No. It was the first word of that cataclysmic Sunday morning: ‘no’ pronounced through an ascending sob, the consonant left behind in the chest voice as the vowel climbed into the head voice, the pure wail of lament whereby anyone, no matter how tone deaf, for one terrible moment becomes a singer. But there was not one terrible moment. There were, still are, hundreds of them, joining up in a long aria of anguish interrupted only by exhaustion. Hundreds of millions of people who loved her but never met her must be crying like this. Those who did meet her, and knew her faults, should have some detachment. But somehow it works in reverse. The physics of this unprecedented metaphysical explosion, this starburst of regret, are counterintuitive, like relativity. The more you know she was never perfect, the less you, who are not perfect either, are able to detach the loss of her from the loss of yourself, and so you have gone with her, down that Acherontic tunnel by the Pont de l’Alma and into the Halls of Dis, the inane regions, where loneliness is the only thing there is, and the lost are together but can never find each other, because it is like looking for a shadow in the dark.
No, there was not much I knew about her. But I knew it well. At one period, starting either just before or just after her official separation (I can’t remember, and although a glance at the dates of her letters to me would tell me, I can’t bear to look at them) and ending well before her death, I lunched with her often enough to goad the lurking press into some arch speculation about whether I was helping to mastermind her PR campaign, especially on television, my area of expertise. Rather to my secret disappointment, it was taken for granted that there was no romance. (My wife, well aware that she is married to a romantic egomaniac, found that aspect particularly amusing.) When the mid-market tabloids ran a page of photographs featuring the men supposedly in Diana’s life, my photograph was always among the venerable, sometimes senescent, advisers, never among the young, handsome and virile suitors. The assumption was that although she might listen to what her privy counsellors said, she would never look at any of them twice. In my case, that assumption, unlike the one about my role as the éminence grise behind her television adventures, was dead right.
No, there was nothing between me and her beyond a fleeting friendship. Many other men knew her better. Some men knew her intimately, and now, at last, I do not envy them, because what they have in their memories must make loss feel like death. (I never thought I could be sorry for James Hewitt, the dim former cavalry officer who repaid her for her favours by selling his story, but think of where he is now, deprived even of the reason for his ruin, his empty head already rotting on Traitors’ Gate.) As for the man who knew her most intimately of all, Prince Charles, he is a man as good and honest as any I have ever met, and I know him well enough to be sure that today he is on the Cross, and wondering whether he will ever be able to come down. My own knowledge of her is minute compared with his and theirs, but now, for the first time, I wish I had never met her at all. Then I might not have loved her, and would not feel like this, or at any rate would feel it less. But I did meet her, and I did love her.
No, it was not a blind love: quite the opposite. Even before I met her, I had already guessed that she was a handful. After I met her, there was no doubt about it. Clearly on a hair trigger, she was unstable at best, and when the squeeze was on she was a fruitcake on the rampage. But even while reaching this conclusion I was already smitten, and from then on everything I found out about her at first hand, even – especially – her failings and her follies, only made me love her more, because there were none of her deficiencies that had not once been mine, and some of them still were. In her vivid interior drama I saw my own. I didn’t find out much, but what I did find out I found out from close up, from a few feet away across a little table; and I knew it certainly, and it made me love her more truly. I was even convinced (this was not for certain, but it was a deep and ineradicable suspicion) that she would get herself killed, and that conviction made me love her to distraction, as if I had become a small part of some majestic tragic poem: an obscure, besotted walk-on mesmerized by the trajectory of a burning angel. I feared for her as I loved her, and the fear intensified the love. It was too much love for so tenuous a liaison, and one of the reasons I never spoke of it in public was a cheaper fear – the simple, adolescent fear of appearing ridiculous.
No, you don’t have to tell me. I am appearing ridiculous now, but it is part of the ceremony, is it not? And what flowers have I to send her except my memories? They are less than a wreath, not much more than a nosegay: just a deuil blanc table napkin wrapping a few blooms of frangipani, the blossom of broken bread. London has gone quiet; the loudest human sound is the murmur of self-communion; and we are told that half the world has done the same. In the old times, when the plague came, people would cast off their sense of self, say what was on their minds, find what had always been in their minds but had remained unsaid even to themselves, and make love to strangers. There will be no Totentanz, this time, no orgies, no mass kicking over of the traces. But there will be something of the same liberation from the very British drive to protect the self, and I will be surprised if some new openness does not remain. The lake of flowers submerging Kensington Palace has released a perfume that has changed the air. And although those who did not participate in the vigil might sit in judgement on us for our mass delusion, we will judge them, in our turn, for their inhuman detachment.
