20 years ago today Diana Princess of Wales died, after a car-crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Dodi Fayed, her boyfriend at the time, and Henri Paul, the driver of the limousine they were travelling in, pursued by photographers, also died. You probably knew that already. The newspapers and TV schedules have been commemorating it, though compared with 1997 the coverage has been decidedly muted. Everyone of a certain age remembers what they were doing when they heard about the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Most people of my generation can remember how they heard about the death of Princess Diana. These are truisms that my children are currently unaware of. They were born many years after the latter event.
Until this month I hadn’t connected how close I was to Paris that weekend. A few hours before the crash I was driving round the city, heading home after a few weeks in France, Italy and Spain. My mother had died earlier that year and I spent August visiting friends and family in all three countries. On 29 August 1997, a Friday, I had driven from Spain into France. I started the day in Torrevieja, at the place where my brother, his wife and their family usually spend August. It’s south of Barcelona, three or four hours’ drive away on the Costa Blanca, the east coast of Spain.
The night before that (28 August) my brother and I had stayed up a few hours later than I had intended, getting drunk and watching comedy clips on video (mostly “The Fast Show” and Harry Enfield sketch shows). I had planned to stay up till 1 or 2am, have breakfast at a civilized hour and get on the road for France by 10.30am. Instead, we drank gin and tonic and then Irish whiskey till 5am and I slept till 11am. I had more coffee than usual with my breakfast, packed up the car and drove off after 1pm, having (I hoped) sobered up enough. I stopped off at a supermarket to fill up the car with astonishingly cheap booze, which would be consumed the following month in England. I finally got on the road north around 2pm. My journey had started over three hours later than planned, so rather than crossing the French border in time for an early dinner I was still schlepping up the east coast of Spain and made it into France just before dark, and carried on driving.
I drove more miles that day, alone, than on any other day in my life, nearly a thousand kilometres, and finally pulled into an anonymous hotel near the centre of Limoges around 4am. I parked on the street, too tired to worry too much about all the stuff being left in the car overnight, and slept till 10am. I had driven more than half of the way home in one day, in spite of the late start. I could make it to Boulogne, for the ferry home, in around five hours, no need to punish myself, or the car, the way I had the previous day. I was up.
I had driven round Paris before a few times, on the périphérique, and had always timed it so that the evening sun was at just the wrong angle for comfortable driving. Today, Saturday 30 August 1997, was different. I was past Paris and in Boulogne before 6pm, in plenty of time for the last ferry back to England. I felt rather pleased with myself, having negotiated a thousand miles of Spanish and French roads in under 30 hours and made it in time, safely for my ferry home.
The feeling didn’t last long. The rest of the day’s ferries from Boulogne had been cancelled. The winds on the English Channel were at Force 8 or 9. As things stood the last sailing from Calais had not been cancelled. I might get there in time, the ferry might be running, they might let me on. I drove on, an hour or so to Calais, and was in time. Rough crossings didn’t bother me. In all of our journeys across the Irish Sea for childhood holidays I had never been sea-sick (and still haven’t), and I had been on a ferry in Force 8 weather once before, travelling back from France in 1983. I mentioned my second experience of crossing the Channel in a Force 8 gale in a piece about Travel Sickness last year. Here are the relevant sentences:
The only inconvenient thing for me about travelling in a Force 8 gale the last time it happened (in 1997) was being unable to read my book. I was travelling alone and had planned to read another 50-100 pages of the Booker Prize winner “The Famished Road” by Ben Okri, but only managed about 30 pages. It was a tough read anyway but the amount of noise all around me (screaming, groaning, people getting sick and falling over) affected my concentration, as you’d expect. At one point the ship lurched so violently that a rack of optics (those bottles of vodka, gin and other spirits behind the bar) crashed to the ground. The sound of so much breaking glass was also rather off-putting.
Until this week I hadn’t connected that journey and the storm on the English Channel with the media storm that was about to break a few hours later, when Diana’s limousine crashed. The previous weeks’ extensive coverage of Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayed had passed me by, in France, Italy and Spain. I didn’t see a tabloid newspaper all the time I was away.
Late that Saturday night I got back to West London in one piece, relieved not to be holed up in some ferry town in the north of France. I heard the news of the crash in the early hours of the next morning, at midnight or 1am. The first reports announced that there had been a crash and that the Princess of Wales had been taken to hospital with head injuries. The implication was that she was going to survive. When I turned on the radio later that morning (Sunday 31 August) there was sombre music being played, on every channel. I had no idea why. Eventually a newscaster announced that Princess Diana had died, aged 36. You know what happened next.