Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 26. What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 26. What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?


It was what Diana died of. She should have been in show business, where there is a protocol for survival after your life has been eaten hollow by dreams come true. But she was on her own. I was working late in my London apartment when I got the news, and for several days afterwards I couldn’t stop crying. Such an outburst of grief had never happened to me before in my life. I spent a couple of days at the office but I was useless. Behind the closed door of my cubicle I lay on my little z-bed and sobbed. Outside the door, Wendy Gay fended off callers from every media organization in Britain and Australia, all wanting my opinion. My opinion of what? The wrath of God? I went to ground in Cambridge and still couldn’t stop crying. My family, stricken too but still upright, were very nice to their cot case. My wife, whose tenderness was a lesson in generosity, was good at cutting the incoming phone calls short. Finally a call came through from Tina Brown at the New Yorker. I owed her too much to give her the freeze, so I took the call. She wanted me to write a memoir of Diana. I said I couldn’t. Tina, always the master psychologist, asked me what else I would be doing in the next few days. I took the point, got a car to the office and wrote a piece called ‘Requiem’. It was a kind of poem, its every paragraph starting with the word ‘No’. I was still crying while I worked on it but it was something to do.

During this time, there had been a national emotional outpouring which reached its focal point of expression as a field of flowers in London. Later it became fashionable to claim that one had never joined in, but I can claim no such thing, although I still believe that the Royal Family should not have been dragooned into a populist gesture by the very newspapers which had done so much to make Diana’s life a lethal fantasy. Charles looked concussed but anyone with any sense realized that his anguish was without limit. The truth was that nobody really knew what they were doing because nobody was ready for it. This will be the hardest thing to explain to the next generation. Nobody knew that she would die. Only from the fake wisdom of hindsight can her life be seen as leading up to that event. Her own expectations, like anybody else’s, were quite otherwise. She had a future in front of her, and all kinds of qualities to make it fruitful. Perhaps she would have found, in time — time which we all need — a peaceful balance into which her corroding neuroses might have melted away. And now her future had been cancelled. One among millions, I coped with a sense of loss whose intensity defied explanation. A psychologist might have said that I was weeping the tears that I had never wept for my own family tragedy, the death of my father when I was young. But that same psychologist would have done better to say that I had seen my mother’s life ruined in a single moment, and never since had I been able to tolerate the spectacle of a vital young woman being stopped by misfortune from achieving what she might have done. Either way, the psychologist wasn’t available, and all I had, apart from the kindness of my wife and children, was my own resources. They seemed to me to have broken down completely. But I got my article written, so perhaps they had not.

Some commentators said that what I had written was embarrassing, but when the piece came out in a special issue of the magazine it got the biggest postbag I ever received for anything. There were hundreds of letters, all saying that they felt the same, and I knew that there were countless more people who would never read a magazine with so many words in it and so few pictures, but who had likewise been surprised by the same grief. This solidarity of response among people from all walks of life, and from everywhere in the world, is the thing I remember best. Of the funeral in the Abbey I remember only fleeting impressions. I thought that the way Tony Blair read the lesson, with an ornately bogus display of pious emphasis, was enough to prove that he was an actor to the core of his nature. I thought that Elton John did a good job of singing a bad song. I thought the Earl Spencer’s speech bordered on sedition but was well spoken. But mainly I thought nothing. I just sat there, in my seat on the aisle, halfway along the central block at the left-hand end. Then, as the ceremony wound to a close, this thing happened that I knew I would remember until my own turn came to die. Down the aisle towards me came the Guardsmen carrying the coffin on their shoulders. I thought they would go right past me on the way to the front door. But just across from me on the left, a side aisle had been left between the rows of seats. The side aisle led to a little door in the stone wall. Right beside me, the Guardsmen turned into the side aisle and carried the coffin through the door, with only a few inches between the coffin lid and the roof of the corridor they had entered. The soft crunch of their spit-polished boots on the flagstones became a whispered conversation of lingering echoes as she went away into the dark.