Books: Even As We Speak — Postscript to a Requiem |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Postscript to a Requiem

Complete with all its stylistic arabesques, the preceding obituary is reproduced in the form it took when it was first published in the special edition of the New Yorker which appeared in the week of the accident. The following weekend, a slightly shorter version appeared in Britain, in the Sunday Telegraph, and that was the version which was subsequently reprinted, sometimes in further abridged form, in newspapers and magazines in other languages, and was reproduced in its entirety in the book Requiem which came out to mark the anniversary. Not at my initiative, but with my agreement, the second version was shorn of the first version’s opening paragraph. Some London journalists, usually professing more sorrow than anger, had taken particular exception to this, quoting it dutifully as evidence of how at least one of Diana’s admirers had lost his head. Even the second version, as I have subsequently discovered, provides ample opportunity for critics deploring the state of modern journalism (or anyway deploring the modern state of my journalism) to demonstrate how a once-keen critical brain can be softened to sponge cake by the moist air of celebrity. When the Requiem volume came out, one of its reviewers — somehow contriving to forget that it was he, and not I, who was a member of the sweating team of Stakhanovite shock-workers currently pouring forth yet another load of loosely mixed sand and gravel on the topic of Diana — kindly said of my piece that I must have regretted ever having written it.

When I read what he and some of his colleagues said, I did regret having written it, but only for the moment. Self-justification is a bad reason for writing a postscript to anything, but I would be conspiring at my own hanging if I failed to record that on this topic my fellow scribblers were the only people I heard from who said that I had done the wrong thing. Other people said that I had spoken for them. From all over the world I received letters by the hundred. The harshest admonishment any of them proffered was that if I had let grief unhinge my equipoise, that was only appropriate, because they too had felt bereavement with such force that all their normal stability had trembled on its base. To be fair to my colleagues in the media, those I knew personally were ready — unusually ready, but those were unusual times — to concede that my cry from the heart had struck a note whose authenticity they recognized, even if it had come from a heart that had spent too much of its existence worn on a sleeve. One famously unfoolable TV critic had been telling me for years that the Royal Family was a swindle perpetrated on honest labourers such as herself. She phoned me in such a fit of tears that she could hardly choke out her message, which was that her anguish was made worse because she had not expected it could ever happen — that she too had been slammed into a wall, and all her best hopes for herself had been stopped with no appeal. Since she had previously, in private if not in print, been vocal in her opinion that Diana was a genetically engineered hybrid of a minx, a prize poodle and a sacrificial goat, this was a dramatic reversal of her past feelings. She said she knew it and that made it worse.

She was no isolated case. Stuff like that was going on all over London. I saw strong, respected men looking as if one of their children had died in their arms. It made me feel a bit better about snivelling at my desk, and it made me feel a lot better about having written my poem, because I had got out some of the strangely personal grief that I now knew a lot of people had been feeling, and feeling all the more intensely because it was against their expectations and convictions — against their will. It was not so much the amount of the emotion, as its contrary nature, that made the episode historically remarkable, and might well, eventually, make it recalcitrant to historical assessment, because a lot of intelligent people later on decided that they had been wrong to shed tears, and the less honest among them are already saying that they never did. The whole convulsive purgation of pity and terror is coming to be remembered as a weak moment. That it might have been a strong moment is not an idea anyone very much wants to pursue. I don’t either: empiricism, not mysticism, is what I value in British culture. But there is nothing empirical about pretending that something didn’t happen.

If you believe, as I do, that a poem is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context, then a poem is what my lament for the Princess is, at least in the eyes of its author. In the eyes of some of my critics it was a suicide note, and they might well be proved right in the long run: perhaps what was left of my reputation as a writer of critical prose was wrecked for keeps. But the point was that it didn’t seem to matter at the time, because what we self-appointed public mourners said was for her, even if — especially if — we seemed to be grieving for ourselves. A few detractors alleged in print that my tribute was nothing but an opportunistic effort to boost my importance by claiming a friendship that had had small basis in fact. (My own assurances that the friendship had had small basis in fact were taken to be Machiavellian deceptions aimed at furthering this end.) A suitably attentive textual analysis could easily support that view, and folie de grandeur might well have been my subconscious impulse. But as far as I can remember my feelings, they were precisely the opposite. Though writing about myself has always been my stock in trade, on that occasion I was as close as a pathologically solipsistic man can ever be to self-denial. All I could see, even in a mirror, was her face.

