THE TRAGIC DEATH OF DIANA, Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997 plunged the world into paroxysms of grief, despair and regret, unrivalled in the modern era. This spontaneous eruption of anguish was a sign not only of her enormous personal impact on the world stage but of the potency of her position, of what she represented as a woman and as a flag-bearer for a new generation, a new order and a new future. Even now we are still trying to come to terms not only with her loss but with what she meant to us, why those who never met her felt moved to a depth of grief that they would not display even for their own kith and kin. By some indefinable alchemy she had come to embody the spirit of the age, so that when we buried her we also laid to rest something of ourselves. Those who came in pilgrimage to lay flowers at Kensington Palace, her London home, wept not just for her but for themselves. Ironically, she was once asked what she would want as an epitaph on her grave. ‘A great hope crushed in its infancy,’ was her reply, a phrase that unwittingly captured not only her short life but the spirit she represented.
Amid the tears and the flowers, there was guilt, shame and anger at the royal family who abandoned her and at the mass media who hounded her. The mood ran much deeper, demonstrating how far the temper of the times had changed; the tectonic plates which underpin society having shifted culturally, socially and politically in the previous few years. Just as the people had spoken in the elections of May 1997 which gave the Labour Party a historic landslide victory, so in the days before and during Diana’s funeral they voiced their collective displeasure and disappointment at two other mighty, but unaccountable, institutions, the media and the monarchy, whom they believed had betrayed the wishes not only of Diana, Princess of Wales, but of themselves. She was of the people and for the people, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair captured that sentiment when he described her as ‘the people’s princess’.
When the Queen, standing at the gates of Buckingham Palace with her family, bowed her head to the gun carriage carrying Diana’s coffin it was far more than a gesture of respect for a much-loved woman. It was also an acknowledgment of the passing of the old order, the ascendancy of a new ethic which Diana so vividly personified. In his electrifying funeral oration Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer caught that mood; in just seven short minutes transforming himself from a little-known sprig of the aristocracy to a national hero. More important than his rapier thrusts at the royal family — ‘she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic’ — and his more bludgeoning attack on the media, was the fact that his eulogy, both in delivery and sentiment, so clearly captured the spirit of Diana. Courageous, reckless, cherishing honesty and truth above the social niceties, cock-eyed in its logic, his address achieved what Diana had been struggling for throughout her adult life: to speak to the people over the heads of those who rule us, be they the royal family, politicians or the press barons. As the spontaneous applause following his oration showed, in her death Diana had found her champion.
In the coming months, years and decades following a momentous week in the life not only of Britain, but of the world, much will be written and discussed about just what Diana meant to us as individuals and collectively as a society. As her life truly represented a parable of our times, this is not only right and proper but eminently desirable. At the same time there will be a necessary evaluation of her life; even as I write there are dozens of biographies, videos and commemorative albums under way. This, too, is inevitable, for we want to know about the personal attributes which propelled Diana into becoming a figure of such mythic proportions. In time the silt of history will cloud her memory; the memoirs of those who knew her, or thought they knew her, filtering and shifting the public’s perception of a woman who has become the most cherished icon of the modern era. There is an enduring danger that Diana’s perception of her life, an account she was so desperate to tell, will be obscured and revised with the passage of the decades.
It would be easy for me to subscribe to that process: both my books, Diana, Her True Story and Diana, Her New Life are currently bestsellers around the world so there is every commercial imperative to allow any distortions within their pages to remain. This, however, would be to dishonour her memory, to distort history and to run counter to the people’s spirit of honesty and openness so eloquently captured by her brother, Earl Spencer at her funeral.
