Where were you when the Princess of Wales died?

The death of Diana has become a watershed moment in modern British history and there are many who can pinpoint to almost the second when they heard of the accident that claimed her life.

I am one of them. I clearly remember my phone ringing a little after 7am on the Sunday morning and slowly climbing out of bed to hear the answerphone message.

It sticks in the memory because it was a rare weekend off for me. In fact, that Sunday was to be the first day of a two-week holiday.

Instead, I was rudely awoken by the dulcet tones of my then news editor asking if I wouldn’t mind heading into the newsroom to help with the coverage of Diana’s death. I phoned him back and got a firm assurance that I would be free to leave by about 4pm later that day – I was driving down to stay at a Heathrow hotel prior to my early morning flight to Canada the next day.

One of the biggest news stories to break during my career and I reluctantly agreed to play a little part in The Western Mail’smulti-page coverage for the next day.

I left the newsroom around 3.30pm, picked up my bags from my flat and drove down to Heathrow as planned. As soon as I walked out of the door of the newsroom I had switched off completely from all things work-related, the Diana story included – or so I thought.

I spent the next two weeks in Canada, driving myself from Toronto over to Quebec and stopping at various points in-between. By the time I flew back into London, I thought I’d arrived back in a foreign country.

Any hope of “escaping” news of any kind for a fortnight was pointless. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales was not just the biggest story to break in the UK for decades, it was an international headline-maker.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t avoid the coverage beaming across the Atlantic. It was quite a disconcerting experience being so far removed from both the story and the coverage. Above all I couldn’t believe the tone of the coverage and the apparent mood of the nation (indeed, when I returned and spoke to a friend – an arch anti-royalist – even he was moved to describe the story as a “really terrible tragedy”).

Grief gripped the nation and I couldn’t relate to it.

What made matters much worse, as far as I was concerned, was the reaction of the Canadians I encountered once they realised I was not just from the UK, but from Wales. We were talking about the “Princess of my country” after all, so there was an assumption I would take the death even more badly than those from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The mawkish reactions reached a whole new level when I stopped off in Ottawa for a couple of nights. First I was handed printed instructions of how to reach the British embassy to sign the book of remembrance – something I politely declined and was met with a frown.

Then I was informed my early morning wake-up call was booked so that I could watch live coverage of the funeral (there was a “special screening” in the hotel’s main conference room so I could join with other Brits). I appeared to cause a great deal of offence by informing the receptionist I did not want a wake-up call and had no intention of watching live coverage of the funeral.

As a result of my two weeks away at such a seemingly pivotol moment, I have always felt excluded in whatever coverage of Diana’s death has taken place since that night in Paris.

I simply don’t understand what appears to me to be an unfathomable national obsession.

Diana died in a road accident. The man driving her car was well over the drink-drive limit and speeding on a particularly tricky stretch of road. She suffered mutliple injuries and two heart attacks while she was being treated at the scene.

Where’s the conspiracy?

It probably doesn’t help that I tend to take a cynical view of most conspiracy theories – from the shooting of JFK to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I sometimes enjoy learning about the latest theories, but invariably they are all met with a snort of derision or a shrug of the shoulders.

I’m more interested in the motivation of the theorists than the details of the conspiracy.

In the case of Diana, this cynicism has been multiplied by the fact that I didn’t take any sort of part in the national outpouring of grief that immediately followed her death.

I remain incredulous at what happened here during that fortnight I was in Canada. Maybe if I hadn’t flown out of the country 24 hours after her death I might have got caught up in the collective response? If I’d been here and more likely than not spending a lot of that time in a busy newsroom covering the story first hand, I might have taken her death as personally as so many millions seemingly did?

But I did fly out of the country and I don’t feel anything other than the fact that Diana’s death was a personal tragedy for her and her two sons and the rest of her family and close friends. I didn’t feel any other sort of attachment to the story back then and I don’t now.

I tuned into last night’s programme about Diana’s death on BBC2 – The Conspiracy Files – for no other reasons than such conspiracy theories and the people who peddle them are a source of fascination and mystery to me.

As I expected, I didn’t learn anything new or startling about the story itself. But neither did I get any sort of insight into the reasons why the death of this particular princess prompted such paranoia.

Princess Diana’s death can be explained. The response to it, however, will continue to baffle for years to come and might never be fully understood.

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