It is a well known fact that last year I went mad for a week. Some of my best friends took me aside and told me that they were worried about me. They understood the circumstances but politely explained that there was no need for me to be carrying on in the way I was. This was of course the week after Diana died. There was really no need for lots of people to be carrying on the way they did but they did anyway and so did I. Apart from being shocked and moved and curious about the reaction to Diana's death, I was also extremely busy, dashing out articles, dashing down to one palace or another, dashing to the funeral. I was interviewed by all sorts of TV stations and was horrified to find that my title according to the Japanese media was "court correspondent of the Independent". I was tired and emotional most of the time, so emotional that I cried on the morning before I even got to the funeral - not because of her but because I couldn't get room service.
I remember vividly returning to my friends' house. They had been looking after my children while I went to the funeral. They hadn't even bothered to watch it. They were of the "she was just an over-privileged airhead" opinion but kind enough to look after me and my kids. They gave me a stiff drink and treated me to the latest jokes. "What does a princess turn into after midnight?" "A concrete pillar." Even my six-year-old daughter patronised me. She had, she said, cried but I knew she hadn't, for she had long been of the view that Diana was never a proper princess anyway "because she wears leggings".
Now, a year on, those same TV stations are ringing again with the same old question: "What did it all mean?" The mania in the media for anniversaries, for reassessment, is upon us and again I am involved in this impossible quest. We are compelled, as the Oxford academic Ross McKibbin put it, "to measure things which are almost immeasurable". So let's start with measuring what can be measured.
Here are some things that we can say are a direct result of Diana's death. Elton John got a knighthood and sold an awful lot of CDs. A Diana industry has flourished from low tack to erudite books on her political significance or lack of it. Earl Spencer has been revealed as a cad and has set up a shrine to her at Althorp. The monarchy has not fallen; it has got itself a new press adviser. Her death has not stopped people dying of Aids and landmines. There have been dreadful pop concerts in her name. Prince William is on a par with Leonardo di Caprio if you are a girl of a certain age. Prince Charles has made an immense effort to appear more modern by hanging out with the Spice Girls. He is still hanging out with Camilla. His sons have met his mistress. Mohamed al Fayed is still ranting and raving. Dodi is not spoken about much anymore. The bodyguard could speak after all but has not revealed much. The Internet is still a-bleep with conspiracy theories. Tony Blair has changed the week the prime minister traditionally spends in Balmoral to get maximum points on the anniversary of her death. The newspapers still publish pictures of her at every available opportunity. Arguments still rage about the best way to commemorate her. Beyond that - what? Has anything really changed?
Well, the jury is still out on this one. If you saw her life as meaningful, as I did, then you will continue to believe that her death was hugely significant. If you thought that there was little meaning to be found in the life of a trivial, privileged, manipulative and self-obsessed woman then, unsurprisingly, you will feel that the intense over-reaction to her death has fizzled away into the cosmos, to mean very little "in the real world". There is no obvious answer to the question "What did it all mean?" In her death as in her life we continue to use Diana as an empty vessel that must carry more meanings than any one individual can bear. That her own feelings of emptiness, in the face of so much excess, resulted in bulimia is but one more manifestation of how she struggled to be the very embodiment of all these projections on to her. In death, she has become what she was always accused of being, all image or only an image. Yet the hunger for her image is still insatiable. It is as though all this recycling is an attempt to find the one, final image that would free us from our obsessive need to keep on seeing her. Yet this is part of the deal she made when she swapped royalty for celebrity. For when we talk of Diana, we are also talking about what celebrity means in a fin de siecle society. And if all of us are subjects in the court of celebrity, we are still her subjects and she is still our subject.
Some time after she died the dissenters of this culture, the refuseniks to this insanity, started to make their voices heard. "Those who felt differently," as Ian Jack put it in an influential essay in Granta, started to question what they saw as the prevailing view. This was a valuable contribution. They reminded us that the nation was not unified in mourning, that they were underwhelmed by the outpouring of grief. Sometimes they castigated this grief as "grief- lite", not to be mistaken for the real thing. More important, they questioned what those over-employed mantras of "the people" or "the public" actually meant. Just as only 45 per cent of people voted for Tony Blair, so they told us only a small proportion of the population actually mourned for the princess. All of this is undoubtedly true. Now they can rest on their laurels and say to those such as myself, "See, it meant nothing", and by nothing they mean that there is no direct and political correlation between Diana's death and its institutional repercussions in our country. We still have a monarchy and we still have Blair and between them they seem to have sewn up a mutually advantageous contract to keep things much as they are.