For what people have never realized is the extent of the Princess’s commitment to my book, Diana, HerTrue Story, which was first published in June 1992. To all intents and purposes it was her autobiography, the personal testament of a woman who saw herself at the time as voiceless and powerless. The story contained in its pages came from her lips, the pain and heartache in her life revealed in a series of tape-recorded interviews at Kensington Palace during the summer and autumn of 1991. There were no camera lights, no rehearsals, no second takes. Her words came from the heart, outlining in graphic and, at times, agonizing detail the sorrow and loneliness felt by a woman admired and adored around the world. Given the unfolding tragedy of her life and her untimely death, it is hard not to re-read and listen again to her words without shedding a tear. Today her testimony stands as an eloquent and unique witness before the tribunal of history.
So much has changed since that fateful summer of 1991 that it is difficult to convey the mood of impotent suffocation then felt by the Princess of Wales. She considered herself to be a prisoner trapped inside a bitterly unfulfilled marriage, shackled to an unsympathetic royal system and chained to a wholly unrealistic public image of her life. Everywhere she went she was followed by a bodyguard, her every movement was logged while each visitor to her home was noted and checked. She believed she was under constant surveillance, not only monitored by police and photographers, but watched with suspicion by the royal family and their courtiers. All the while she nursed a secret, a secret that was slowly but surely gnawing away at her. As far as she was concerned her life was a grotesque and implacable lie.
Her marriage to the Prince of Wales was effectively over. She knew that he had returned to the first love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Yet, like a character in a Kafka novel, her concerns were dismissed as so much fantasy and paranoia by an Establishment that went to elaborate lengths to conceal the infidelities of her husband. As Diana was to explain years later in her famous television interview on the BBC’s Panorama: ‘Friends on my husband’s side were indicating that I was again unstable, sick and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.’ As the world now knows her instincts proved true, the Prince of Wales himself having confessed to adultery after his marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’ during the mid-1980s.
At the time, as she watched her marriage unravelling, her greatest fear was that her husband’s circle would soon begin the process of discrediting her and convincing the world that she was irrational — unfit either for motherhood or to represent the monarchy.
However, the frustration that seethed inside her lay as much with an antiquated royal system as with her fading marriage. Intuitively she felt that the style of the monarchy was outdated, while her own role and ambitions were continually being circumscribed. The courtiers, or the ‘men in grey suits’ as she called them, were happy if she were viewed as a dutiful wife and mother, an attractive adornment to her intellectual husband. At the same time, as far as she was concerned the system was constantly chipping away at her position in order to bolster Prince Charles’s popularity.
As she looked out from her lonely prison, rarely a day passed without the sound of another cell door slamming, another lock snapping shut as the fiction of the fairytale was further embellished in the public’s mind. The publication in 1991 of a series of books and articles celebrating the couple’s 10th wedding anniversary served to weld new bars to her jail. ‘She felt the lid was closing in on her,’ a friend recalled. ‘Unlike other women, she did not have the freedom to leave with her children.’
Like a prisoner condemned for a crime she did not commit, Diana had a crying need to tell the world the truth about her life, the distress she felt and the ambitions she nurtured. Her sense of injustice was profound. Quite simply, she wanted the liberty to speak her mind, the opportunity to tell people the whole story of her life and to let them judge her accordingly. She felt somehow that if she was able to explain her story to the people, her people, they could truly understand her before it was too late. ‘Let them be my judge,’ she said, confident that her public would not criticize her as harshly as the royal family or the mass media. Her desire to explain what she saw as the truth of her case was matched by a nagging fear that at any moment her enemies in the Palace would have her classified as mentally ill and locked away. This was no idle fear — when her Panorama interview was screened in 1995, the then Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, a close friend and former equerry to Prince Charles, described her as displaying ‘the advanced stages of paranoia’.
How then could she smuggle her message to the outside world? Reviewing Britain’s social landscape she saw that there were few outlets for her story. For even today, though wounded and humbled, the monarchy exerts a powerful and compelling influence over the mass media. Just six years ago, as Diana, Her True Story was being prepared, the royal family’s ascendancy was almost total; the House of Windsor was then, even more than now, the most influential and feared family in the land. Credible media outlets, the BBC, ITV and the so-called quality newspapers, would have had a collective attack of the vapours if she had signalled that she wanted them to publish the truth of her position. Again, if her story had appeared in the tabloid press it would have been dismissed by the Establishment as so much exaggerated rubbish.
