The day Diana died
FROM time to time, I am invited to a local group of Speakability, a charity for people who through a stroke or other impairment find conversation difficult. It is a national movement, and, in a relaxed way, gives those people an opportunity to talk freely, without feeling that their conversational attempts will be embarrassing.
I go along as an invited guest asked to introduce a topic in a way that will spark a lively discussion. This time, I decided to dive in at the deep end: I talked about the night that Diana, Princess of Wales, died. The 20th anniversary is upon us, and there will obviously be massive media coverage, but what I was interested in was individual people’s experiences of it. To kick it off, I told them mine
I remember being woken by my wife, who somehow managed to combine a good night’s sleep with all-night radio. “Diana’s been in a car crash in Paris,” she said. “Dodi’s dead, and she’s in hospital.” Later, she woke me again, to tell me that Diana had died.
Not long after that, the bedside phone rang. It was the Radio 4 producer Eley McAinsh, asking whether I could present a live edition of Something Understood that evening, reflecting the conflicting emotions of the day. I agreed, but first I had to take the 8 a.m. communion service. I went into church at 7.45 a.m., and there were flowers on the altar, and a card: “For Diana”. So much for copy-catting.
I just made it past RAF Northolt before the A40 was closed for the plane to land carrying Prince Charles with Diana’s body. At Broadcasting House you could smell the adrenaline, and, as we worked on the programme, we were kept aware of events just down the road at Kensington Palace, where already tens of thousands of people had gathered, and a growing mountain of flowers was being created.
“WELL,” I said to the Speakability group, “that was my experience of the day Diana died. What was yours?”
And out it poured — 20 years had not dimmed the recollection. There were tears, regrets, and some anger, too.
One man had a friend who was a nurse in Paris, and was part of the team that tried to save Diana’s life. A woman had left home that morning without hearing the news, and, when she got to her daughter’s home, she was shocked to find her sobbing in the kitchen.
Eventually, the organiser had to call a halt, because our booking of the room had ended. Only afterwards did I recall that, in all of that vivid conversation, I could not remember one instance of a speech problem. The sheer desire to be part of a shared emotional experience created its own fluency. “Speakability”, indeed.
THE producer of that radio programme, 20 years ago, Eley McAinsh, is now, by one of those odd quirks of life, my editor at the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF).
This programme, with no time for research or detailed preparation, was Eley at her best. For Gillian Reynolds, writing in her Daily Telegraph radio column, it was the turning-point in broadcast coverage that day, from “unctuousness and speculation” to something that helped her to understand “people’s feelings, grief, regrets”.
This was very much a producer’s programme: all I did was write and read links between wonderfully appropriate music, readings, and poetry. Among the poems was Shakespeare’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun. . . Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.” Then the cruel truth of that fateful day: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
Eley’s programmes were always thoughtful, inquisitively spiritual, and beautifully shaped. Sadly, there is less of a market for broadcasting of that kind today, even on Radio 4. But radio’s loss is BRF’s gain, I suppose — and it is nice, after 20 years, to be working together again.
Growing old suddenly
THINKING of the passing of time, I got a year older in five minutes last week. It was my annual health-check with the GP: the tests were OK; there was no change needed to pills and potions. But then he glanced at the computer screen and remarked: “You’re 87, I see.”
“No,” I replied, “86; 87 in November”.
The doctor looked back at the screen. “No, David, the computer can’t lie. You’re 87: 88 in November”.
I checked the maths, as they say, and he was right. For years, I have been wrong. I left the surgery a year older, muttering to myself: “Well, it’s only numbers.”
RETURNING to broadcasting experiences, I remember, about 40 years ago, in the BBC Club, being offered advice by a battle-hardened journalist. He would share with me, he said, three questions that could get me through almost any assignment I was given. The first was: What happened? The second was: Is there an eyewitness whom I can interview? The third was: Who was to blame?
I thanked him, but asked, in respect of the last question, what one did if it was an accident. He looked at me and said, “In news, there are no accidents.”
When the tower of Siloam fell, killing 18 people, the crowd did not question Jesus about who was to “blame”: clearly, God had caused it to fall. Their question was: Why? Were the victims sinners? No, Jesus said, but you all need to watch your behaviour.
Today, we feel, we have moved on. There are no longer “acts of God”, just blameworthy human beings. Someone is always to blame, and, if it takes 40 years, millions of pounds, and several “independent judicial reviews”, in the end someone must be hanged, drawn, and quartered, however much it may have seemed an accident at the time. Only then, apparently, can the victims find “closure’’ .
YOU may have noticed in the coverage of the rise in numbers of those recommended for ordination training (News, 16 June) that there were slightly more women than men. Certainly, since the Vicar of Dibley era, people have become familiar with the presence of women clergy, and not only in church.
A true story in a rural team near here, however, brings it home in a splendidly down-to-earth way. A young woman who was among those “recommended for training” was explaining to her five-year-old son what this meant.
“Well,” she said, “Mummy’s going to be a vicar. You know, like the Reverend Betty, the Reverend Pam, the Reverend Janet, and the Reverend Donald.”
“Is Donald a vicar?” the boy asked. “I thought only women could be vicars”.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.