Yes, I was a cynic until I met her
Like most thirtysomething women, I grew up with Princess Diana. We were just 16 and discovering the other sex when she glided up the aisle in that Emanuel dress, and, though my friends and I shrieked with laughter at the creases when she stepped out of the carriage, in those days we, too, dreamt of finding our fairytale prince as we clutched our commemorative wedding mugs.
Some of us went to the hairdresser afterwards clutching magazine pictures asking shyly for a “Lady Di” and our first highlights; others of us experimented at home with Sun-In. Following Diana’s footsteps, we bought the pedal-pushers and the woolly jumpers patterned with sheep. Like Diana – and quite unlike what our mothers had told us – we gradually discovered that there was more to life than gilded carriages and bridal gowns, and that the best place to feel good might be the local gym.
As we got older, went to university, took jobs and even got married ourselves, most of us formed a love-hate relationship toward Diana, detesting what we saw of her as a control-freak, but impressed with her ever-changing image and the way she embraced those with Aids or leprosy.
She made it all right to have eating disorders or need therapy – if someone that beautiful could have an image problem, then we had every right to be screwed up. The stick-thin girl in our class whose mysterious absences we were never allowed to talk about, we all remembered with guilt.
I was overseas when the famous Taj Mahal photo appeared of the lonely princess, and a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé faxed it to me with the message: “And I thought I had problems!”But in an era when we were striving to become career women as can-do as any male, Diana was just too feminine and emotional. So in January, when the editor of this newspaper asked me to cover her trip to Angola, I had very mixed feelings.
When I told my friends where I was off to, they laughed, knowing me as someone more used to reporting on wars, with little patience for the media obsession with Di’s latest look. Having seen firsthand the terrible effect of landmines in Afghanistan and Mozambique, I cared deeply about the issue her trip was intended to publicise, although I feared it would be a vast publicity stunt.
At the same time I was intrigued to have a closer look at this woman with just one CSE whose fans were so diverse that they even included my hippie friend Sarina who knits jumpers in Bolivia and always asked me to send pictures, and Tanya, one of my most dynamic friends, who is so ambitious that when we were students she had written a list of 10 things to achieve by 30, including becoming a company director and making her first £1m.
Standing in the baking sun at Luanda airport waiting for the princess to arrive, I remembered the footage of Diana assisting the heart operation at Harefield in full make-up. I scowled, fearing this was going to be more of the same. I was pleasantly surprised then when she turned up in jeans, white shirt and no make-up, and consoled myself over how good she looked by snidely spotting the designer label.
As she sped off in a Red Cross jeep, 40 cameras in hot pursuit, a bemused Angolan selling chewing gum tugged my sleeve and asked who she was. It took me a while to understand that after 35 years of armed conflict and civil war which had torn the nation apart, this was one of the few countries in the world where Princess Diana was not an instantly recognisable figure.
It was all the more remarkable then to see her effect on the hundreds of mutilated mine victims we were to come into contact with that week. She’d come, she said, determined to work, and work she did. The Red Cross whisked us from one hospital to the next, each with ever more horrific scenes of skeletal figures with missing arms, missing legs and half-blown off heads – victims of some of the 16m landmines scattered around the country.
Many of the injuries were so gruesome that I could not look, despite years of Third World reporting. But Diana never turned her head away. Instead, she had something I’d only ever seen before from Nelson Mandela – a kind of aura that made people want to be with her, and a completely natural, straight-from-the-heart sense of how to bring hope to those who seemed to us to have little to live for.
As I speak Portuguese, I interpreted for her a few times and felt absurdly pleased to have those familiar blue eyes turned on me, knowing I’d tell my friends they were even bluer than they appeared on television.
“Once, at a hospital in Huambo I watched Diana sit and hold the hand of a seven-year-old who’d had her intestines blown to pieces by a mine. For what seemed an age the pair just sat, no words needed. When Diana finally left, the small girl struggled through her pain to ask me if the beautiful lady was an angel”
It was not an easy trip. Angola in summer is infernally hot and dusty; the streets of Luanda piled high with stinking rubbish and flies buzzing around us non-stop; every other person seemed to be an amputee, and yet I never once saw Diana express fatigue or ask for a drink. I was jealous as hell of her ability to stay cool and neatly pressed – a stark contrast to my own dishevelled appearance.
Just how remarkable was her adaptation became evident talking to the royal hacks who sat in the bar of the Hotel Presidente every night, wistfully recalling previous jaunts to Klosters and Barbuda, and longing for the Diana of old who went to balls and banquets and wore Versace instead of flak jackets.
That trip wiped out all my past cynicism about Diana, to my own astonishment as well as that of friends familiar with my views. That Lady-with-the-Lamp performance wasn’t just for the benefit of the cameras. Of course, she knew all right when there was a good shot to be had, always gravitated to the woman with twin babies and no legs or the cute young girl. But I wasn’t sure it mattered, if these pictures made people back home like my own mum and dad aware of the reality of life in this forgotten nation.
Once, at a hospital in Huambo when the photographers had all flown back to their air-conditioned hotel to wire their pictures, I watched Diana, unaware that any journalists were still present, sit and hold the hand of Helena Ussova, a seven-year-old who’d had her intestines blown to pieces by a mine. For what seemed an age the pair just sat, no words needed. When Diana finally left, the small girl struggled through her pain to ask me if the beautiful lady was an angel. Could anybody have said no?
I thought of Helena when I woke up last Sunday to the incomprehensible news that Diana had been killed. At the end of the Angola trip Diana said that the lasting image she’d take away was of that terribly ill young girl. Both of them are dead now and my lasting image will be the two of them just sitting together hand in hand, finding peace. Diana wasn’t my friend – I’d only met her that one week – yet I, like so many women, somehow feel that she could have been. At one lunch in Huambo that I’d sneaked into, Diana poured me coffee and insisted that I fill my plate from the buffet, saying “you’re too thin”.
If I lived in England, I would have gone to lay flowers outside Kensington Palace and sign the book of condolence at St James’s. Most of my friends went and told me how moved they were by the peace of the place and how, instead of just biting their lips, they shed tears – in some cases the first time publicly in their lives, a fact which by itself shows me how much one woman changed a nation.
My friend Tanya has blacked out her web site on the Internet, turning it into a tribute to Diana; Julie has cancelled her holiday to watch the funeral; Jane is to run the marathon for charity in her name; and Emma has named her newborn daughter Diana.
We don’t feel ambiguous about Diana anymore – she was a modern woman, always reinventing herself, balancing the demands of being a single mother and having her own life, and looking beautiful at the same time. We grew up with her and now we must grow old alone.
Picture credits: Ant Jackson/CC BY 2.0, 272447/Pixabay, Annie Spratt/Unsplash