Diana: What have we learned?

IAN COLLINS Ten years on, Ian Collins ponders what we’ve learned from the brilliant life and brutal death of Diana, Princess of Wales.


Arriving at Charing Cross for Diana's funeral, I had that journalist's nightmare of missing the moment. The platforms were almost empty. Silence reigned.

But outside the station I stepped into a human ocean. Hundreds of thousands were thronging the pavements to Westminster Abbey and, as it turned out, lining the entire route through the capital the coffin would take on the final journey to Northamptonshire.

Later this unprecedented outpouring of grief, echoed the world over, would provoke a backlash of embarrassment until it could be dismissed by cynical pundits as mass hysteria. But can silence be hysterical?

My entry ticket saw the sea of people parted, and then came the eerie experience of a walk down the centre of a hushed Whitehall, round Parliament Square and into the abbey.

Here all words and all music seemed to miss the meditative mood until Earl Spencer's shattering speech about Diana the Hunted.

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After a stunned pause we heard a distant rain rising in volume until it hammered the walls like hail or insurrection. The sound of countless hands clapping.

Breaking through the windows, this note of affirmation was picked up at the back of the abbey and then, from my seat in the gallery, I watched as row after row of mourners joined in.

In the end the sound was overwhelming. But, ten years on, what exactly was the message?

Maybe traditional British reserve was smashed at that moment. The stiff upper lip had lost out to the quivering lower one. For a while we all wore the Queen of Hearts on our sleeves.

There's a huge difference between sentiment and sentimentality - the former denoting deepest human emotions, the latter being the tears a hunter weeps for something he has just shot. Both were displayed that day.

Doubtless many of those planting the field of flowers in Kensington, filling all those books of condolences, or turning out for the funeral, had scorned Diana in the months before her death.

On the night she died I was at a supper party where my usual defence of her actions drew only one supporter.

Others had lapped up a debasing soap opera which ultimately saw Diana chased by paparazzi to her death in that road tunnel.

Are we hypocrites at heart?

Ours is certainly an age of tawdry exhibitionism, valuing celebrity over talent. Ask a child what he or she wants to be in adult life and you may well get a one-word answer: "Famous."

The great Ricky Gervais noted recently that our society loads as much value on a ham actor in a telly soap as a medical scientist winning the war against cancer. I fear many now admire the hamster more.

For my part, although falling also for Diana's looks, what I loved was the way she used the spotlight - brilliantly, ruthlessly - to promote uncomfortable causes. Her beauty exposed so much ugliness.

And the good works were not an add-on for a celebrity lifestyle - of the sickening kind that's now compulsory for celebs. They were her life. All the rest was flim-flam.

A traditional belief that royalty had healing powers died with Queen Anne. And yet there was something uncanny about the way Diana came to connect with the ailing and dispossessed.

For all the power of wealth and looks, here was a badly educated Norfolk girl from a broken family. Too late Germaine Greer wished on her a history O-level, so that she might have known the fate of those marrying princes of Wales. But how well she learned as an adult.

Her dazzle made others look dull. At a Buckingham Palace garden party I once saw several minor royals almost crushed by a crowd surging towards the Princess of Wales. How dangerous it felt even then.

But, ten years after that terrible end, the Diana saga - both inspirational and truly tragic - may reveal the strength of the British constitution. It bends so as not to break.

The monarch left Balmoral to lead the nation's mourning just as popular will demanded. That exquisitely judged film The Queen showed the chasm between a passionate princess and a head of state trained from birth to separate duty from emotion.

Forged by the Abdication Crisis of 1936 - when a wayward uncle was ejected from the throne in favour of her shy father who would ultimately be killed by the burden of public duties - there's steel in Elizabeth II.

And while many may be indifferent to monarchy these days, there's growing affection for this monarch - just as there was for Queen Victoria after her golden jubilee.

At a time when karaoke performers hog the limelight how comforting the figure who we know, for all that impeccable duty, would rather be at home in Norfolk with the dogs and horses. Power rests best with those who want it least.

Now those of us who see the irrationality of monarchy shudder at the thought of a President Thatcher or Blair.

And Cherie Blair-style disrespect for our elderly and harmless head of state - while fawning before the figureheads of every other country and culture - just looks like crass rudeness.