Who was she? She was us. That was her secret and her nemesis. All of us must spend our lives fighting the internal battle between what we are and what people want us to be, and many of us are handicapped in the struggle by a deficient or fluctuating sense of what we are. But Diana was unusual, even among the stricken, for a sense of self that within a single hour could wink out to nothing or expand to embrace the world. As I said in my obituary — from the viewpoint of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, it was the only real boldness in the piece — I suspected quite early on in my fleeting acquaintance with Diana that she was mentally unstable. It has sometimes been put to me since then that if I knew that about her I should have had nothing to do with her. I can think of two answers, the first more obvious than the second. The first answer is that her living presence had the same effect as some of Botticelli’s models obviously had on Botticellli, who might well have been at his most serious when he conceded that Savonarola was right to want his pictures burned, but was at his most human when he behaved as if the beauty before his eyes was a heavenly mandate to get painting immediately. In my trade I meet a lot of women who are renowned for looking perfect. Diana didn’t look that, but she did look alive. She looked like life itself. To the argument that no man of sense would have thought twice about her if she had been a check-out girl in Tesco, the only possible reply is that she would have been the classiest thing to hit Tesco since bottled water.

But as the late Sir Kingsley Amis might have put it, she wasn’t a check-out girl, was she? No, she was the Princess of Wales. So I bathed in her starlight the same as any other man who got the nod. And once admitted to her acquaintance, there could not have been many men who wanted to be rid of her before she wanted to be rid of them. She was too fascinating, and was made even more so by one’s awareness that she knew how to be fascinating, and was working the trick as a baseball pitcher might keep his arm in shape by throwing rocks at a tin can. If Ortega was right to say that a man flirts so as to make the public woman momentarily reveal her private personality, then Diana knew how to reward flirtation, and the reward became only the more precious as you realized that a different private personality was being revealed every time. The lights were on, and everybody was at home. She was an all-star cast of knockout troublemakers: Bathsheba, Salome, Helen of Troy, Circe, Medea, Dido, Messalina, Francesca da Rimini, Lucrezia Borgia, Mary Stuart, Catherine the Great, Lola Montez, Thérèse Raquin, Anna Karenina, Marie du Plessis, Mata Hari, Isadora Duncan, Aimée Semple McPherson, Mildred Pierce, Eva Peron, Betty Blue, Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit. You were looking at the inspiration of literature from the beginning of history, and she had never read a book. Try not being fascinated by that.

The second answer, the less obvious one, is the one worth expounding, because an awful lot of pious rhetoric has been lavished on the pretence that it had no substance. As many protean personalities do, but to a degree made irresistible by her beauty and position, she had the gift of reflecting a man’s best self back to him. At one level it was part of her gift for deception, and what that gift was like when it was working against you I hate to think. (It certainly worked against her: when she realized what her charm could do to disarm an editor, she made the supreme mistake of believing that she could manage the press, as if a fire could be put out with selective squirts of petrol.) But at another level it was enchanting, because she couldn’t have made it work with so many people unless she was genuinely receptive to the possibilities of life, having so many of its creative impulses within her own soul. There was always an easy thousand words to be written — some of the name columnists on the Diana beat were paid for the words at a pound each — about the remarkable extent to which she was uneducated. Few ever wrote about the remarkable extent to which she was educable. She must have had a natural feeling for words, for example, because by the time I knew her she had taught herself to speak with verve and to the point. She had read, and continued to read, nothing except hocus-pocus, but apart from the occasional malapropism she was a pleasure to hear.

