What the dog did the day Diana died

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I DO NOT like to remember the moment this time last year when I heard of the death of Princess Diana - not because it was so very sad but because it was so very embarrassing. We were staying in a lovely villa in Tuscany and, on returning from breakfast outside, found that one of our hostess's great mastiffs had left an enormous steaming turd in the middle of our bedroom. Since this was the culmination of several other outrages committed by one or other of our hostess's far from welcoming dogs, I felt sufficiently incensed to rush into her room to lodge an indignant protest.

No moment would have been right to lodge a complaint against her dogs, since she loved every one of them and would not have heard a word against even the persistent biters; but to do so at the very moment when the news of the Princess's death was breaking - at least so far as our household was concerned - on Sky television, was particularly unfortunate. In fact, my indignant words, "one of your bloody dogs has...", exactly coincided with the newscaster's doleful announcement. Never shall I forget our hostess's look of crushing contempt. How could anybody be so base and unfeeling as to sully such a tragic moment in the world's history by worrying about a canine peccadillo?

Being kind and gracious, she never again mentioned my unfortunate gaffe - and I never again mentioned her dogs. But during the next few days, as all the company sat in front of the television, I would occasionally catch her accusing eye as she measured the callousness of what she took to be my reaction to the death against everybody else's great outpouring of grief.

Nor was her opinion of my inhumanity improved when, on the day of the funeral, the Italian newspaper La Stampa carried on its front page some international comments on the tragedy which included one of mine to the effect that the Princess's death was "an ill wind which would blow the British monarchy some good" - not a bad prophecy, as it has turned out, but not one, at the time, likely in any way to alter my hostess's view that I was an unfeeling brute with the coldest of hearts.

Whether my attitude to the death was indeed affected by having had my mind, at the time when I heard about it (and for at least half an hour afterwards), on other far more earthy matters - ie, how to clear up that monumental dog's mess on our bedroom carpet - I do not know. However, it very well may have been. Having been made, quite unfairly, to seem so unfeeling, I may have felt perversely tempted to live down to this undeserved reputation. In any case, for whatever reason, I did find myself cast in the role of the skeleton at the funeral bakemeats, tearing myself away from the TV screen so as to enjoy an occasional swim or a longish siesta far more often than the rest of the party.

Looking back now, I think I was right to have done so. For even after a year it is still not easy to understand quite why the world felt so profoundly moved, and I am convinced that it is likely to grow more mysterious. That it will remain of great interest to posterity I do not doubt, less because the Princess will continue to seem such an extraordinary woman as because she will begin to seem such an ordinary woman. Therein will lie her lasting claim to fame, rather as it is with Marilyn Monroe's: to have been loved so much for so little. In a way, of course, that is a most remarkable achievement, well worthy of commemoration. But more so in the Guinness Book of Records, I would suggest, than in any scroll of honour.

Prince Charles does, however, seem to have been liberated by her death, as does the Queen herself, as if an incubus had been unexpectedly lifted from their shoulders. Her death was the day new life was breathed into the British monarchy. God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, and the story of Princess Diana will long remain one of the strangest.

NEVER DOES my mind work so well - which, of course, is not saying much - as when I am on holiday, early in the morning, overlooking, as was the case this year, a marvellous range of Andalusian mountains, 50 miles or so north of Seville. Everything then seems so wonderfully clear and possible. If that was how I felt all the time, then, even at this late stage, there would be no limit to what might still be achieved, possibly even outdoing the prodigious output of that latter-day Thomas Carlyle, Paul Johnson - who gives the impression of a set of lungs always filled with the most invigorating of ozones. As it is, however, this exalted condition never lasts for more than a few days before the sun and the wine put an end to the early rising and to all hope of getting any serious reading, let alone writing, done.

This year, too, there was an additional - albeit a wholly pleasurable - disincentive. We were staying with my lovely former colleague on the Sunday Telegraph, Minette Marrin, and her equally stimulating husband, Ian Hislop - not the Private Eye one - and the temptation to dissipate any early-morning thoughts in jolly poolside or mealtime conversations was overwhelming. Nor did it help that Minette and I are regular columnists, since, at the end of the day's jolly talk, neither of us could be quite certain whose idea or bon mot could legitimately be grist to whose columnar mill.

Usually, there is only one columnist present in any holiday company, which has meant, in my experience, that I feel free to get away with bagging anything going. But this would never do this year. Not only would it be an extremely ungrateful way of repaying Minette's exceptional hospitality, but it might also put in jeopardy any chance we have of being invited again. Never before have I allowed myself any scruple about plagiarism. But in this instance, for the next few months, I think it would be wise to break my own rule.