No, nobody can escape her image in these days after her death – it is as if the planet were being colonized with her replicated smile – and each time I see it, it brings back a reality that was even lovelier. I first saw Diana – the living human being, not the image – at the Cannes Film Festival. Sir Alec Guinness was getting a lifetime-achievement award, I was to be the master of ceremonies at the dinner, and Charles and Diana had come down from London just for the evening. There was a reception beforehand. The whole British film world stood around nursing drinks. It was like watching a movie composed of nothing except cameo appearances. A bit of some TV crew’s lighting rig fell on a PR girl’s head and she regained consciousness in the arms of Roger Moore: she thought she was in a James Bond movie. Then Charles and Diana came in and started working the room. With astonishment, I suddenly found myself on the roster of familiar faces Diana wanted to meet. There she was, right in front of me, and I instantly realized that no kind of film, whether still or moving, had done her justice. She wasn’t just beautiful. She was like the sun coming up: coming up giggling. She was giggling as if she had just remembered something funny. ‘I think it’s terrible what you do to those Japanese people. You are terrible.’ She was referring to the clips from Japanese game shows which I screened on the TV programme that I hosted each week. I started to protest that they were doing that crazy stuff to each other; it wasn’t me doing it to them. But she quickly made it clear that she was only pretending to be shocked. She said she never missed my show and always had it taped if she was out. While I was still feeling as if, all at once, I had been awarded the Booker Prize for fiction, the Nobel Prize in Physics, and the Academy Award for Best Actor, she switched the topic. ‘Ooh. There’s that odious man Maxwell over there. Don’t want to meet him again. Yuck.’
No, she really meant it. She made a face as if she had just sucked a lemon. And that did it. I was enslaved. Looming hugely at the far side of the stellar throng, the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell was doing his usual simultaneous impersonation of Victor Mature and King Farouk: a ton and a half of half-cured ham wrapped in a white tuxedo, his pan-scrubber eyebrows dripping condescension like spoiled lard. At the time, the old crook hadn’t yet been rumbled. Some of the cleverest men in Britain were still working for him and helping to vilify anyone who questioned his credentials. But this young lady, with a head allegedly composed almost exclusively of air, had the bastard’s number. On the other hand, after knowing me not much more than a minute she had just handed me a story that would have embarrassed the bejesus out of the Royal Family if I had passed it on: it would take only one phone call, and next morning the front page of every British tabloid except Maxwell’s Mirror would consist almost entirely of the word ‘Yuck’. Either she was brave to the point of insanity or else I radiated trustworthiness. I decided it must be the latter. For the air of complicity she had generated between us in so brief a time, the best word I can think of is ‘cahoots’. We were in cahoots.
No, it couldn’t last. With the two-minute mark coming up, she started regretfully signalling that our lifelong friendship would have to be temporarily put on hold. Her pursed lips indicated that although she would rather stay talking to me until Hell froze over, unfortunately her duties called her away to schmooze with far less illustrious people than me. Her mouth saying that she was looking forward to my speech, her eyes saying, ‘Plant you now and dig you later,’ she fluttered a few fingertips and swanned off in the direction of Sir Alec. What would she say to him? Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope. I wish I hadn’t just thought of that.
No, I didn’t see her again for a long time. But I thought of her often, and especially when I saw Charles. In those days, I was one of the outer ring of his advisers. The system worked – probably still works – like this. The inner ring of advisers are on call full time for anything. In the outer ring, you get called to the centre when the upcoming job touches on your areas of competence: in my case, television, Australia and occasionally the arts. Flattered to get the nod, I gladly made trips to see him. Born to a life in which people magically appeared when needed, he sometimes had trouble remembering that his fifteen minutes with you at Highgrove or Sandringham would cost you a whole working day, but apart from that he was impeccably sensitive, courteous, and just plain thoughtful – a quality of his which is continually underestimated, and one which will make him a great king when his turn comes, as come it must. (Diana’s declaration, in her Panorama interview, that Charles might never reign was the single biggest mistake she ever made, but haven’t you said foolish things about the person you loved after it all went wrong?) Our meetings, though invariably friendly and increasingly funny, were always strictly business, so it was no surprise that Diana wasn’t around. But when my wife and I asked him to dinner he came alone, his wife was never mentioned, and sadly I began to realize that that was no surprise either. The word was out that they were sticking together for the sake of the monarchy and the children but were otherwise going their separate ways.
