At the beginning of the 1980's Britain was in a fairly dark place. An economic, social and cultural transition was happening. The country was in need of a fairy tale and it got one in the shape of the much publicised romance between Prince Charles and Diana Frances Spencer, who was born on 1 July 1961. Since this is the week of Diana's birth I thought I jot down a few memories and observations.
We never met face to face but our paths did cross a couple of times. By the time I first saw her in person I felt already knew her, such was the media frenzy when her relationship with the Prince first came to light. I've never seen one person so relentlessly exploited by the media before or since. It was like Beatlemania though the focus was on a single, young individual. Doubtless she had a notion that she would be 'stepping in to the spotlight' but I really don't think she or anybody had the foggiest idea of the level of hysteria that would be whipped up by the world's press. Her face was on every newspaper, magazine and TV show. From the announcement of the royal engagement in February in 1981 to the Royal Wedding in July 1981 (watched by a worldwide audience of 750 million), Diana's face became one of the most recognisable on planet earth.
I had no problem then recognising the woman on my first encounter. I was working in Kensington at the time and as usual I alighted from the train at Olympia from which my office, Charles House, was but a short walk. I crossed Kensington High Street using the pedestrian crossing. Although the traffic lights had changed to red and I'd taken several steps into the road, a Mercedes came hurtling out of nowhere heading straight for me. As I stepped back out of harm's way I eyeballed the driver. It was Lady Diana! She give me the sweetest apologetic look and mouthed the word 'sorry'. I think by this time she had taken to using a gym in Chelsea and was presumably coming back from her morning work out. I was surprised she was alone in the car, and that there didn't seem to be any other vehicles following her by way of a security detail. It was just her and me and a near fatal accident. One has to keep one's eyes open while walking the streets of Kensington. On one occasion I found myself within a few feet of getting mown down by TV personality and Mastermind winner, Fred Housego in his taxi. On another, I gave star of and stage and screen Una Stubbs a break-test in her Beamer while crossing the road at Phillimore gardens. The look on her face wasn't quite so enchanting as lady Di's!
The second time I got to see Diana at close quarters was when she came to our office. Part of the building was given over to a hospital trust and she had been invited to perform the official opening of the new wing. This occasion was much more auspicious. She had her best togs on and hair and make-up was immaculate, a far cry from the startled gym-veteran I'd seen before. There were limousines, an entourage of assistants and a legion of photographers. My office on the fourth floor overlooked the main entrance where the circus arrived. I didn't get to see her inside the building though I could hear there was a hell of a buzz coming from the next corridor. The thing I most remember was that when she left the building, she acknowledged all of us plebs rubber-necking out of the windows. She did a slow-spin waiving at all of us. Somehow she gave the impression of having made eye-contact with everybody looking down at her which I considered quite thoughtful and professional.
The other strong memory I have of lady Diana was of her death. The wife and I were on holiday in Cyprus when it happened. We learned about it rather accidently from flicking through the Greek TV channels. Being pre-internet, there wasn't really any further way in which we could learn anything more about it, so we got over the initial shock quite easily. I recall going out to dinner that evening and I made a remark about it that was overheard by an English couple on the next table. We started chatting about it by way of catharsis and became friends. The rest of the week went by without being confronted with anymore information about it and in our minds it was done and dusted - out of our system. I thought that was the end of it.
When we flew into Gatwick a week later though we found out it had just been the start. With the same intensity the media had paid her way back at the announcement of her engagement, the press and TV had been relentless in the coverage of her death. The nation's grief button had been massaged daily, imbuing in people a much more profound sense of loss than we had because we hadn't been exposed to the media. I'm not saying we didn't feel anything, but what everyone in Britain was feeling was just out of step with our own experience. It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even the sort of cynical folk who would normally have a sick joke at the expense of a regular celebrity death were weeping into their handkerchieves. The whole business made me realise how powerful the media are when it comes to manipulating hearts and minds. The mood of the nation might not be created by the media but it certainly can be amplified and polarised.