Death and Shingles

So it is now twenty years to the day since news broke of the death of Diana Spencer, formerly the Princess of Wales, along with Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul, after a car accident in Paris. I’ve noticed many people posting their memories on social media of where they were when they heard that Diana had died so I thought I’d do the same as I remember it very well.

In the weeks leading up to 31st August 1997 I had been suffering from shingles, a very unpleasant condition that results from the reactivation of the virus responsible for chicken pox, which I’d suffered from as a kid. Shingles causes nasty skin rashes, but on this occasion I was also treated to a spell of almost total deafness. This is a fairly unusual side-effect of the disease but is well known to occur in some cases. Hearing loss caused in this way can be permanent, but thankfully mine wasn’t.  I responded rather well to the anti-viral drugs I was given and it took only a matter of weeks for my hearing to be fully restored.

Suddenly becoming deaf was an unsettling enough experience, but it was even stranger to have been unable to hear anything during the period just after Diana’s death, which turned out to be one of the weirdest times of my life.

On the morning of 31st August 1997, which was a Sunday, I got up rather late and went to the local newsagent to buy a Sunday paper. They were sold out of everything. I thought that was a bit strange but walked out unaware of the reason everyone was buying papers that morning. I went back to my flat – I was living in London at the time – made breakfast, and did some reading. I was looking forward to the football match that was going to be live on TV that afternoon – Liverpool versus Newcastle Utd – but didn’t switch on the TV until it was just about the start. All I saw was a shot of an empty Anfield and some football pundits talking. I assumed there had been a bomb score or something, but I couldn’t hear so had no idea. I decided to have a look at Ceefax (remember that?) and then found out the story.

I was shocked, of course. She was still young when she died and I was fully aware of the reputation she had earned through numerous acts of kindness, e.g. towards people living with AIDS. That said, I was completely unprepared for the events of the following week which seemed to me to amount to an outbreak of national hysteria. I don’t know if it was more extreme in London than elsewhere in the UK, but I felt the whole country had lost its grip. Together with the sense of isolation caused by my deafness, it was a most uncomfortable time. I was saddened by her death, but I just couldn’t feel the extreme grief that others seemed to be displaying about someone that I didn’t know personally. Worse, there was a palpable sense of pressure being exerted on people to fall into line with the deification of Diana. Anyone who expressed anything even slightly short of devout praise was treated as some kind of blasphemer. It is probably the only time in my life I’ve felt that I was the only one to have remained sane while everyone around me had gone mad.

As my hearing slowly recovered I decided to go out with some friends for a drink in a pub in Bethnal Green. I mentioned in a conversation that I never knew her personally and therefore found it hard to understand how the feelings of grief people professed to having could be genuine and that the whole atmosphere that had been created seemed to me to be profoundly unhealthy. A bloke from another table came across and threatened me with violence unless I stopped `insulting Diana’. Insulting Diana was not at all my intention, though I think what the bloke was angry about was the (probably correct) interpretation that I was criticising those who had bought into the Diana cult.

Anyway, over the week following her death my hearing had improved a little bit, so I decided to watch the memorial service on TV. I couldn’t hear the music or speeches very well, but I remember watching the soldiers carrying Diana’s coffin into Westminster Abbey. It must have been a very heavy coffin as it was a very wobbly process and I thought at one moment the pall-bearers might drop it. They slowly approached stone structure on which the coffin was to be laid. Then I heard the commentator on TV solemnly announce that it was “placed on the catapult”.

This is novel, I thought. She’s going to be launched into the hereafter on a ballistic trajectory through the stained glass windows.  However, that didn’t happen and the service continued without an aerial display.

I found out much later that the word used was not catapult, but catafalque….




9 Responses to “Death and Shingles”

  1. telescoper Says:

    I was sad about her death, but I didn’t cry. On the other hand, I did cry when Inspector Morse died and he was a fictional character!

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I was working in the Astrophysics Group in the University of Bristol at the time. During a tea break, some members of the research group expressed surprise at the mass grief across Britain. It emerged that all the astrophysicists there were saddened at Princess Diana’s death, and by the loss of a mother to two sons, but we were all puzzled by the mass hysteria. We all felt the death was a very unfortunate event, but none of us felt personal grief. Our work environment seemed an island of sanity in a sea of overreaction and media-induced over-emotion.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The week of hysteria between her death and funeral was largely a media event. When the media predicted the number of people who would travel to London for her funeral, they overestimated by a factor of ten. Those of us who did not share the view of Britain’s hysterics had the decorum to maintain a silence, so that the hysterics had the field.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I didn’t think that the pall bearers were in danger of losing it. Certainly I reckon they were carefully chosen to match in height. Such was not the case for Winston Churchill, whose coffin was carried rather alarmingly in a direction perceptibly different from that in which it was pointing.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I happened to be awake a little before 6am that Sunday morning. I had every intention of going back to sleep but as it was near the hour I put the radio on to hear the news. Bill Deedes was talking in a very slow voice about Diana, but I put that down to his age. Then I realised he was speaking of her in the past tense, and I wondered; but he might have been talking of her as she was during particular events in her life. Then the news was read. My immediate reaction was “This will be huge”. I listened for a while to get what details were out but I then had no difficulty in going back to sleep.

  6. Phil Uttley Says:

    I had the same feelings at the time, almost as if I were an alien visitor to my own home and amongst people that I thought I had understood quite well but didn’t really understand at all. Sadly, I get those feelings much more often these days, post-referendum.

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