Thursday, August 30, 2012

Diana and I - an anniversary to forget

15 years ago tonight I, along with various other representatives of the consumer electronics industry, was in an East Berlin nightclub in what must have looked like a scene from Cocoon: The Return.

We were a collection of company PRs and journalists, barely anyone south of their 30th birthdays, but partying in the smoky haze of a squat. This was one of the many repurposed buildings in the eastern half of the unified Berlin that had been turned into cool hangouts for, er, the kids.

This particular Saturday night was our final evening in Berlin for the IFA - the gargantuan technology trade show which takes place every year at this time, swallowing up participants in a wagon circle of 26 huge exhibition halls.

For exhibitors and visitors alike, IFA is an event that requires the expulsion of steam, hence this motley collection grooving away in the gloom. Occasionally faces you half-recognised would emerge like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now!, appearing out of the Nung River to complete his mission and dispatch Colonel Kurtz to the next life. That, come to think of it, wasn't the only similarity to the Kurtz compound in Cambodian jungle....

Somewhere near four in the morning, most of this weary group of unlikely ravers decided to return to the spinning chamber that would soon be their room at the well-appointed Steigenberger Hotel across town on Los Angeles Platz.

As is my habit - and despite the ungodly hour and the need to be back on my feet again in three hours - I flipped on the TV to see what the news was, and came across a curious sight: a locked-off camera shot of a crumpled Mercedes lying motionless in a tunnel.

Not wishing to wake the neighbours, the TV's sound had been muted, but a single caption told me everything I needed to know: "Diana injured in car crash".

For the following hours I watched, with the sound still muted, as the story revealed itself. Gradually as, presumably, official protocols were enacted, the actual fate of Diana, Princess of Wales, became known to those who needed to be informed - the Royal Family, prime minister Tony Blair and other circles of the establishment.

As this took place, the caption changed every so often as the news worsened: "Diana seriously injured in car crash", "Diana critically injured in car crash", "Diana in critical condition following crash"... until "Diana dies in Paris car crash".

In reality, the princess had been declared dead at 4am, around the same time we were hailing taxis back to our Berlin hotel. The news, however, was just as surreal as the nightclub. Members of the British royal family - whether estranged or not - don't die in car crashes in Parisian underpasses in the middle of the night. Unless, of course, they are the world's most photographed woman, trying to escape a pack of paparazzi on motorbikes.

Shortly before 9am the press group I'd been out with only a few hours before assembled grumpily and reluctantly in the hotel lobby. As the hungover and bewildered slowly appeared, I began telling them the news.

At first none believed me (a stunning endorsement, I thought, of my communication skills), but as we arrived at the IFA the mood changed, in particular as the journalists caught the news for themselves on the banks of brand new TV sets throughout the exhibition halls.

During one bizarre moment that morning, when the writers were meant to be interviewing a senior Philips executive (Frans van Houten, now the company's CEO), he became the inquisitor, asking the press how they were doing.

By that Sunday lunchtime we were all ready to leave. It had been a long IFA anyway, but the overnight news just made it odd. On the plane, and in a business class cabin exclusively ours, the British Airways attendant handed out free copies of the Sunday Times.

The paper had gone to press long before the day's stunning news had beome public, and yet every single section appeared to feature something about Diana, her sons or the royals in general. Even the Personal Finance section carried an unfortunately prescient story about William and Harry's future financial security. The Sunday Times' technology correspondent, a member of our party, endured some ribbing over that, typical of journalists' black humour.

It wasn't, however, until we landed at Heathrow that it truly dawned that something big had happened. It may sound disrespectful, but we had been enclosed in a bubble of technology and laddish jocularity, disconnecting us from anything else.

As we waited for our luggage to appear, various members of our party disappeared to call home using payphones (yes, back then not everyone had a mobile phone), returning in varying states of shock: "My mum's in pieces - she's been round at my girlfriend's all morning. They're both hysterical" was a common report.

The next day I drove through Westminster. The entire area around Buckingham Palace was carpeted by flowers and zombified, tearful people walking in no particular direction, still stunned by the 24 hour-old news.

Like 9/11, it is still a stunning event now. Mercifully, however, the media obsession with Diana has evaporated over the past 15 years. Her boys have grown up, mostly, and are finding their own ways to both shun the spotlight and attract it. She'd be proud. Even of strip billiards.

I could never call myself a fan of Diana - I'm not that big a fan of the royals - but she carried an undoubted movie star aura that I appreciated. The carpet of people I saw covering Westminster that Monday morning certainly lent itself to Tony Blair's "People's Princess" soundbite.

But I couldn't help but feeling that the Diana Mania led to her tragic demise, that her picture was considered such currency in media outlets in just about every corner of the earth that photographers could pursue her to, literally, the very end.

Now I live in Paris, and frequently pass through or near the Place de l'Alma underpass where the fatal accident took place, I find it impossible not to think back to that surreal night in Berlin, and the events that would lead to a worldwide media phenomenon to reach such a tragic crescendo.

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