At her funeral service, the melody that best reflected her later tastes was the work of Verdi, not Elton John. She came a long way in her appreciation of music, and the best inference was that this was because she was a born listener, just as she was a born dancer. It was often pointed out that she had no idea of how dedicated a real ballet dancer’s life has to be. I suspect that she had a very good idea, and regretted that she had found out too late, or anyway had begun in the wrong place. (The old Irish joke whose punchline is ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ applies exactly.) Deborah Bull’s marvellous writings are now with us to make clear what the life a real dancer has to lead is like, and incidentally they tell us about the sort of background from which she has to emerge. It is rarely an aristocratic one. Diana’s upbringing could scarcely have been more inimical to any kind of concentrated effort. All the more remarkable, then, that she became so appreciative of concentrated effort in the short years of her adulthood. It was one of the forces that combined to pull her apart. She couldn’t see a doctor in action without wanting to be his nurse. She envied anyone with a vocation. You could call it bubble-headed dilettantism if you liked, but to assume that it was part of some sophisticated pose was a failure of the imagination. For those bent on her destruction in print, it would have been more accurate and thus more useful to call her naïve. Though she had the con artist’s deadly knack of assessing a stranger’s character from how he spoke and stood, she would take his role in life at his own estimation, and captivate him by being in awe of it. No doubt there is something crazy about a woman who can’t meet a ditch-digger without letting him think that she harbours a frustrated dream of digging ditches. But ask the ditch-digger what he thinks. He thinks that she has flattered the life into him.

Of the harm she could do there is still no full telling, and I rather hope that we will never be told. But of the good that was in her there is not enough said. Writers shame themselves who devote their valuable skills to calling her charitable impulse a grandstand play. It is true — this can never be said too often either — that the kind of charity work Prince Charles does is a hundred times more demanding of time and discipline than anything his dizzy wife ever attempted. But with this talent as with any other, the Gods are erratic in how they dish it out, and they gave Diana the talent to visit the helpless with an injection of the Holy Spirit. How much she did with that talent is open to question. I suppose her compassion for landmine victims would have carried more conviction if she had cared less for the genius of Gianni Versace. But there should be no doubt that her damaged psyche carried unusual powers of sympathy. They couldn’t do much to help her — turned inwards, pity was one of her most lethal enemies — but they could do wonders for other people, a category which surely included, at least in the early stages of a liaison, those men who were granted the dubious blessing of her intimacy. In retrospect, redeeming features in Dodi Fayed are hard to find, but it is a safe bet that when he was near her he was at his best. She probably saw something in him, and got him to agree. It was the key to her way with the men in her life, most of whom, we should remember, have honoured her memory by keeping their counsel. The poor, damned James Hewitt was the exception, not the rule. (Even Will Carling tried to shut up, but found that the press pack was rather heavier, and faster on its feet, than any other pack he had ever faced: he must have thought that Jonah Lomu had been cloned into a regiment.) She overestimated Hewitt as she overestimated everyone, a tropism typical in those who lack self-esteem. Part of her downfall was that all her geese were swans. But Hewitt was unique in taking revenge on her for her credulity. From the men she cared most about we have heard nothing, a silence whose full fortitude is hard to estimate from outside. Only Prince Charles, subject to overwhelming pressure, has said so much as a word, and all who wish him well can only hope that he never feels bound to say another. The men who know most have said least, and the man who knows everything has said almost nothing, and that’s how it should be.

