Adam Ash

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Bookplanet: kinda famous chick writes about mega-famous chick

Tina Brown's Diana
By Selina Hastings/Times Literary Supplement

Like scraping barnacles off an old hulk, Tina Brown has taken the story of Princess Diana, hosed off layers of hearsay and myth, sifted through tons of accumulated legend, and presented us with a fresh and vividly perceptive portrait. Few are better placed to undertake such an excavation. In 1980, when the frenzy over Lady Diana Spencer was reaching its height, Tina Brown, at twenty-five, had just taken over as Editor of Tatler. She moved the magazine away from debs and dowagers, embracing instead an edgier, more outré fashion arena, one which had little respect for the old Establishment. Shortly before Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles, Tatler ran a piece on the Coleherne Court flatmates which clearly signalled the change in attitude, skewering with sly irony the dimness of the society in which Diana was embedded. One of her girlfriends, we were told, had recently done a spell behind the counter at Asprey’s, followed by cooking directors’ lunches in the City. “She is about to embark on a china-mending course. Her goldfish Battersea, which is cosseted between plastic weeds from Harrods, is a perennial conversation piece.”

As the whole world knows, Diana was catapulted out of this sweetly safe environment to become a global superstar; while Tina Brown went on to edit Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Thus the biographer was perfectly positioned a quarter of a century later to record the life of her subject, “the first great glamour icon”, as Brown describes her, “to live and die in the age of multimedia”. Brown’s own immersion in the world of multimedia has provided the contacts, the entrée, the insider knowledge of the communications industry. Yet The Diana Chronicles is remarkable for much more than this: for a keen analytical intelligence, for wit as well as compassion, and for an unusually dextrous handling of the language, with an authorial voice both confident and compelling.

There are, of course, problems in retelling a story as familiar as this. Tina Brown circumvents them mainly by jettisoning acres of secondary material. Beginning with the hours before the fatal crash in Paris, the narrative moves straight into Diana’s childhood at Althorp, where the wretchedly unhappy atmosphere, the violent quarrels between the parents eventually culminated in the adulterous Lady Spencer’s being forcibly ejected from the house and denied custody of her son and daughters. “My own view”, says Brown in reviewing the marriage, “is that Johnnie became a bully not a batterer. Johnnie’s conduct, as observed by others, suggests rather the kind of table-banging outbursts and small social cruelties practised by limited men who fear the spirited intelligence of their wives.” Predictably, such events caused lasting damage to the children, especially to the youngest girl, who, during her marriage to Prince Charles, “was always listening at doors, as she had as a child, seeking confirmation of the worst”. For years she believed herself to have been wilfully abandoned by her mother, and the long-term results of these miserable beginnings are astutely traced. To the end of her short life, the superstar Princess, famous for her empathy and charm, remained needy and insecure, was extraordinarily devious, sometimes spiteful, and given to tantrums: by her inner circle it was well known that she was at her most dangerous when hurt.

The same analysis is applied to the character of Prince Charles, who as a spoilt young man about town was the textbook “toxic bachelor”. Emotionally paralysed by his stultifying upbringing, surrounded from the day of his birth by sycophantic courtiers and a cadre of rich upper-class friends, it is hardly surprising he was unable to cope with the damaged young woman entrusted to his care. As the author points out, Charles was disastrously distanced from the contemporary world by an Edwardian deportment that made him almost incapable of communicating with the modern young woman Diana was determined to be. As a wife and mother, “[Diana] wanted her boys raised as OshKosh kids not Little Lord Fauntleroys”. Interestingly, Tina Brown deconstructs the notorious “whatever ‘in love’ means” not as a callous put-down but as an instance of the old reflexive patrician instinct “that quickly moves to negate any show of messy feeling”. With so much loaded against them – Charles saw his fiancée on only thirteen occasions from the beginning of their courtship to the day of their wedding – the marriage was almost programmed to fail; and yet Tina Brown convincingly argues that in the beginning the Prince had genuine feelings of tenderness for his young wife, feelings which might well have developed further had it not been for the ruthless invasiveness of Camilla Parker Bowles.

The sympathy shown to the two protagonists is extended to a wide range of supporting players. Dodi Fayed is seen as a gentle soul, survivor of a childhood as lonely as Prince Charles’s, while the frightful “Fergie”, Duchess of York, is portrayed not as the greedy, grasping woman depicted by the press but as a merry creature, good-humoured, unreflective and hopelessly out of her depth. Brown even puts in a good word for the priapic Major James Hewitt, first in the long line of “Dianamen”, who, as she rightly points out, was for five years a faithful friend to Diana as well as a devoted lover. Contrary to the impression more generally received, it was the Princess, not the guileless Major, who ran that affair.

Yet the authorial view is far from entirely benign, and there are some glorious villains in the piece, Camilla Parker Bowles way ahead, followed by the witch-like figure of the Queen Mother and her devoted familiar, Diana’s grandmother, Ruth Fermoy. It was Lady Fermoy, cold, snobbish and self-serving, who was particularly vigorous in scheming to bring about the match, then nimbly distancing herself as soon as the marriage began to go wrong. There is a chilling description of the scene at Clarence House on the night before the wedding, with the two old women downstairs enjoying a rerun of Dad’s Army after a victory dinner à deux, while upstairs the terrified bride-to-be was left entirely alone to indulge in a bout of bulimia.

