Jayne Dawson: The curious case of Diana and the national grief storm

Diana, Princess of Wales. PIC: PA
Diana, Princess of Wales. PIC: PA
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Prepare for a weepy weekend then.

If, like me, you have a few miles on the clock it’s going to be a tough one. Don’t bother with the tissues, just grab the tea towel - you’re going to need something pretty darn substantial to soak up the tears.

Because this weekend the telly will be going big on the death of Princess Diana, killed in a car crash in the early hours of Aug 31 some twenty years ago.

We who wept at the time - and there were a few million of us - could avoid the upset of course. We could watch the other side, get ourselves out of the house entirely, or just remind ourselves that a lot of people die young, and a lot of children lose their mothers, and children not so fortunately placed at that.

But it’s no use, we hardcore weepers - mostly women who had youngish children themselves when Diana died and could therefore most empathise with the terrible sadness of it all - will be watching and sobbing.

We all know what happened. Right in the dog days of summer, just hours before she was due to fly back home to her boys, the young and lovely Diana had her heart ripped apart in a Paris tunnel.

The driver of the Mercedes in which she was a back seat passenger hit the side of the underpass at terrific speed and, though Diana appeared relatively unmarked, a major vein had been torn causing catastrophic internal bleeding.

There was a medical battle to save her but her heart simply gave up, and she never was reunited with her boys.

Our reaction was the strangest thing. Not the grief storm. Not that. That was odd, there can be no argument. Where did it all come from? It was a social phenomenon, the like of it had never been seen before. The flowers, the crowds, the sadness.

No, the strange part is - where did it all go?

For a time, in the week after Diana died, it seemed certain that she would become a modern saint. That her image, her effigy would be everywhere. That the real, fallible woman would be replaced by a fantasy Diana who would be airbrushed into a goodness no real woman could never achieve.

She was a princess wronged, a wonderful and tragic figure.

But then she wasn’t. As fast as it emerged, the grief for Diana disappeared. Instead, there were stories about her mental instability.

If you had asked me ten years ago whether I had cried when Diana died I would have had to tell you in all honesty that I had.

I could have described the scene for you: that moment my daughter knocked on the bathroom door of our holiday cottage in Ireland to tell me that Diana had died. The moment I opened the bathroom door and stared at her, dripping and disbelieving, before my face crumpled.

I could have told you all that but it would have been in a shamefaced way, with a rueful smile about my own daftness.

But that was then. Now, twenty years after that day, Diana’s reputation has risen again.

Recent documentaries have focused on her witty warmth and on the strong, independent woman she was becoming. There has been less talk of her throwing herself down the stairs and more about how she emerged from the wreck of her marriage.

Her sons have helped of course. Their loving words about their mother would have wrung tears from a stone.

So incredibly, here we are. Twenty years on. So much has happened since Diana lost her life - you have only to see her collection of music cassettes to understand that.

In the end, Diana wasn’t a saint, she was a wealthy, privileged young woman - but she wasn’t a sinner either, and she died so very young.

So I’m glad that after twenty years her memory is being allowed to shine in a more thoughtful way.