No, it couldn’t go on like that. I still think it should have, and right up to the divorce I published articles in the Spectator saying that they owed it to all of us to stick together somehow, or else the press would be confirmed in its hideous new role as a sort of latterday Church of England with witch-finders for priests. But I was making the fundamental mistake of being more royalist than the King. The two people at the centre of events were pursuing happiness, American style, and it was becoming more obvious all the time that they had known enough unhappiness to justify the pursuit. During Charles’ fortieth-birthday party, at Buckingham Palace, I met her again. There were no cahoots this time. She said that she had enjoyed my latest documentary and that she was glad to see me, but she didn’t seem to be glad about anything else: the lights in her face were dimmed down to about three-quarter strength, so she looked merely lovely, at a time when her full incandescence should have been outshining the chandeliers. Charles did his formidable best to jolly everyone along. The Duchess of York chortled around in her usual irrepressible manner, a bumper car in taffeta. It was fun to go for a piss, stand in a reverse lineup of hunched dinner jackets, and gradually discover that I was the only man staring at the porcelain who was not a crowned head of Europe. But generally there was something missing, and nobody could be in any doubt what it was. She was still there physically, but her soul had gone AWOL; and without that soul the party had no life.
No life, and no future. Soon the press were piling it on, and steadily the intrusiveness got worse. It became known that she was trying to lessen the effects by getting a few media figures on her side. It was manipulation, but what else does a marionette dream of except pulling strings? So I thought I knew what it was about when she sent me an invitation to lunch at Kensington Palace. I thought there would be at least half a dozen of us there to receive the gentle suggestion that a few supportive words would not come amiss. (Even for my generation, words like ‘supportive’ are losing their inverted commas by now: her unashamed use of me-speak has influenced the language.) But after I was shown up the staircase to the sitting room I found myself alone. When she came into the room, it was as if that first conversation in Cannes had been frozen by the pause button and now the button had been touched again to re-start the tape. ‘Sorry there aren’t any film stars,’ she said. ‘There’s just me. Hope you don’t get bored.’ The cahoots were back. We sat down at a small table in the next room and immediately established the protocol that would become standard, and which I will always cherish as one of the best running gags I was ever involved in. She ate like a bird while encouraging me to eat like a wolf, as if I weren’t being fed properly at home. There was a catch under the joke: that I had a home, she made it clear was enviable. She envied me my long marriage. When I told her that I had been a neglectful husband and father, and that my guilt had begun to erode my peace of mind, she said that I must have done something right, if we were all still together, so I should take comfort from that. Her own marriage, she said, was coming apart. She told me why and how. I could hardly credit my ears. Armed with nothing else except what she told me then, I could have gone to a telephone and blown the whole thing sky high. But the cahoots ruled that out. The tacit bargain was: You tell me what you can’t tell anyone else and I’ll tell you what I can’t tell anyone else, and then neither of us can tell anyone else about what we said.
No, it wasn’t mutual therapy. But I suppose it was a mind game. There must have been dozens of other people that she played it with, but she infallibly picked those who would never break the deal. (If she had chosen her lovers on the same principle, she would have given a lot fewer hostages to fortune, but desire doesn’t work like that.) She would make each of her platonic cavaliers believe, or at any rate want to believe, that he was the only one. The joker in her real life doubled as the ace of diamonds in the game: it was her childhood. Everything in her tormented psyche turned on what had happened to her at the age of six, when her parents separated and left her to a loneliness that nothing could cure. Then, while I was clearing her plate after I had cleared mine, she popped the question: ‘Something like that happened to you, didn’t it?’ It was the Princess of Wales who was asking me, so I gave her the answer. Yes, it did. When I was six, my mother got the news that my father had been killed on the way home from the war.