So what to do? Within her small circle of intimate friends there was sufficient alarm for several to fear for Diana’s safety. It was known that she had made a number of half-hearted suicide attempts in the past and, as her desperation grew, there were genuine fears that she could take her own life; worries tempered by a balancing belief that ultimately her love for her children could never take her down that path.
In the winter of 1990, when I first started researching a biography of the Princess of Wales, I knew little of these concerns. As both a journalist and author I had been writing about the royal family since 1982, the year after Diana’s marriage to the Prince of Wales, and had built up a number of contacts inside the various palaces and in the circles of the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York. Earlier in 1990 I had written Diana’s Diary, a lifestyle book about the Princess which, I was later to learn, had been well-received by her.
During my researches for this book it became clear that all was not well with the royal marriage, Diana’s friends and former members of staff making dark hints about the Princess’s unhappiness. While these allusions were intriguing, they were nothing new. Speculation about the Waleses’ marriage had been growing ever since a visit to Portugal in 1987 during which they had insisted on staying in separate suites. For my latest book, a full-scale biography of the Princess, I set about trying to uncover the facts surrounding Diana’s life. I was soon to learn the painful truth.
Meanwhile, as Diana continued to consider the dilemma of her life inside the royal family, she noticed that a series of articles I had written for the Sunday Times, notably on the furore over Prince Charles’s offer of a party at Highgrove for her 30th birthday as well as the departure of the Prince’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Airey, were sympathetic to her cause. She was now aware that I was piecing together her life story, that I was an independent writer, neither wedded to Fleet Street nor, more importantly, in the thrall of Buckingham Palace — issues of some importance as she considered her future course of action. In any event, after some initial and expected hesitation, she decided to unlock the door to the inner sanctum of her psyche. I was asked to become the conduit of her true story.
There was one major stumbling block. The arrival of an author at the gates of Kensington Palace would immediately set alarm bells ringing — especially as Prince Charles was still in residence. Just as Martin Bashir, the television journalist who later interviewed the Princess for the BBC Panorama programme, was to discover, subterfuge was the only way to circumvent an ever-vigilant royal system. In November 1995, when he conducted his interview, he smuggled his BBC camera crew into Kensington Palace on a quiet Sunday.
Diana was interviewed by an intermediary, later revealed by others as Dr James Colthurst, so that if the Princess was asked: ‘Did you meet Andrew Morton?’ she could answer with a resounding ‘NO’. I submitted endless written questions about every aspect of her life, starting, naturally, with her childhood. In return she answered as best she could, speaking into a rather ancient tape recorder in the quiet of her private sitting room. While it was an imperfect method which gave no opportunity for immediate follow-up questions, very quickly a picture emerged of a life which was totally at variance with the accepted image. As a writer who had spent much of his life working in a royal world where evasion, equivocation and secrecy were the official currency, at first I was stunned by Diana’s candour and disbelieving of the astonishing story she revealed. In the first interview session, although lots of questions had been prepared beforehand, once the tape recorder was switched on her words spilled out of her, almost without interruption and with her barely pausing for breath. It was a great release.
For the first time in her royal life she felt empowered. At last her voice was about to be heard, the truth was about to be told. ‘Tell Noah [her nickname for me] to make sure the story gets out,’ she would say to trusted confidants, disappointed that the process of writing and researching a book could not happen overnight. Her choice of nickname revealed something about her gentle sense of humour. It had arisen after I was described in an American newspaper as a ‘notable author and historian’. She was tickled by such a pompous depiction and from then on always used the acronym, Noah, when referring to me. It became a running joke.
In some respects her exhilaration at unburdening ...
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