Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. The bookies had a field day with Charlotte. A lot of money went on Elizabeth. But Diana? That was so much a certainty it was almost unbettable. A name with a huge emotional component here in the UK. One to trigger the memory of a very personal journey.
When I qualified as a solicitor in 1981 my then flat mate told me to ‘get a better job’. I had struggled to secure my articles – now called a training contract, these are two years work experience covering various areas of the law that you need in order to be admitted to the Roll, the list of people permitted by law to practice as solicitors. Having done so in a small firm of solicitors in the West End of London, just north of Oxford Street I was content to stay there for a while.
The Suit Borrower was having none of it. I was ‘wasting my time’ and ‘missing the boat’. He nagged me for weeks as 1980 turned into 1981 and I approached April 4th the day my 2 years expired.
Eventually he won. I owe him thanks – much repaid over the years as he borrowed my dinner suits on a regular basis. After a round or three of interviews I chose to join the Scion of the Establishment, Freshfields, solicitors to the Bank of England.
Yes I chose. Unlike two years before when I had one offer – two if you count the creepy man with a lisp who held my knees throughout my interview and offered me a job on the spot with ‘I’m sure we will enjoy each other’s strengths’ as he squeezed my bicep. Now I had four offers from highly regarded firms in the centre of the action as the City of London deregulated in the lead up to Big Bang. For several weeks I actually thought they chose me for my obvious skills, personal charm and get-go. In fact they needed bodies to cope with the flood of opportunities. Right place, right time.
My joining date, after giving notice and enjoying my first flight for a holiday in Spain, was July 1981. My new office was housed in a tower of ten floors which then formed part of a post war estate right behind St Paul’s. Coming from a cramped office in a dusty ramshackle building this seemed to be the height of luxury and sophistication. To say the least I was excited (as well as shit scared, if I’m honest).
And to cap this momentous week, just three days after I joined, the Heir to the Throne was to marry his fairy-tale princess, Diana Spencer, in St Paul’s.
I cycled to work back then (indeed I did most of my career) so as I finished work the day before the big event, a warm sultry evening with a hint of summer rain, I unpadlocked the bike (not that it warranted such security) and wheeled it across the piazza to the steps of St Paul’s.
Even before I reached the road, before I could see steps, I heard the noise, I felt the fizz of happiness. The barriers were up and the campers were already three deep. Shirt sleeved policemen helped people into the gaps. Cabbies smiled and rippling cheers passed in waves through the audience. Food was cooked, sandwiches shared.
A bobby saw me. ‘You going to cycle the route, young’un?’ I hadn’t thought to, it was a bit out of my way in truth. He saw me hesitate. He turned to the nearest part of the crowd. ‘Should he ride the route?’ He had a stentorian voice that ripped the air.
‘Yes!’ They bellowed back at me. Someone started singing the pushbike song by Mungo Jerry. I couldn’t not, could I?
It was surreal, ethereal almost. The sun cast a sepia tint on the Portland stone of many buildings along the route. It made the facade of the Royal Courts glow. A breeze nipped at the bunting. If ever all was right with the world, all was right with the world that day. It took me an hour to cruise the Strand, and wend my way along the Mall throbbing as I’ve not seen it other than during the Olympics.
I peeled off at the Victoria monument in front of Buckingham Palace and headed for my flat. I smiled the whole way.
The next day I watched the wedding, the nervous, not to say panic stricken bride and the relieved mother in law to be.
Sixteen years later, over the bank holiday weekend in August 1997 I spent a lazy few days at my parents in law. On 31st August I awoke to ‘Diana is dead’ headlines. It was one of those moments when you remember where you were when you first heard, like Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11. I was still with Freshfields, looking back towards my fortieth birthday with two young children and a wife. Life was good but inevitably rather more adult.
During the following days the tension was palpable. A country used to its own stereotype of stiff upper lips and understated emotions began to let go. Tony Blair had a job on his hands ensuring the Royal family adjusted to that mood and, generally speaking he did a good job. The plans for a funeral gathered pace. This time it was to be held in Westminster Abbey.
The night before the funeral was chilly; I remember earlier rain and a lassitude but the ache in my bones might have been all sorts. My days were longer in 1997 than in 1981, the year was turning towards Autumn so it was dark as I wheeled my bike up the slope from the garage of our offices off Fleet Street.
Home was south across the river but I hesitated. I had seen on the TV in the office the build up of the crowds along the route, up the Mall and down Whitehall. I was cold; lycra doesn’t suit me and it is a poor insulator. I needed to get going and yet, as I once did before, I hesitated. There were no crowds to pull me on but I turned my wheels towards St Paul’s and set off up Fleet Street, up Ludgate Hill to the dark and empty steps.
No police, no barriers, no bunting, just ghosts. I swung around. Traffic was thinning – the next day was a holiday and people were heading home early but absent the customary spring in their step.
Slowly, humming that stupid song I retraced my previous steps. At Trafalgar Square I joined the funeral route and the crowds. They were three deep. Some cooked, sandwiches were shared. The police helped people across the barriers though it was eerily quiet in places. A few waved at me as I peddled slowly past watching them. There were signs this time hanging on the barriers, painful, demands for understanding, the crying need for some sort of rational explanation for the utterly irrational.
Once again I reached Buckingham Palace; from about half a mile away I began to smell the flowers. Up close the scent was nearly overpowering. A well ordered line was waiting to add yet more bouquets. I watched for a bit and then with the Victoria monument behind me I set off home.
And now we have another Diana, Princess. Yes, she’s Charlotte but she carries, in her third name, the memories of a woman who changed a monarchy, who in both life and death made it face itself and ask and be asked questions for which it was unprepared. Diana Spencer’s life in the public gaze was tumultuous and ultimately tragic. I hope her grand daughter has a much quieter time and I have no cause to get on my bike again.