Memories of Diana, Princess of Wales, continue to haunt the notebooks of the journalists who covered her life and death twenty years and more ago. Here are some more recollections . . .
I WAS ONE of a handful of reporters invited to the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, inside Westminster Abbey.
It came seven tumultuous days after the tragedy that shook – and continues to shake – the world.when the People’s Princess was tragically killed in a car crash in a Paris Tunnel.
For me, that week of coverage was the hardest of more than 50 years in journalism
Diana was part of my working life for the best part of twenty of those years when I covered the Royal Family at one of its most controversial periods in history. Even now, hardly a day has gone by that I do not think of the Princess.
Those seven days began on August 31, 1997, shortly after I returned home from a trip to the cinema with my wife, Jill, to enjoy The Full Monty.
Just after 11pm (Paris was one hour ahead) I received a phone call from a contact in Paris to tell me that Diana’s car had been involved in a “bump”. No real details, but not thought to be serious.
Over the next few hours Ia series of calls from Paris enlarged the horrifying story: the crash was a lot more serious than a ‘bump’. The Princess, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed and his driver, Henri Paul, were dead. A bodyguard,Trevor Rees Jones, was seriously injured.
News of the tragedy resulted in amazing scenes in and around Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, the Princess’s home.
The nation was plunged into grief. As well as the sea of flowers outside Kensington Palace, grief was etched on the faces of all who visited the area.
For me there was no time for tears or grief for Diana, despite the fact that I knew personally. We had met many times.
What was she like? Her critics saw a scheming manipulator, an attention-seeking plotter wanting approval and respect.
But Diana was so much more: for all her aristocratic background, this was a naïve teenager chosen to be a queen who, in her own words, only met her future husband thirteen times before she was whisked down the aisle, aged 20.
Once inside the Royal Family, she was expected to fall in line with their rules and regulations that everyone else followed.
But Diana soon realised she could make a difference to the lives of ordinary people. She took on unpopular at the time causes, like AIDS and landmine clearance
When she asked the Queen for permission to campaign on behalf of AIDS victims, Her Majesty initially asked why she did not “take on something nicer”.
Although these were important matters, it was her empathy with people that won the hearts of the public. Her smile, a handshake, a hug made all the difference. and made it easy to broke down barriers.
I remember a nervous young mum who was waiting to meet the Princess at a charity event early one morning. The poor woman was working herself into a panic as the time drew near to meet the Princess.
Suddenly the doors opened and in walked Diana, ignored everyone else in the room and went straight up to the mum, held out her hand and said: “ I am so sorry to be late, I had problems getting William and Harry to school this morning.”
Those words put the young mother was at ease; now it was just two mums talking about families and getting on like a house on fire.
Princess Diana – activist, fashion icon and model mother – was a tireless advocate for those who needed her most.
I saw Diana do it time and time again and it is not difficult to understand how this woman managed to win over a worldwide audience.
I don’t claim to have been one of her closest friends but we had a reasonably good working relationship and whenever we chatted Diana’s infectious laugh and the naughty glint in her eye always made it a pleasure to be in her company.
The last time we chatted was two weeks before her death when she was on holiday in St Tropez with William and Harry as a guest of the Fayeds I and some colleagues had hired our own boat which we moored offshore in sight of the Fayed mansion.
As was usual on these occasions, there was an agreement with her aides that we would leave the area once there had been a short photo session.
Diana and her sons and the Fayed children rode jetskis around the area. The princess and her sons, as usual, were laughing and giggling, particularly when they came close to our boat to splash us.
Twenty minutes later it was over. They returned to the mansion and we began packing up. Before we could leave, however, Diana and two aides headed out in a small motor boat and pulled up alongside.
She was upset but she made clear her upset had nothing to do with us. Moments before getting into the launch we noticed her talking on her mobile phone and she had pappeared very animated.
