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17 years since Diana

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Princess Diana in a BBC Panorama Interview with Martin Bashir, not long before her tragic death in 1997.

It has been 17 years since Diana, Princess of Wales, died. Senior correspondent Barry Everingham, who was close to the princess, remembers that time.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY the telephone beside the bed of the Queen of England wakens the monarch at one o’clock in the morning.  On Sunday, 31 August 1997, the fabric of Britain’s premier family would never be the same again.

The Queen was told by her private secretary her family’s nemesis had been injured in a car crash in Paris. Details were sketchy — Dodi Fayed had been killed and Diana seriously injured.

The royal family was in Scotland at Balmoral and an operations room had been set had been set up.

In far off Melbourne, my wife Avril was fielding calls from the media; I was at the time a commentator on the royals, but I was in New York where we were to live for a few years. She passed on my number and I learned more from the callers than they from me.

It was still early London and when I decided was a decent time, I started calling the contacts I had built up since I started writing about the royals in 1978. The message I got was clear and unambiguous.

The family was fraying at the edges and the world’s most beautiful and disturbed princess wasn’t dead — yet.

It was when she succumbed to her dreadful injuries a few hours later that the family was at war.

The Queen was aghast. Charles was beside himself, suffering the pangs of grief, mixed with guilt. The monarch and heir were at one — the boys, William and Harry, were to be told, but by whom and when.

By now, Charles had phoned Camilla and word was put out in the castle that the boy’s radios and TV were to be removed.

The world’s media was going crazy, but still no word from the palace.

Tony Blair was putting together his tribute and it was then he coined the phrase “the People’s princess”, which didn’t endear him to the Queen or her ghastly husband.

In Canberra, it was leaked that John and Janette Howard were packing their bags for a funeral that hadn’t yet been organised, venue decided nor date fixed.

Janette really wanted to be there, but a call to the High Commission in London stymied that one — Diana had been stripped of her royal status and colonial prime ministers need not bother to nudge in.

All this, of course, is history and we did eventually get the most glittering funeral ever, which stopped the world in its tracks. Diana’s celebrity was set in stone and an outpouring of grief seemed to envelop the world.

That was 17 years ago and my memory of that time is vivid.

It really started a few weeks before the Paris accident, when again poor Avril, trying to get ready for the move to New York, got a call from London with an invitation for both of us to be at a private preview of the auction of Diana’s dresses in New York.

I was there and the guest list was incredible.

I found myself being introduced to Jessye Norman, the famous opera soprano.

Here’s an interesting anecdote.

Henry and Nancy Kissinger, whom I didn’t know, joined the small group and, before introductions could be made, Henry startled me by saying how good it was to see me again and Nancy air kissed me and said we shouldn’t leave it so long before we met up again.

God only knows who they thought I was, but I have to say the brush with international celebrity left a warm glow and I dined out on that one for a long time — come to think of it, I still drop it occasionally.

All of this was two weeks before the fateful drive through the streets of Paris.

The mayhem at Balmoral and at the Blair holiday home was frantic.

Charles, it is understood, at the insistence of his then mistress Camilla, wanted to accompany his former wife’s body back from Paris and he wanted an aircraft from the Queen’s Flight to collect it.

No, said the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Yes, said the government’s advisors. They’d read the mood of the public and, to their horror, the spectre of republicanism was rearing its ugly head.

Charles fetched his former wife and her body was received with all the pomp and circumstance usually accorded to a royal (Diana’s status had previously been downgraded and she was no longer a “royal highness”).

The arguments continued unabated. There were two camps at Balmoral — the Queen’s and Prince Charles’. Communications between the two were through third parties; it was an example of pair feral animals at war

The rest, as they say, is history – although in  the two weeks between the death and Diana’s funeral,  the media was being contacted by members of both camps, me included.  In my case, using me nightly were NBC, CNN, Law TV and other stations.

Tony Blair won the day.

The royal family came to London.

The flag at Buckingham palace was lowered to half- staff.

Condolence books were opened in the UK and at all British diplomatic and consular offices world-wide.

The most magnificent memorial service befitting Diana was held and a poker-faced Queen addressed the nation.

Her brother’s eulogy was applauded throughout London and his words changed the face of Britain’s monarchy forever; some would say he unwittingly saved the monarchy from itself.

Diana would have loved what happened; I can imagine her saying:

“I told you so.”

Those 17 years have passed, but not the memory of that fascinating, beautiful, irreplaceable Diana.

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