No, my mother cried. No, no, oh no. I was the witness of her distress, I couldn’t help her, and I had been helpless ever since. I sometimes thought, I said, that everything I had ever written, built or achieved had been in order to offset that corrosive guilt, and that I loved the world of women because I feared the world of men. Diana touched my wrist, and that was it: we were both six years old.
No, it was no trick. It might have been a mind game, but her mind was her most vivid reality, the battlefield on which she looked for peace. It was a good mind, incidentally. Of all the poisonous dreck ever written about Diana in the newspapers, the most despicable was based on the assumption that she was stupid. Journalists who read three books a year and had scarcely two ideas to rub together about anything called her an ignoramus. The truth was the opposite. Schoppenhauer (‘Chopin who?’ I can hear her say), who was a great reader himself, pointed out the danger of letting books get between us and experience. What Diana knew was based on experience, and she knew a lot, especially about the mind. Well aware that her own was damaged, she sought comfort from those who would admit to the same condition. She spent too much time with gurus, spiritualists and exotic healers, but that wasn’t frivolity: it was desperation. For the rest of the time, which was most of it, she had a remarkable capacity to do exactly the opposite of what she was notorious for: far from being obsessed with her own injuries, she would forget herself in the injuries of others. It was the secret of her appeal to the sick and the wounded. When she walked into a hospital ward, everyone in it recognized her as one of them, because she treated them as if they could have been her. They were her. She was just their souls, free for a day, in a beautiful body that walked so straight and breathed so easily. The sick, she would often say, were more real to her than the well: their guard was down, they were themselves.
No, I didn’t figure all that out straight away, but as time went on it became more apparent to me that I was her patient. I missed her after that first lunch, with a mild version of the forlorn longing I have seen among friends of mine when their shrinks go on holiday. So I did something so presumptuous I still don’t believe I had the brass neck to go through with it. I asked her to lunch. The separation was practically official by now, she was kind of up for grabs, so why not, you know, ask her to lunch? I made the phone call to her secretary and hung up feeling like someone who was going to get a flea in his ear the size of a hummingbird. But ten minutes later the secretary was back on the line. The Princess of Wales would be delighted. How about the Caprice?
No, I didn’t get there an hour early – only twenty minutes. I took up my elaborately casual position at the corner table, double-cleaned my fingernails with my door key, and watched the forecourt through the window. As always, she was on time to the minute. When she stepped from the chauffeur-driven car, it wasn’t just the way she looked that stymied me. No escort. She had been threatening for a while to start going out without an escort, and now she was actually doing it, the crazy little twit. The chill of fear I felt was probably useful in making me appear cool as I rose for an air kiss that stopped every knife and fork in the room, as if time had been switched off. The rattle of cutlery started again after she sat down, and there we were, tête-à-tête. It wasn’t cahoots yet, though. By this time, two camps had formed, Charles’s and Diana’s. Diana’s people were busy calling Charles a stuffed shirt, and Charles’s people were just as busy calling Diana a dingbat. I wanted to make it clear to her that I was for both of them, and against anything that would make them irreconcilable. I couldn’t, either in public or in private, say a word against the Prince. Putting it in jokey form – always her preferred way of hearing a lecturette – I told her that if we were caught talking high treason she would be given the privilege of dying by the sword, whereas I, a commoner and a colonial, would be lucky if they even bothered to sharpen the axe. She laughed, said she understood completely, and made it evident that she admired Charles’s qualities as much as I did. Things bubbled along nicely. Cahoots again. I got both our meals to eat as usual, and from the next table the director-general of the BBC was looking at me as if I were a combination of Errol Flynn and Neil Armstrong. He was stuck with the Home Secretary. Christ, what fun she was. But the chill of fear came back when she started to talk about the possibility of going on television with a personal interview. I knew it wouldn’t be with me, but that wasn’t the reason I counselled her against it. I said if that happened the two-camps thing would go nuclear, and continue until there was nothing left. She would be on the run forever, and there would be nowhere to go. Nowhere would be far enough away. She seemed convinced, but of course she was pretending. She had already decided.
