Sophie Heawood: Diana's exes - the good, the bad and James Hewitt

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The Independent Online

Even in death there can be no greater embarrassment than people finding out everyone you've ever slept with. And so Diana must have twitched and cringed in her grave this week, as the courtroom at her inquest turned into the judicial version of Tracey Emin's tent.

As part of the evidence into suspicious goings-on, her former private secretary was asked to read out a list of men whose relationships with the Princess were thought to have caused discomfort at the Palace.

At the end, he even added a final "and so on", which presumably suggested that, if asked, he could happily continue reeling off the names of men who had enjoyed the hands-on approach of our People's Princess. The good, the bad and James Hewitt.

To be fair to our Queen, you don't have to be the head of state to find a list of any one woman's ex-boyfriends a little worrying. Those deadly "and so ons" – it is not controversial to suggest that we have all had a few of those. Those notches on the bedpost that one would rather forget, the also-rans, one-night stands, the good ideas, the no ideas. The man you stripped naked with in a fountain, the policeman who arrested you, the cab driver who drove you home from the station. I'm sure I'm not the only woman whose former conquests, were they taxonomised, would read something like the cast list for the Royston Vasey village fete. "Regrets, I've shagged a few," as Frank Sinatra nearly sang. And Diana's own league of gentlemen fares little better.

Still, if variety is the spice of life, Diana certainly rivalled the Spice Girls with her lovers. There was Sporty (the rugby player), Scary (the bodyguard), Posh (the heart surgeon) and Ginger (James Hewitt) in one round alone. Yet, it would surely be worse to look back over your life and realise you'd bonked the same different person repeatedly, à la Boris Becker, whose 40th celebrations were attended this week by his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend and his new "mystery" woman – all of whom look identical, making the event seem not so much like a birthday party as a police identity parade. Like Dr Who, Becker's women don't so much disappear as regenerate.

So why are we so ashamed of our past loves? It is because, as with children, and the theory that fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, our partners are a reflection of our own merits and shortcomings. With children, however, once you get fed up with them hanging around, it's not really the done thing to boot them firmly into the past and leave them there.

Yet with exes, that bit is half the fun – although it's always easier said than done. And so our shame comes not from having wiped these people from our minds, but from being unable to. As Jackson Browne once sang, "Do not remind me of my past sins/I had not forgotten them."

In a similar vein, Fleur Adcock's poem "Things" begins with the optimistic line "There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public" and ends with the utterly dispiriting "It is 5am. All the worse things come stalking in/and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse/and worse".

Of course, your boyfriends haven't just stood icily about your bed; they've been inside it and left their smell on the pillows, their odd socks inside the duvet covers and their handprints on your heart.

To let go of them is to let go of something of us. Thus, we carry our exes around in our hearts like shrapnel. Those notches on the bedpost become rings around our trunks. Our lovers trail along behind our lives like baby ducks.