Sue Arnold: Handbagged at La Scala by Princess Di

'It may have been glamorous for the Waleses but it wasn't for the reporters penned up for days'
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While I wholeheartedly endorse Nancy Reagan's opinion that a woman can never be too rich or too thin, the former First Lady omitted to mention the most important rule of all, namely that a woman can never have too many handbags.

The fact that 17 of the 342 items allegedly stolen by the late Diana, Princess of Wales' former butler were handbags (in some cases big handbags containing small handbags) came as no surprise to me. My husband, on the other hand, reading the inventory at the breakfast table, paused meaningfully when he got to the handbag section and made one of his familiar "women – I'll never understand them as long as I live'' faces.

"Listen,'' I said, "a handbag is not a trivial fashion accessory, it is a statement, a testimony signifying method, order, sanity and foresight. All the things, in fact, that men without handbags lack.''

I do not exaggerate. At any given moment I have at least three working handbags on the go and another half a dozen back-ups. Like Princess Diana's, they vary in size and quality – well, maybe not quite. Hers included seven Versaces, two Chanels and a Prada whereas mine come from Marks & Spencers. But it's principles we're talking here, not packaging. I operate my handbags on the "You never know when...'' principle handed down to me by my mother-in-law, the original bag lady. She wouldn't dream of going anywherewithout at least one handbag containing spare shoes, two library books, an alarm clock and a tube of Colman's mustard because, she says, you never know when you might run into a sausage.

I am confident that I shall never be caught unawares carrying, as I always do in my assortment of handbags, corkscrew, puncture repair kit, playing cards, spare batteries, factor 10 sun protection cream, umbrella, book of crosswords, inflatable cushion, dog food and (a recent acquisition this) an anti-midge helmet. The downside is that the other members of my family have become so reliant on my ability to produce bicycle pump or spare pair of dry socks that they no longer bother to bring anything while my collection of handbags grows larger and heavier.

Funnily enough, it was Princess Diana, in a round about sort of way, who taught me the art of successful handbag maintenance. I had been sent to cover her first foreign tour to Italy which I foolishly supposed would be glamorous. It may have been for the Waleses but it certainly wasn't for the reporters, who spent whole days penned up in press enclosures outside palaces, cathedrals and opera houses waiting for a brief glimpse of the couple.

Being a royal tour novice I arrived outside La Scala, Milan in good time, I thought, to see Princess Diana arrive for the matinée. I was wearing my best pink frock with matching handbag containing little more than my press accreditation, note book and a few million lira in case I needed an ice cream.

It was very hot. The press pen was crammed full of international paparazzi vying, rumour had it, to get the first picture of royal knicker as the mini-skirted princess emerged from her limo. They didn't look very competitive to me lounging about on the steps next to their camera bags and portable stepladders. "What time is she due to arrive?'' I ask. "7 o'clock'' they said, "but it's only three o'clock, why did we have to get here so early?'' Security, someone told me. "Didn't you bring your knitting?''.

He wasn't joking. Looking around I saw that everyone was busy doing something. Andrew Morton crocheting a bed jacket, James Whittaker was engrossed in his encyclopaedia of tiaras, Grania Forbes from the Press Association was sitting on an inflatable cushion having a manicure. And everyone had, of course, brought liquid refreshment in their bags except muggins here who spent the next four hours twiddling her thumbs and vowing never again to leave home without at least one large cluttered handbag. Thanks, Princess Di.