Alongside our boat, the Princess – in complete contrast to the laughing and happy Diana we had seen on jetskis – said she was “fed up with the way things are going” in the UK. She also suggested that she might move to America, though she refused to add clarification of the remark, except to say “You will be surprised at the next thing I do,” before roaring off in her motor launch back to the mansion.
Those ten words have haunted me for twenty years; try as I might, I still don’t know what she meant.
At her funeral in Westminster Abbey I sat two rows behind the Fayed family facing where the Royal family sat, surrounded by statesmen and celebrities. All eyes were on the royals, particularly 15-year-old William and Harry, then 12.
William, uncannily, has his mother’s distinctive characteristic: lowering his head while his eyes gaze nervously everywhere. Every so often that day, William raised a finger to his furrowed brow- a royal family trick to hide their emotions from prying eyes – but there was no disguising his torment.
Harry could hardly take his eyes off his mother’s coffin just six feet away. Trying, like his brother, to hide his grief, he almost gave way when Elton John sang his reworked version of Candle in the Wind and reached the phrase “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever will”; at that point, Harry buried his face in his hands and was close to tears.
The most uncomfortable moment for the Royal Family and the press, both of whom had been accused of contributing to Diana’s death, came when Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, delivered his eulogy.
Once he had finished his often devastating address, there was a moment of silence, suddenly broken by a sound like rain hitting the roof, despite the bright sunshine outside.
It was, in fact, a ripple of applause which started outside and which grew and grew until it was a thunder that spread inside the Abbey. Mourners joined the clapping. So did William and Harry, unlike their father.
When Diana’s coffin started its final journey to the family home at Althorp in Northamptonshire, we mourners left the Abbey.
I have been seen by many colleagues as a ‘hard nut’ journalist and a tough Scot brought up on the mean streets of Glasgow – a reputation of which I am not ashamed – but I had barely gone 200 yards when I found a quiet corner and I wept. The enormity of what had happened in the last terrible seven days had finally caught up with me. It was my time to grieve for Diana,
Despite her flaws, Britain lost a great ambassador on that dreadful night and we also lost a friend, whether we had met her or not.
So it is no surprise that twenty years after her death we pay fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.
Former Royal correspondent for The Sun newspaper
Diana’s face, recognised in even the most inhospitable and primitive places on earth, was testament to her international status. I worked with the next writer in Australia and since then this talented reporter has been working in the Middle East. . .
IN JUNE THIS YEAR I was atop Jebel Akhdar in Oman where I stumbled across a little-known place named Diana’s Point. She visited by helicopter what at the time was an extremely remote spot, not long after she married Charles in the 1980s.
He painted while she read a book. I imagined at the time just how lonely she would have been: it is a stunning spot and the views are incredible.
Now, all that remains on that remote peak is a memorial plaque dedicated to Diana.
International reporter, ex-Daily Telegraph, Sydney
Another international journalist remembers the moment of Diana’s death intruding tragically into her own life. . .
I WAS CELEBRATING my birthday when I was called back in to the office to ring the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital because I spoke some French (though not very convincingly at that post-party stage of the early hours!).
I remember seeing paparazzi photos taken of her in the crashed car flashing up on the picture editor’s computer screen before they were almost immediately pulled from the wires.
At a brief glance she looked so perfect that, apart from an injury on her forehead, it seemed impossible she was dying. We all felt numb with shock and we were running on adrenaline.
I was sent to Angola to find the landmine victim Diana had been photographed with in the remote village where the girl lived. It seemed unlikely we would find her, even with the help of the local Red Cross, but we did.
The freelance French photographer based in Luanda who came with me then refused to hand over the film [of my meeting with the girl] until I paid him a large amount of money that I didn’t have. We had a very tense exchange, I recall!
Some years later, I was married by the Anglican chaplain in Paris who had been called that Sunday (August 31) to say prayers and to minister to the royals who came to France to take Diana home.
It’s still impossible to go through the Alma Tunnel without thinking of what happened there and how tragically avoidable it was.
Paris correspondent for The Guardian, Observer and LA Times