There can be very little doubt; it was my generation’s JFK moment. I know exactly where I was. I know what happened. How I felt. How I reacted. I also know that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales remains one of the most significant moments in the history of post-war Britain. Not the death, albeit the untimely and deeply tragic death of an inspiring woman and devoted mother, but instead the death of the stiff upper lip, hide your emotions consensus that had pervaded this country for as long as anyone can remember.
The reaction to Diana’s death and the week of the funeral and the extraordinary funeral itself is now seared into the pysche of the UK – a country-changing seven days which saw huge movements in attitudes, public opinion and public consciousness.
Back to the beginning. I was in bed. Not long in bed after a night out in Southport. Knock. Knock. “Ben. Ben. Get up. Diana is dead!”. Mum and I sat drinking tea glued to the TV – the BBC – obviously for big moments – in this moment of huge national and international news. It was hard to believe. The initial shock giving way to real, deep sadness that two young boys would grow up without their mummy – and for me, double despair for them given the dysfunctional, outdated and totally broken family establishment they had the misfortune to be born into. Our hearts went out to them.
Over the course of the next few hours and then the next few days it was like a drug to news junkies like me. Hard to take your eyes from the TV, newspapers and radio. This was of course, in the days before Twitter and mainstream online news. The fix was constant. What made it mesmerising what the shift that was taking place before our eyes as the nation – and many around the world who lived in this nation – openly wept, screamed and wailed (that was the sound that stuck in my mind from that day to this) as Diana’s body was taken through the streets.
The political animal in me also soaked up the ramifications for the government – Tony Blair; more popular than Churchill – and the royal family, who teetered for a few days as their ivory tower existence caught up with them, until some simple gestures and some of the most impactful communications delivered in living memory (the flag, the tour of the flowers and “as a grandmother”) turned the tide of goodwill in their favour. It was extraordinary to experience, for that’s what it was; an experience. All local sport cancelled. The country ground to a halt. Millions glued to their TVs as Elton John and Earl Spencer did their thing and so many tears were shed by so many people, included some of the most unexpected. It truly was history being written every minute and its legacy remains today.
The twentieth anniversary gives us cause to reflect on those momentous days; the drama; the history; the moments that will last a lifetime but more importantly to remember the most important thing. The key aspect to this Shakespearian tragedy. The loss of someone who meant so much to her family, friends and a wider world. The extinguishing of a light which shone for many. Diana wasn’t my cup of tea but she was certainly a unique and special person, living a unique and extra-special life.
As 31st August arrives, I hope her sons find some comfort in the love that is still felt for their mother and the legacy she leaves behind. In the end, when you lose someone who fills your life with endless love it doesn’t matter whether you are prince or pauper your loss is catastrophic and never, ever goes away.