Friday, August 31, 2007

Ten Years Ago

Nine years and fifty weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to take an unexpected vacation to Shropshire, England to visit a friend. In the evenings, my host and I would sit on the couch, watching the evening news. I'd joked when I got there that perhaps we should pop in and see Di while we're here. She'd given her famous "People's Princess" interview not long before, and I said, since she was so hellbent on just being regular folk, I was sure it would be okay, as long as we brought a bundt cake. Diana wasn't in England when I was there. She was pictured in news reports, gingerly walking through landmine fields in foreign lands. Ah, well. Good thing, I suppose, since bundt cakes are not as common as one would think in Great Britain on short notice, and I was staying in the home of a man whose idea of cooking was anything that would fit in the deep fryer. After staying a glorious week in the West Country, I flew home, landing at home on August 24, 1997. I spent the next week recovering from a ghastly case of jet lag (I hit the ground running in Europe, but have a bad problem coming home).

On the morning of August 31, 1997, I got out of bed feeling wonderful. Before turning on the television, I went to the computer and to ICQ, to check in with my British host and tell him that I was finally getting over my conflict with the time/space continuum. He'd sent me a message containing one sentence:

"Poor woman. They just couldn't leave her alone, and now they've run her straight into the grave."

That's when I turned on the television. I spent the next several days, watching the most amazing, frightening, over-the-top open expression of grief by the British people I've ever seen. I come from British stock. England is my home-away-from-home. I know these folks. After three days of weepy, soppy Brits, I was ready to kind of the slap them, a la Cher, and scream, "Snap out of it!" Not right, I know, but they were beginning to frighten me. I watched the funeral in real time, and had to go through the jetlag recovery process all over again.

I've never been much of a fan of Diana. I'm still not (I'm more of a Camilla fan myself). For all the hubbub over the much hated papparazzi, there were a million little things that she and Dodi could have done to make sure they were safe. Fastening seatbelts would have been a start (it is worth noting that the only person who fastened his seatbelt in the car, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, survived the crash, and he was sitting in the front passenger seat, the most dangerous seat in a car during a front-end crash). Not hiring a chauffeur with a long-known drug and alcohol problem would have been another. Frankly (and not to speak ill of the dead), Diana used the press as much as they used her (I refer back to the "People's Princess" interview), and to blame the press solely for an accident that was caused by excessive speed and a drunk driver is patently ridiculous.

None of that, of course, takes away from the brutal sadness of her death. Diana was not my favorite celebrity. But I believe at her core, for all her insecurity and narcissism, she was a decent person who wanted to use her royal cache to do more than open government buildings and prance around in parades three times a year. She took on hard issues, like AIDS and landmines and children's poverty in the world. She touched people and made them love their Britishness again. She shamed the inert royal family into putting their energies to some good use and dragged them kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

She left behind her two smart, handsome sons who learned far too young that being born rich and titled is no innoculation against loss, grief and misery. I believe it has instilled them with a sense of duty and responsibility to carry on with the example of good works their mother started. In another way, by leaving the void of a lost mother, it forced their father to step forward and finish the job of raising them -- something that must have been very difficult for him prior to Diana's death, as she was, it is well-rumored, loathe to let them spend time with him while he was consorting with her hated rival, Camilla. Charles, who lacked Diana's charisma and fashion sense, had a tougher row to hoe when it came to being considered a good father. But he has, by all accounts, stepped into that role remarkably, giving his sons both a sense of their obligation and of their heritage, while being a fairly warm and involved father. The boys have even made their peace with his wife, Camilla, which can only be good for the future of the royal family.

Ten years ago, two handsome people made a capricious snap decision to get into a car driven by a drunkard through a dastardly tunnel at speeds that even most French wouldn't drive, and a few minutes later, the world was caught up in a drama. Perhaps Diana was destined to live on in people's memories forever young and beautiful, a perennial photo-op of the mind. While she and Dodi probably would have ended their fling in a few months had they lived, they are locked in an unofficial marriage of memories and nostalgia, destined to live on in a haze of tragic mishap. Today is the day the British remember that, with a bit more of the composure and reserve to which we're accustomed, we hope.

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