I never knew anything except the pleasure of her company, but perhaps I should say here why I was reluctant to talk even about that. I was and remain a part of the press, so there is no point in my trying to high-hat the whole institution. I would like to think that writing thoughtful articles in my own house is a higher activity than sticking my foot through the door of someone else’s, but in the long run investigative journalism is the foundation of a free press, and a free press is something I am for, out of political conviction. I just don’t believe that a free press should be free to investigate the private lives of people who are in the limelight for any other reason except, through election or official appointment, their consent to public accountability. The argument that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear was heard in Salem, and is always repudiated by its proponents at the moment when attention shifts to them. By force of circumstances I had that much worked out long before I met the Princess of Wales. In the 1980s I wrote and presented a TV series called Fame in the Twentieth Century, and it necessitated a lot of reading that didn’t show up in the final script. I was reading about the phenomenon of modern celebrity, and how it affected lives. It emerged, progressively and inexorably throughout the century, that there was a paradox in the very nature of a free press. It was a free press that shielded the democratic societies from the murderous tyranny of the totalitarian ones, but it steadily came to exercise a tyranny of its own, just as pervasive if much less violent. People became trapped by what was written about them, and they were never more trapped than when they thought they were guiding the process of publicity by cooperating with it. The best they could do, by doing so, was to become riders on the storm.

So when I first lunched with Diana in a public restaurant, my first thought was for my own welfare. Already enjoying the questionable privilege of a small measure of celebrity of my own, I knew the phone would start to ring that same afternoon, and I knew that anything I said would go straight into the database, to be quoted from in any context from then on, especially if the context was unfavourable. From the minute I sat down I was already cast in the role of Eats With Princesses. For the sort of commentator for whom ‘antipodean’ is a long, hard, funny word, anything I said on the subject would be grist to the mill. So for my own sake I resolved to keep my trap shut. But there was an additional element, and a much more important one. I was already appalled by the sheer amount of what was being written about her, whatever its nature. Not all of it was nonsense, but even the sensible stuff was part of an avalanche. Silence might have been a small gesture, but sometimes a small gesture is the only meaningful one you can make, especially when you are afraid. And I wasn’t just afraid of having my own small name attached to her big name, in the way that superannuated Mafia button-men, their achievements forgotten, find themselves remembered for their connections with Frank Sinatra. I was afraid of the storm. I didn’t want to be part of it. I was afraid of what it had already done to her, and of what it would do next.

The only significant thing I left out of the obituary was that I counselled her against going to America. When she raised the subject of how Jackie Kennedy had managed her later life, it wasn’t hard to guess what was going on in the Royal head. I told her that Jackie Kennedy had, to a certain extent, been able to choose privacy; that the same choice would never be available for a runaway Princess; and that she would need a private army, because the sidewalks of New York were very wide, and it was a long walk between the front door and the limousine. I all but told her what was really on my mind, which was that if she went to the United States she would almost certainly be assassinated. To say so at the time would have sounded like paranoia. Alas, it sounds less like that now. All I was wrong about was where the storm was taking her. It wasn’t to America, it was to Paris and the tunnel.

Anyway, the phone rang most days until her death. I suppose it would have rung less often since if I had kept to my rule and gone on saying nothing even when she died. The only excuse I can plead is shock. My answering machine filled up with messages from every publication and television channel: some of the names I knew all too well. People whose attentions had helped drive her to the wall were begging my help in decorating her coffin with their cheap wreaths. There were calls from Australia, from America, from Hong Kong. What it must have been like for those whose acquaintance with her amounted to more than a few short hours, Christ only knows. Not to respond was easy. It has been just as easy since. But on that awful day after the night Diana died, a great natural psychologist made it hard. Tina Brown called from Long Island and told me what she hoped I would do. When I said that I couldn’t possibly, she read my voice and asked what else I was going to do for the next few days.

It was the right question. Like so many others, I had been surprised by my own wretchedness and needed distraction from it with a job of work. Much has been made since of how the country and the world went mad in a self-regarding ecstasy, a populist frenzy that threatened the rule of reason. There is truth in that argument. The devastated Royal Family had a right to their seclusion. So-called popular opinion had no business hauling them out of it, although it was my impression that it was the press, and not the people it presumed to speak for, who stormed the gates. There is even something in the admonition that bigger tragedies happen every day. There is something, but not, I think, all that much. It is all too true that less illustrious victims are taken by the hour in circumstances inconceivably more cruel, and that there have been times when much younger ones have been taken by the million. But anti-populist oracles seldom consider the possibility that the people might already have known all that. Nor, if they knew all that, were they necessarily weeping at such a brutal reminder that sudden death, if it could come for her, could come for anyone, and thus for them. To believe they were weeping solely for themselves, you have to believe they were all selfish. My own bet, based on my own experience, is that the much-derided masses felt the pain of losing someone they loved.

