"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Friday, August 31, 2007

Ten Years Ago Today

Labor Day Weekend. We were sitting in front of the television watching Local Hero. It was late evening here, and earliest morning in Europe. After the credits rolled, we tuned to CNN to catch up on news before heading off to bed. I was weary after a day of packing for a trip to London and the Isle of Man.

The news anchor announced Princess Diana's Paris automobile accident.

We watched, shocked into wakefulness, for several hours more, until after Reuters, then Buckingham Palace, confirmed her death.

For the rest of the weekend, it was All Diana, All the Time. One cable network ran the Royal Wedding in its entirety. I kept it on while I prepared my research itinerary, and was transported back to the July morning when I woke up very early to watch history. Despite extensive knowledge of aristocratic behaviour and marriages in history--and in person--I wanted to believe a fairytale.

As the couple took their places before the Archbishop, in my mind I could still hear one of my grad school roomates saying, "He doesn't love her." When Diana stumbled over his name, I remembered how my heart sank. A bad omen? Back then, in 1981, I tried not to think so. On the day Charles and Diana married, I was in a mood for romance--I was caught up in one of my own. The Chap and I had been seriously dating for about six weeks.

Not many days after the tragedy in Paris, my husband and I arrived at Heathrow Aiport. It was nearly 9:00 p.m. and his travels weren't over. Immediately after landing, we parted--he raced to another terminal, another gate to catch his Dublin flight.

I hadn't planned to go into London that night, but boarded a Hoppa bus that took me to a property managed by my least favourite hotel chain in the world, which I refer to as The Abyss. It was convenient, and I was prepared to bear a single night there. Along the route, in the darkness, I noted all the flags at other hotels at half-staff.

The next day, I entered a London altered beyond all recognition. I felt as though I'd been beamed onto an unfamiliar planet. Planet Pain.

I was there to see friends, to visit museums, to research a novel and found myself in a Ground Zero of grief. While I hadn't come to rubberneck at a nation (nay, a world) consumed by mourning rituals, it was impossible not to be affected.

I saw people walking along the pavements clutching flowers in cellophane and knew they were either headed for Kensington Palace or St. James's Palace, where the body lay in state in the Chapel. In a particularly posh Mayfair bookshop, I overhead two aristos superciliously commenting on the unseemly emotionalism of their fellow Britons.

I recorded their exchange in my journal.

"Why doesn't the Pope step in," said one, "and make Diana an official saint?"

"But she wasn't that religious, was she?"

"Oh, never mind reality."

It was expressed quite chauvinistically,
I wrote, but at the same time, I knew what he meant.

Because, you see, I'd followed Diana's travails via the British press. After the breakdown of her marriage, her passive-aggressive relationship with the media and her celebrityhood, my own feelings and perceptions about her were mixed.

One afternoon my research took me to St. James's Square.

Sat in the Square for a bit...working up the courage to go round to the palace. The first thing I noticed were the television satellite relay vans lined up before that historic edifice.

The crowds were very silent and sedate.

The banks of flowers with messages were incredibly moving.

As I walked up St. James's Street, I passed many a person bearing a large bouquet.

I was in London during all that messy speculation about the Queen, dramatised in the film of the same name. Why hasn't she come down from Scotland to comfort her people? Why doesn't she order the Royal Standard to rest at half-staff? Why won't she make a statement about Diana?

Eventually she did and she did and she did. While packing for my IOM jaunt, I watched her brief, stilted address on television.

I was still in London the morning of the funeral--"unique, for a unique person" as Buck Palace described it. The procession hadn't even begun when I departed for Heathrow, where I caught snippets on televisions stationed round the departure lounges.

Thousands of miles away, at the Lodge, my VCR was timed to record the broadcast, some six hours worth--procession, funeral, journey to Althorp.

Flying over Britain on that glorious early September day--clear and sunny--was truly memorable. Seated by the window, I examined every inch of the countryside spread out below. Pastures, agricultural fields, houses...motorways.

Something about the latter was decidedly odd. The moment I worked it out, I turned to my seatmate, a stranger and said, "There are no vehicles moving down there. The roads are deserted."

Proof, not that I needed it, that almost an entire nation was glued to the television set.

My friend on the Isle of Man was waiting at Douglas Aiport. I told her what I'd seen from the air, said I was sorry if I'd taken her away from the telly on such a significant day.

"Oh, I didn't want to watch it at all. Too sad, I couldn't bear it."

After several days on the island, I returned to London, where I waited for the Chap to hop over from Dublin. The St. James's area is one of our regular haunts. As we headed towards the Ritz one one afternoon, I asked tentatively, "Would you like to see what's happening outside St. James's Palace?" He did.

The removal of the coffin from the chapel had thinned the crowd. The floral tributes were still there, now dull and tired.

The bouquets were starting to go--some were long finished, making the display look even sadder than when fresh. Candles, soft toys, innumerable notes and child-drawn art, photos of Diana clipped from magazines--masses of stuff.

Our time together in London was as pleasant as always, but so strange, and eventually we returned home.

The videotape of Diana's funeral was waiting for me.

I've never watched it.

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