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Candle in the Wind?

Why are we so fascinated by Princess Diana that we still read about her in the media a decade after her death? Vir Sanghvi examines.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2007 04:53 IST

All right, you can relax. I am not going to write about the nuclear deal. After two columns in a row about the Left, the Congress and America, I’ve had enough. And so I imagine have you.

Instead, I’m going to focus on one of this month’s more unusual anniversaries. It is ten years since Princess Diana died in that fateful crash in a Paris tunnel.

In the decade that has followed her demise, she’s been the subject of more books (by anyone who knew her even slightly and by Tina Brown who recycled what the people who knew her slightly wrote and secured a multi-million dollar advance), documentaries, newspaper headlines and made-for-TV movies than any historical figure who lived in the second half of the 20th century. (Except, perhaps, for Marilyn Monroe, which proves that even though Bernie Taupin wrote crap lyrics to update Candle in the Wind for Diana, old Elton John had the right idea.)

There are two traditional debates surrounding Princess Diana. The first, initiated by Mohamed Al-Fayed and kept alive by the tabloid press, concerns the circumstances of her death. Was Dodi Fayed about to propose to her? Was she pregnant at the time? And, of course, did the British Secret Service murder her?

Even though Al-Fayed continues to raise these questions, I think we know the answers. Her friends have testified that she had no intention of marrying the flaky, cocaine-snorting Dodi. Though the pregnancy story resurfaced last week, there are enough medical reports available to suggest that it is false. Moreover, Rosa Monckton, Diana’s friend, who had met her the week before, has said that given her condition during that meeting, it was a “biological impossibility” for her to have been pregnant. (I assume she means that Diana had her period but, of course, we are all too polite and well-mannered to actually come out and say that.)

Even the murder story has now been convincingly exploded. For the British Secret Service (instructed by “that bastard Prince Philip”, in Al-Fayed’s words) to have killed her, the agents would have had to know that Dodi and she were going out that evening — in fact, they left on impulse — and the exact route that they would take. And even if they did kill her, it’s not clear how they could have done it. The car was not interfered with, and no credible eyewitness has reported seeing the laser flashes with which conspiracy theorists suggest the driver of the Mercedes was blinded. Besides, why would they want to kill her? Her reputation was sinking and she was well on her way to becoming one of those good-time girls who sun themselves on the decks on yachts belonging to Arab millionaires. Her death actually saved her reputation.

The second issue has also been largely resolved. According to the Diana camp in the old Charles vs Diana debate, she was a sweet, innocent girl who married an older man for love only to find that he preferred his dog-faced mistress. In fact, as we now know, the truth was much more complicated.

Everyone who knew Diana says that she was never as sweet and innocent as the media pretended. Almost from the time she was a child, she was known to be manipulative. There is some doubt also as to whether she genuinely fell in love with Prince Charles or was — entirely understandably — in love with the idea of becoming Queen of England.

In the infidelity stakes, Charles actually comes off better. We have two versions of his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles. One, offered by Charles himself to his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, is that friends set him up with Camilla, an old girlfriend, only to cheer him up after his marriage to Diana had completely and irretrievably broken down. The other (favoured by the Tina Brown kind of writer) is that he was always in love with Camilla, and saw no contradiction in marrying Diana as an heir-producing machine.

Both versions suggest that his feelings for Camilla — who is not quite Miss World — were sincere and deeply felt. Whatever else Charles was up to, it was not adultery for the sake of a bit of fun.

Diana, on the other hand, comes off as a bit of a scrubber. Early in her marriage, she began an affair with her bodyguard, Barry Mannakee. Then, there was the long affair with James Hewitt, who may or may not be the father of Prince Harry. Next came James Gilbey of the Squidgy Gate tapes. Some of the other lovers have now been out-ed though there is some dispute over whether she began the affairs before or after her separation from Prince Charles. Will Carling, Oliver Hoare (whom she stalked with mystery phone calls), Hasnat Khan (probably the love of her life and the one man who has never spoken about her) and a series of other men played co-starring roles in her soap opera-like life.

So, of course, it was wrong of Charles to have had an affair with Camilla. But Diana was no slouch in the bedroom department either.

Though these debates have been resolved, the central mystery of Princess Diana still remains. Why are we so fascinated by this rather empty-headed (“thick as two short planks” was her own description of herself), upper-class English girl that, a full decade after her death, she still rates an article in a newspaper in a city far, far away from her world? Why does the global community continue to discuss the life of Princess Diana? Why are the biographies still coming? Why has this anniversary attracted so much media overkill?

My theory is that the Diana cult marked a serendipitous coming together of many different factors. One, though the British royal family may have always fascinated the world, the royals were ugly and dull (“Pasty-faced Germans,” Diana called them because of their Hapsburg ancestry). Diana was the first good-looking, glamorous British royal. (For comparisons, look up old pictures of Princess Margaret. So low were royal standards of beauty that the old bag was regarded as gorgeous in her day.)

Two, she played the media as no royal before her had. Even tabloids that were fascinated by the royal family never had access to the details of its sexual politics. By breaking that barrier and by collaborating with Andrew Morton, Diana gave the media a kind of access they had never enjoyed. The media repaid this debt by casting her as the wronged heroine in this royal saga.

Three, she flourished in an age of celebrity. By the end of the 1980s, global media had become a tangible phenomenon. We watched the same soaps, read the same gossip and discussed the same issues, no matter where in the world we were. The cult of Diana was nourished by satellite TV, the Internet and other global media mechanisms that had only just become available.

Four, she knew when to change gears. There is always a time when the press tires of writing about parties and frocks. When her image reached that stage, Diana reinvented herself as a caring crusader for a variety of trendy issues from AIDS to landmines. According to Tina Brown, she was all set to become a global bleeding heart campaigner when the crash occurred. Long before Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopted children to prove that they had hearts, Diana had the market in creative caring completely sewn up.

Will the legend last? I think it will. I think the Saint Diana phase is over. But like the cult of Marilyn Monroe, who continues to fascinate a generation that wasn’t even born when her movies were released, the cult of Diana will survive as a staple of the supermarket tabloids.

“I want to be the Queen of Hearts,” she said in that famous Panorama interview. Well, Queen of the Gossip Columns is not nearly as impressive. But at least it’s something.

For another view of the Princess Diana cult, log on to livemint.com’s archives and read Vir Sanghvi’s Pursuits column (Royal Circle: A decade later, it’s a different story) of 30 June.

For comments on this column, you can write to counterpoint@hindustantimes.com