No doubt they got above themselves, but I would be the last person to say they had no right to. Not that I favour populism as a political creed. I ceased to believe in the credentials of New Labour when Tony Blair read the lesson at Diana’s funeral. I wish John Prescott had read it instead: we might have heard the tones of sincerity, whereas populism comes down to a calculation of what will play, and there is no calculation colder than well-rehearsed sentimentality. Diana as the icon of demagogues is a frightening prospect. Julie Burchill is probably an extreme case, but it was very disturbing to find that someone who had gone on record as positively liking the idea that Stalin had killed millions of innocent people should also go potty for the Princess. Pundits who think of the people as an instrument to be played upon — and of course those who fear such a possibility think the same way — have been hailing Diana as a voodoo talisman. There will probably be more of that to come: not so rabid, perhaps, but more insidious for seeming reasonable. I wish I could say that I foresaw such things might happen, and wrote my piece as part of a pre-emptive antidote. But I didn’t need prescience to see the radiance of the icon. What I wanted to celebrate and lament was the radiance of the human being. She might have been less radiant had she possessed more integrity — she would have been less concerned to project her inner fires — but a human being she was.

Thankfully lost in my work, I spent four days writing about her, and have said nothing else about her until now. What I have offered here is not a defence of what I wrote, but a description of its circumstances, for anyone who might feel bound to make a serious study of what went on at an extraordinary time. I can’t tell whether I was right to predict that the impact of her death would change the emotional climate of the country, but I can’t tell if I was wrong either. The good news is that people in real life, as opposed to professional gossips, seem less inclined to suppose that celebrity status is a bed of roses, and are more likely to give away some of their precious time. I detect her example in that first effect, and her legacy in the second: if it is true that she was self-obsessed, by just so much she dramatized her selfless acts, and to copy those is no less useful for being fashionable. The bad news is that the press scarcely let up for a year. The Daily Mail, for instance, carried a Diana story almost every day, and often her picture on the front page. Though the pressure eased off a bit after the anniversary, it is not as if the flood has dried to a trickle: there is still a steady stream. The expenditure of energy that has gone into all this is daunting to think about. Most of it adds up to less than nothing, but for a generation of journalists to spend the best part of a career hunting the Snark, and then go on hunting it after it is dead and buried — well, it can hardly come to good. But there is money in it, because people want to read the stuff; and to believe that the stories would vanish if the people really ruled is wishful thinking.

Winding down, I should perhaps say at this point, to block a possible line of reproof, that of the several thousands of pounds the piece earned all over the world, every penny was given directly to charity. The same will be true, in perpetuity, of the proportion of royalties for this book that is generated by the total pages devoted to the same subject, with an additional percentage to cover the possibility — slimmer now, thank Heaven, than would have earlier been true — of its sales being artificially increased by the allusion to her name. If a lawyer working for the Diana Memorial Fund feels justified in taking a salary, there are no doubt business ethics to justify it. But for a writer, on the level of elementary morality, there can be no quibbling: money made out of Diana’s death is blood money, and that’s final.

Let me conclude this postscript by saying that I am under no illusions. For better or for worse (almost certainly for worse, as far as my reputation goes) my valediction for the Princess will be identified as the experimentum crucis of my career as a journalist, always supposing that anyone cares. I had always wanted — why hide the obvious? — to earn a place, however small, in the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. Out of the blue, in one sad week, I did. To that extent I too, like so many others, have been touched by her fate, but I have better reasons than that for wishing her fate had been otherwise. If she were still here, if she had never gone into the tunnel, history would have passed me by. It didn’t, but it is not just for my sake that I wish it had.