Written by Sarah Ledger

Voices

“Though I was taking the piss, I worried about her…”

Eighteen years on from her death, it’s become a running joke that the Daily Express won’t leave Princess Di be, making any reference to her feel a bit, well, Daily Express. A schmaltz-free Sarah Ledger explains why she loved Diana Spencer.

Undated file photo of Diana, Princess of WalesNineteen eighty-one was a big year for me: I joined the Young Socialists, sat my O-Levels, and fell in love with Lady Diana Spencer. It wasn’t love at first sight. My initial impression was horrified fascination. Why would a perfectly sensible-looking young woman, not much older than me, want to marry a bumbling twerp like Prince Charles? He was plain, he was awkward and he was old. In my experience, anyone in his 30s who hung around teenage girls was creepy.

Diana was easy to imitate; she had a series of awkward gestures of her own: blushing, shrugging and peering through her fringe. My friend Hannah and I did an impression of Charles and Diana’s “whatever ‘in love’ means” interview, exaggerating her simpering giggle. But though I was taking the piss, I worried about her. Couldn’t she see that he didn’t love her? That even though she was strikingly pretty, the best that he could come up with was that she was “a jolly bouncy girl”?

As the wedding approached, I worried more. The fixation upon her virginity was mortifying. For those of us in the fifth year, virginity – possession or lack – was a thorny topic. The best line of defence was not to mention it at all and pray no one else did. When Diana’s uncle chirped up confirming that yes, no need to worry chaps, she definitely is a virgin, I was horrified. How did he know? Why did it matter?

“I wish I could say it was an early sense of feminist solidarity that drew me to Diana: it wasn’t. It was because she had the same hairstyle as me.”

Now I’m clearer that Diana – a bit like the concept of virginity – was a pawn in an outdated patriarchal game and her feelings were of no more significance than those of a pedigree mare. My mother, a fierce republican Scot, said that the offspring of the House of Windsor were becoming progressively shorter and urgently required length of bone in the bloodline to prevent them evolving into a separate pygmy sub-species. If my mother was right, being a tall virgin sealed Diana’s fate.

I wish I could say it was an early sense of feminist solidarity that drew me to Diana: it wasn’t. It was because she had the same hairstyle as me. Later on, it was called a ‘Lady Di’, but I’d been blow-drying my hair with two brushes to achieve a perfect post-Purdy flick since 1979. And she did stuff that I’d never seen a famous person do before: she tripped up pretending not to notice she was being followed by cameras; she cried; she rolled her eyes when she was bored. It was unfashionable to admit it but I was smitten.

My parents were appalled when I said I’d prefer to stay at home and watch the Royal Wedding rather than join them for a walk in the hills, where they were hoping to avoid any mention of the nuptials. But when it came to it, I couldn’t watch. I cringed as Diana muddled up the words of her wedding vows and finally had to switch off when Archbishop Runcie started gushing about “the stuff of fairy tales”. I switched on again just as the happy couple were being driven off to consummate their union and I worried again for Diana that everyone would be picturing her and Charles at it. I pictured it myself. In my head it looked nasty. I hoped she loved him enough for it to be okay.

“I’d love to know what she’d have said about Leveson, about female genital mutilation, about food banks. I’d love to have seen her upstage the rest of the family at Kate and William’s wedding.”

I worried about her for the next 16 years. Unlike the Queen whose expression is permanently set to mildly grumpy, Diana’s face frequently gave her away. There was no mistaking her mood, particularly when she turned that dead-eyed stare in the direction of her husband. Other days, she looked downright sad and very thin. But there were times when I positively adored her. On the night Charles’ admission of adultery was aired, Diana attended an event at the Serpentine Gallery. Bounding from her car in an off-the-shoulder dress, looking every inch the Amazon goddess she exacted a delightful, triumphant revenge. I all but cheered. She walked through landmines, she won the mothers’ race, she hugged poorly children and she looked like she had corking fun with her own kids.

On the day of her death I had to drive from Carlisle, home to London. The radio networks broadcast nothing else that day and while I sat in a 300-mile traffic jam there was no escape. As the late summer sun set on the M1, the radio announcer described the scene as Diana’s body was flown into RAF Northolt. I burst into tears. Once I’d pulled myself together and looked up, I was amazed to see that in all the other cars at a standstill around me, everyone else was crying too.

She wrote her own cheesy ‘Queen of Hearts’ epitaph which has preserved her forever in the amber of sentimental tat. Still I often wonder what she might be doing if her life hadn’t ended so abruptly. Her charity work was turning into serious humanitarian activism and she sounded as if she was developing a voice of her own rather than telling her story – or allowing it to be told – in pictures. I’d love to know what she’d have said about Leveson, about female genital mutilation, about food banks. I’d love to have seen her upstage the rest of the family at Kate and William’s wedding. And what a grandma she’d have made!

I know she wasn’t perfect; I know there have been greater tragedies. But I loved her. And now she’s gone, I miss her.

@sezl

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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com