The week the country went nuts
Liz, September 1, 2017
I’ve been watching coverage of the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, with interest.
I was 26 – and working on the features desk of a large regional paper – when she died. At the time, I was married to a press photographer.
Looking at the TV coverage from the week after her death now, it’s alarming how old it all looks – how much like the olden days.
Of course, it was a different era. The few of us who had mobile phones then had those bricky Nokia things with the little stubby antenna. The internet existed, just about. And a few of us paid for email accounts with Compuserve. Digital photography wasn’t really a thing yet – and pretty much all the images of Diana were shot in the old way.
As a reporter, I carried rolls of 10p pieces in the glove compartment in my car, just in case I had to call a story in – like from the scene of an incident or from a meeting that was too far away from a newspaper office to make a deadline.
News of Diana’s death greeted everyone as they woke up on that Sunday morning. The atmosphere was bizarre.
As you grow older and experience more personal grief, you get to understand that it will isolate you – and those close to you – for a time. During that grieving period, it’s like you’re watching the rest of the world happening around you, while your own life is somehow placed on hold.
When Diana died, it was like the whole country suddenly found itself on hold, floating in those first few numb days of grief. The intensity of it was tangible, palpable. You could cut it, almost.
What I must admit, though, is that I didn’t feel part of it. I felt sorry for the woman, of course. And you’d have to be a monster not to feel desperately for the two young princes, stoically walking behind their mother in the courtège.
But I was more fascinated by what I saw as mass hysteria. I read a description of Truman Capote once. It said he was fascinating – “like a candied tarantula”. That’s the kind of fascination I felt for what was going on around me. People travelling to London by the coach load to cry together and hold pictures. People openly crying in the streets. Newsagents taking magazines off their shelves because they’d killed their princess.
Sackfuls of poems
At work, things were weird too. One of my jobs as a feature writer was to create the editorial column on behalf of the editor. The country was incensed that the Queen had stayed in Scotland – and that there was no flag flying at half mast over Buckingham Palace.
Our letters to the editor bag turned into letters to the editor bags – containing hundreds and thousands of missives (barely any email, remember, and no online forums).
I guess about half of them were poems, from people who’d stayed up through the night, pouring their anguish onto the page. They were beyond terrible. The couplet:
Oh why, oh why, oh why
Is Diana in the sky?
made many, many appearances.
One poem sticks in my head, 20 years on. Not for the content – which was the same old doggerel as everything else. It was more the fact that it had been transcribed in such fury, and underlined so many times that the page had almost ripped through:
Paparazzi, paparazzi, driving through the night!
Paparazzi, paparazzi, giving Di a fright!
Paparazzi, paparazzi, driving for the thrill!
Paparazzi, paparazzi, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO KILL?
It was signed: DEATH TO PHOTOGRAPHERS. A vaguely amused thought crossed my mind that someone might punch my then-husband (hey, if you haven’t married and divorced by 30, you haven’t lived).
The other letters were demanding that a flag be raised… at least halfway up a flagpole.
“I need you to write something that doesn’t make us look bonkers,” said my editor, “But that shows we understand our readers.”
I did my best – and two old ladies phoned in to say, “Well said!”. First crisis of the day averted. Also, during that week, the phrase “outpouring of grief” became a thing.
Cashing in on death
Something that happened regularly in newsrooms at this point was a thing known as the Death Sweep. Bascially, every reporter, photographer, sub editor, etc pays a pound for a ticket. The ticket has a well-known person’s name on it. The holder of the ticket of the first celebrity to die hits the jackpot, and the whole thing starts again.
It’s a cynical exercise. But they were cynical times. At least in newsrooms they were, anyway.
My ticket was for Emma Bunton. I forget who had Diana’s ticket now – but I do remember the dinner ladies (who also had tickets) going completely bananas that the “winner” might try to cash in on Diana.
A week later, Mother Teresa died and the holder of her ticket met no resistance whatsoever from our canteen team.
Looking back, I wish I’d kept a diary of the time. It was weird and it was unprecedented. The whole country, I think, went loopy loo.
Leave a Reply