles used to call her after an emotional outburst. In the end, she almost became a saint.

And then the funeral. One million people gathered in the capital. Inside the Abbey, it was hard to believe that it was really her, laid out in her coffin beneath the jarring pageantry of the British Standard. Her sons' grief was terrible to see, the Queen's face, so taut and dry-eyed, more terrible still. Her brother reproached us both with his physical resemblance to Diana and with his words. They echoed round the back of the Abbey where the press sat uncomfortably, conscious of the absence of the tabloid editors, not knowing whether we were there to grieve, still locked into the peculiar love-hate relationship from which even her death had not freed us. Earl Spencer's words were true and good, and the people's applause swept into the Abbey. Only one thing seemed certain: nothing could ever be the same again.

By the close of 1997, the Diana phenomenon feels different. We now know, as perhaps we always knew, that Diana's brother is capable of as much cruelty as her husband. We now know that what might have been a silent revolution never really meant the fall of the House of Windsor. We now know that emotion does not always make us better people. And we now know, also, that New Britain can sometimes look a lot like Old Britain.

But if we have been guilty of reading too much into the death of a princess, we should not be guilty of thinking it meaningless. It has been an extraordinary year, and Diana and the Labour victory have changed who we are. In the end, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana, never more alive than this year, made us feel special by making us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps, by making us feel at all.

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