A clear eye is brought to bear on Camilla’s role in the affair, and some interesting new angles are revealed. The first is the establishing of the actual words spoken to Charles at their famous first meeting on the polo ground at Windsor: not the ridiculously unlikely “my great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-great-grandfather – so how about it?” but, as Brown notes, the much more arousing “That’s a fine animal you have, sir”. Tina Brown gives a shrewd account of the affair with Prince Charles – hilariously, she detects a strong facial resemblance between Camilla and Charles’s adored old nanny, Mabel Anderson – and makes a good case for the view that it was Andrew Parker Bowles who was the love of Camilla’s life, but the Prince of Wales whom she was determined to keep in her clutches. When the peachy young Spencer girl arrived on the scene, Camilla, by now “a knocked-about blonde with too much back story”, took fright and began a vigorous and unscrupulous campaign to undermine her. As many attest, it was Camilla who deliberately scuppered the Waleses’ marriage: even when relations between husband and wife were at their worst, “but for Camilla’s refusal to back off, the marriage could have been saved by a workable truce which might have eventually become a permanent negotiated peace”.

In telling her story of the People’s Princess, Tina Brown has adopted a highly refined demotic, a sophisticated form of glossy magazine-speak woven into a muscular and elegant prose. With perfect pitch for the fall of a sentence, she takes a glitzy, slangy English and shapes it into something entirely her own, an original tool wielded with skill and daring. She writes of the Queen happily alone with a TV-dinner tray, “whacked out . . . from a week of being sucked up to”; of Charles and Camilla at a ball “lip-locked half the night”; she writes of Nancy Reagan’s “gnarled, air-kissing lunch-lady friends”, of the “aerodynamic hair” of Raine Spencer, Diana’s stepmother, of “the thrilling impertinence” of Earl Spencer’s speech at his sister’s funeral. On one page alone, describing the bloodiest moment in the battle over the divorce, she supplies three perfectly chosen qualifiers, the devastated Princess “inexorably” expected to attend Royal Ascot, with the Queen riding “implacably” in her carriage, followed by a “studiedly convivial” Andrew Parker Bowles. Her judgement is not always reliable – “a diabetes of the soul” is one of the less happy choices – but mostly it is, and the book reads irresistibly as a result.

This writer is finely attuned to the nuances of fashion and style, knowledgeably appraising Diana’s wardrobe, from the frumpish blue suit of the engagement interview, to the billowy meringue ball gowns, to the honed, streamlined high chic of the final couple of years. She is intensely alert, too, to the varying speech patterns of generation and class: among Diana’s Sloanes, for instance, “House was ‘hice’. Yes was ‘yah’. Prince Charles was ‘Pris Chos’. Boring people were ‘heavy furniture’; an old boring person was a ‘real Horlicks’ . . . The Sloanes were never angry, they were ‘absolutely livid’”. Brown gives a wonderfully funny critique of the infamous Squidgygate tapes, and reproduces a deliciously comic exchange, at which she herself was present, between Prince Charles, describing himself as constantly “dashing abite”, and his private secretary, Stephen Lamport:

"His [the prince’s] life is swaddled round the clock by a squadron of brisk, officer-class apparatchiks whose job is to answer his whims and keep his spirits up. “I get the most terrific people”, he said to me. “They flake out after two years but they miss it, don’t they?” he added, turning to the crisp, attentive figure of his deputy private secretary, Sir Stephen Lamport. “Definitely, sir,” replied Lamport. “I mean all the excitement,” said Charles. “The excitement, sir, yes”, said Lamport."

On the whole Brown shows a good understanding of the wider context, at intervals taking time out dutifully to remind us what was going on in the country at large – “The run-down area of Toxteth, Liverpool, was still tense after a month of racial street riots” – but one can almost hear the sigh of relief with which she returns to the internecine dramas being played out in Highgrove and the royal palaces.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, and certainly vital to the story is the author’s understanding of the workings of the press, “the Beast”, as she names it with a nod to Lord Copper. Diana was the hack-pack’s darling, their icon of blondness, “the tabloid girl in a tiara”, who became a master manipulator. Her complex relationship with the industry is examined in fascinating detail, from its comparatively innocent beginnings to the frighteningly overheated atmosphere at the end. Both principals were ultimately destroyed by a too close cooperation with reporters, Diana with Andrew Morton and Martin Bashir, Charles in his notorious television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, in which his blundering combination of candour and obfuscation proved a recipe for disaster. There is a telling analysis both of Morton and of his book, with some extraordinary glimpses behind the scenes, for example of the frenzied bidding for serialization rights, eventually bought for £250,000 by Andrew Neil on behalf of the Sunday Times after his chief competitor, David English at the Daily Mail, suddenly decided, astonishingly, that he “didn’t want the aggravation”.

In a gruesome coda, Tina Brown reveals that a paparazzo’s shot of Diana taken in the Alma tunnel seconds after the car had crashed was instantly sold to the Sun for £300,000: it has never been used.

(Selina Hastings has written Lives of Nancy Mitford, 1986, Evelyn Waugh, 1994, and Rosamund Lehmann, 2002.)



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