A slender, but significant, slice of our national life is being played out in Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice, yet almost no one is there to see it. At the end of the ninth week of the inquest into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mr Dodi Al Fayed, there is ample room for curious spectators.
The overspill marquee, punctiliously divided between the media and the public, is warm, well-lit, and supplied with a television relay on one large screen and a simultaneous transcription on another. A lion-and-unicorn crest propped up against the base signifies that court rules pertain here, too.
But most of the 120 or so seats are empty. Sitting on the public side for the last session of this week, I had at most 10 people for company; the three earliest arrivals strongly suggested the Mesdames Defarges of our day.
The proceedings, in their low-key, unfussy way, are of a piece with our pre-Diana national character. The witnesses come across as just ordinary people whose lives, for one fleeting moment, brushed against history. Honest, conscientious people, concerned to help in any way they can, they cast around in the farthest recesses of their memory for small answers to small questions about what happened 10 years ago.
On Thursday, the witnesses were the doctor in charge of allocating emergency medical services on the fatal night, and the president of the Ritz hotel their quite different worlds brought into proximity by a car accident. Marc Lejay was there to explain how and why he had the Princess conveyed to the Pitie-Salpêtrire hospital and why the decision, and the journey, took so long.
In so doing, he afforded glimpses of how different the French way of emergencies is from ours. The condition of the patient must be "stabilised" at the scene. The hospital was chosen both for its particular expertise, and because Dr Lejay personally knew, and revered, the chief consultant on duty that night.
Asked why he had left it so late to ask the hospital for an emergency bed, Dr Lejay was baffled: there was absolutely no question that this doctor would turn his request down. The personal relationship was all. He disclosed, too, that the ambulance had had to stop on its way to the hospital, to allow renewed attention to the Princess's fading pulse. I could not help wondering, as he spoke, whether a consultant of professorial rank would be on night duty at any British hospital.
Asked to give his name at the start of his testimony, the top manager of the Ritz caused a frisson by starting firmly "Franz Josef," rather than the Frank he was commonly known as. Mr Klein went back a long way with the Fayed family. His evidence about Henri Paul, the hotel's deputy security manager who drove the Mercedes on the night and might or might not have been a problem drinker was not clear-cut.
More categorical was his account of a telephone conversation with Dodi, who told him about plans to buy an engagement ring, marry, and live with his bride unnamed in Paris, in the Windsor chateau. Aha, so Mr Klein was a source of those reports.
Mr Klein was also the person entrusted with conveying first news of the tragedy to Mohammad al-Fayed. Ten years and three months on, he seemed still wracked by the memory. He recounted his phone call: "Mr Fayed, very sorry to disturb you, there's been a terrible accident ..." Almost breaking down, this suave hotel MD of more than 30 years' standing, went on: "Dodi passed away, and the driver."
Asked about Mr al-Fayed's response, he said it was the single word "sorry", followed by an enquiry about the Princess. Learning that she was thought to be still alive this was 1am in France Mr al-Fayed then said calmly and with utter certainty: "Frank, this is not an accident. This is a plot or an assassination." Mr Klein said he demurred, but that Mr al-Fayed was not to be swayed.
The Diana inquest has turned up some new details and given new emphasis to others. It has many more weeks to run, but I doubt, after my brief exposure to the proceedings, that the verdict any verdict will dispel the conspiracy theory once and for all.
In their own way, however, the minutiae of this inquest make for compelling viewing. So if you are cold, wet and short of entertainment for a couple of hours in central London, drop into the Royal Courts of Justice. In our pre-ID card age long may it endure you can do so without pre-planning and in complete anonymity.
Even if you learn nothing about the culpability for Diana's death, you will learn something of how ordinary people behave when plunged into the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Setting a trend by setting sail
What more conclusive proof that the inflated London housing market has reached its tipping point than the imminent departure of the thinking woman's celebrity couple, James (Jamie) Rubin and Christiane Amanpour? They are leaving the stucco glades of Notting Hill for the stolid brownstones of Manhattan.
No matter that London was recently reported to have overtaken New York as the metropolitan centre of the world, Stateside is where they now want to be.
Ms Amanpour, it is said, harbours more regrets about the move than her husband, whose career never quite took off on this side of the Atlantic. While her British accent goes down a treat around the globe, his Seinfeld manners travelled less successfully. So, from her perch as CNN star presenter and global crisis correspondent, she has sportingly agreed that he should have his shot at another season in his native sun.
But if such trend-setters as the Amanpour-Rubins are leaving, perhaps others are also considering a move. The bottom is not falling out of the housing market yet, but watch for the "For Sale" sign outside Madonna's mansion in Marylebone.
* The so-called NatWest Three, the British bankers caught up on the fringe of the Enron scandal and extradited to the United States, have agreed to a plea-bargain arrangement. If accepted by the court, this will allow them to plead guilty to one of the seven fraud charges against them in return for a shorter prison sentence than they might otherwise have received.
Plea-bargaining is a way of life in the United States. It is a practice the Government has said it would like to see more of here. And we all know the reasons. It can save a great deal of court time and money and gives bolshie felons an interest in fessing up. Some sentence, the argument might go, is better than no sentence especially if it spares the public purse.
Such an argument is disingenuous. Plea-bargaining is rarely as benign a deal as the politicians would have you believe. It may help those with adept lawyers and an awareness of their own guilt. But the downside is pernicious. Plea-bargaining encourages innocent, but poorly educated or ill-informed individuals to barter their rights away.
In the US, it is often used by those facing the death penalty. They offer a confession in return for a life sentence, rather than the electric chair. And who, faced with that choice, can blame them? The result, though, is that some accept guilt that is not theirs. Because there has been no trial worth the name, such miscarriages of US justice prove very hard to overturn. Plea-bargaining is a US export that we should not be welcoming to these shores.
* Are you thinking what I'm thinking? (That subversive Tory campaign slogan is too seductive to be thrown on to the scrapheap after one lost election.) What I'm thinking is that, if only our once-iron Chancellor had stuck to the habit of a lifetime and addressed City notables in his everyday business suit and tie, he would not be in anything like the mess he is in now. Why, oh why, did he decide that his move to Number 10 required him to don the white-tie evening uniform of the Establishment? It's when you start compromising your principles that it all starts to unravel.
Deborah Orr is awayReuse content