No, she wasn’t always the straight goods. She often pretended. She would listen to advice and warnings that – as you’d later discover – had been rendered obsolete by what she had already done, and pretend to consider them. Then, when the news came out, you found that she had been watching you lead yourself up the garden path. It could hurt.
No, I didn’t think she was being malicious, or even mischievous. There was just a lot of stuff she couldn’t share. At least once, however, she lied to me outright. ‘I really had nothing to do with that Andrew Morton book,’ she said. ‘But after my friends talked to him I had to stand by them.’ She looked me straight in the eye when she said this, so I could see how plausible she could be when she was telling a whopper. I would have been terminally pissed off if I hadn’t suspected that she knew I knew, and just didn’t want to be remembered as admitting it. In the Panorama interview, she did admit it, so I had two reasons for feeling that historic programme as a personal wound, quite apart from my premonition that it would wound her. It multiplied her popularity, but it propelled her in the direction I had spent a lot of time telling her she could never think of going: over the wall, out of the country, away from her protection.
No, there was no chance she would listen. She hated the protection. She saw the protectors as assailants. She believed, against all the evidence of her own beautiful eyes, that there was some kind of enchanted place called Abroad, where she would be understood and where she could lead a more normal life. This place called Abroad became a recurring theme in future conversations at other restaurants. Kensington Place, in Kensington Church Street near Notting Hill Gate, was one of her favourite hangouts, and she thought it funny that I always booked a table against the back wall, instead of up front, near the window. There was an acre of unshielded glass and she – she – wanted to sit near it. It scared me rigid. Sometimes I could barely eat my own lunch, let alone hers. But it seemed she would rather have gone down in a hail of broken glass than live in fear. She could live in her own fear – the fear of never finding happiness, of never making the pieces fit, of Mummy and Daddy never being together again – but she could never live in mine, the fear for her life.
No, she never took my advice even once. Well, just once. Before she went to Japan on her big solo diplomatic trip, she asked me what would be the best thing she could do there, apart from all the hospitals and stuff. She knew that I was a student of the Japanese language and Japanese literature, and she thought I might have some nifty scheme up my sleeve. I told her I did, but it wouldn’t be easy. I told her that if she learned even a few words of the language – just the standard phrases about how pleased she was to be there – she would knock them out. I could lend her my teacher, a gentle but determined little woman called Shinko. Diana, after her standard protestations about being too thick, said she was up for it. Shinko, quietly experiencing the same emotions as I would have done if I had been asked to teach the Emperor of Japan croquet, marched up to Kensington Palace and did the job. Diana flew to Japan, addressed a hundred and twenty-five million people in their own language, and made the most stunning impact there since Hirohito told them that the war was over.
No, she didn’t forget. When she got back, she called me to lunch at Bibendum. We did all our standard numbers, culminating in the hallowed dessert routine, by which I ordered one crème brûlée with two spoons and finished the rest of it before she had swallowed her single mouthful. As usual, she had finessed that deadly third glass of wine into me without my even noticing. But there was an extra petit four with the coffee. It was a little red box that opened to reveal a pair of cufflinks: gold ovals enamelled in pink with the chrysanthemum of the Japanese imperial family. ‘Domo arigato gozaimash’ta,’ she said. Thank you very much for what you did. ‘Did I get that right?’ Yes, I told her: you got that right.
No, there is not much more. Our last lunch was at Kensington Palace and Harry was present with one of his friends, so there were no cahoots. She was putting distance between us. Later on, quietly and nicely, I was dropped from her list. I understood completely. I had wanted her to be Queen. I had wanted, when I grew old, to see her in the gradually, properly altering beauty of her middle age. I had wanted to see her beside Charles, on the day when he took his proper place as the most intelligent and concerned monarch this country has ever had. I had wanted to have lunch with her once a year and do the dessert routine again. But she wanted life. She was going on to those other, faraway adventures which she knew I didn’t believe in. I hoped I would hear about them someday.
No, I never saw her again. Neither will anyone now. Not even once. Never even once again.
No, I can still see her. She’s leaving the Caprice, heading for the back door, because a Range Rover full of photographers has just pulled up in the street outside. She’s turning her head. She’s smiling. Has she forgotten something? Is she coming back?
New Yorker, 15 September, 1997