This may be so but. as I said at the time, though she stirred up republican impulses, Diana was not a republican. To look for a direct political response to her death is to look in the wrong place. Both she and her brother believed in the divine right to rule. Diana wanted her son to be king and Spencer talked of the importance of blood family and nobility. They sought a modernised monarchy, not its end, and very slowly the dysfunctional family that rules us is coming around to this point of view. So her death has been used to shore up the monarchy while her life so disrupted it.
The arguments about the meaning of her passing come to this: the rational versus the irrational. As Ian Jack put it, "September was not a good month for those who imagined that human society is ... governed by reason." Diana and her flower-laden mourners belong to the constituency of the irrational. We are accused of having been overwhelmed by feelings, feelings which, if not kept in check, could even be called oppressive or fascistic. The mood that week has even been described as a kind of "floral fascism" in which those not seen to grieve were somehow excluded. This was not my experience. The grieving I witnessed was quiet and complex. Some of it was personal, people wept not just for Diana but for loved ones they had lost. Some of it was political. "I'm grieving for what's happened in this country over the past 18 years," one woman told me. Most of it was a strange mixture of the two. In the shapeless and vague grief of those crowds, some saw menace and others saw a deep desire to be part of a collective, public space that had so long been denied them.
Such feelings, it seems to me, make us uncomfortable. Those who would rather talk of the constitutional need for reform are made anxious by all these ungovernable feelings. Sure enough, they point to the fact that these feelings have resurfaced over the last year in an ugly, mobbish way in instances as varied as the behaviour of Louise Woodward's supporters and the actions of the English fans during the World Cup. Denouncing these feelings, however, does not make them go away. I agree that the expression of any feeling at all, which has mistakenly been dubbed "the feminisation of society", has led often to nothing more than sentimentality and that some emotions should still be repressed. But such outbursts are not so new. Historically our self-image may have been that of a buttoned-up nation but we, if not our rulers, are a notably emotional people when it comes down to it.
The rational vs irrational divide also reappears in the classification of Diana as a feminist icon. Long before she died, I had written that Diana was not a feminist but that she was a product of feminism. It was her move from victim to some sort of self-empowerment that made her both fascinating and the object of identification for so many contemporary women. To celebrate Diana, then, was never to choose the irrational over the rational, as if such a choice can ever be simply made, merely to acknowledge that the irrational always co-exists with reason, in all of our lives. A politics, republican or otherwise that cannot deal with this, cannot ever be truly popular. The much vaunted "feminisation" of society, in which everyone emotes and no one thinks for themselves, is not something I endorse. But if the feminisation of society means an acknowledgement of the private sphere as central to civic and public life, then I will sign on the dotted line. If the Dianafication of society means women's voices are heard and are as contradictory as the voices of powerful men then I am all for it. A feminism that cannot acknowledge the impact of both Diana and Margaret Thatcher may be ideologically pure but is politically redundant.
Diana's death did not mean, then, either "the new compassion" or a full- scale revolution, yet neither was it just a blip from which we recovered and returned to our old ways. It was perhaps only a moment but a moment in which some of us at least re-imagined ourselves or glimpsed in some utopian way what caring for others might mean. What we saw is as awkward to assimilate into some unified political programme as it ever was. That is our fault not Diana's. She was neither saint nor sinner but a complicated human being. One year on we have as much difficulty accepting that as we did a year ago. We are still free to dismiss the moments of that extraordinary week following her death as signifying nothing much, or we can elevate them to a rediscovery of a sense of ultimately belonging to something greater than ourselves. Of such moments history is surely made. If it was madness, it made more sense to me than much of what we are told is real, so much more important, so much more meaningful. If things changed only for a moment, then all I can say is that I am glad that, at that moment, I was there and that I was not alone
The never-ending story
September 1997: new Diana tartan
Skirts, shawls and kilts made from a specially designed Princess Di tartan approved by Buckingham Palace are to go on sale. Alistair Buchan, head of Lochcarron of Scotland which is to manufacture the tartan, says the clothes will go on sale all over the world. "We started getting phone calls after Diana's death asking if she had her own tartan and, if not, would we be designing one? So we decided to go ahead with a new design." Also approved by the Scottish Tartans Authority, the design is based on the Royal Stewart - blue with grey and white, plus an additional red stripe to commemorate Diana's work for people with Aids. October: Fergie weeps on TV
A subdued Duchess of York, dressed in black, weeps as she tells Diane Sawyer on ABC's Prime Time Live TV show how she left an answerphone message for Diana, offering help after hearing of the accident. The interview is halted as the Duchess breaks down. She tells the audience: "I go up and down, like a yo-yo. It's very strange to lose a partner and a soulmate. I'm taking each day very carefully.
"It's horrible when you want to reach for the telephone and you suddenly realise she's not there, " she continues. "I looked in my address book the other day for a number under 'D' and there was all her numbers. You know, crossed out, changing mobile numbers ... it's all too final."