It was a badly timed death, a departure which, ironically, scorned the important press deadlines. The best time to die, if you are a celebrity, is at three o’clock in the afternoon of a weekday — in time for the early evening news bulletins and the next morning’s papers. This, however, was a Saturday into a Sunday, a time when even Christ might have died and there’d be nobody sentient around to pick up the story.
I was a bit drunk, having spent the evening out drinking with my then girlfriend and a bunch of friends whose names I cannot subsequently recall. Temporary drink friends, I suppose. There had been loads of drink, gallons of the stuff, enough units to make the present chief medical officer Liam Donaldson suffer a sudden and possibly fatal embolism. Later, I climbed into bed with this raw clanging in my brain, a cacophonous fugue of ur-noise; I remember it well.
We all remember the moment, just like with Kennedy (for those old enough). As I lay my head on the pillow I heard another, different, clanging, at least it seemed distinct from the internal clanging. It had an insistency about it, an urgency; it seemed like a reproof. ‘Is that the phone?’ I eventually asked my then girlfriend, semi-comatose beside me. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s just your f***ing tinnitus again.’ That seemed a fair enough analysis at the time, so I tried to shut it out. But it was still there, hammering away, every few moments. Brrrrring brrring brrring. Then I fell asleep, these two fugues combining usefully, in the end, as a sort of lullaby. Then I woke up at lunchtime the next day, and Princess Diana was dead. That noise, that external noise, was not my ‘f***ing tinnitus’, as it turned out, but my office calling to say: ‘Wake up! You’ll never guess what’s happened now. Get in here. She’s only gone and died! Get in here.’
I never got in there — I missed it. Missed the story. ‘But I don’t have tinnitus,’ I said to my girlfriend shamefacedly and accusatorily later. Missed the story.
A friend of mine, a reporter stationed in Berlin, one night pulled a sweet Aussie girl in a bar and they got very drunk and then quite intimate. He had this external clanging stuff happening too, as the intimacy unravelled itself, this insistent ringing in his ears, until eventually he answered the phone. ‘For God’s sake get up, get up,’ said the voice at the end of the line, the voice of his boss. ‘Why?’ he asked blearily. ‘Because the wall’s down, the wall’s down!’ He turned over in bed and thought hard for a moment or two. ‘What f***ing wall?’ Spare a thought for the journalists who miss stuff, who miss really big stuff.
Nearly 12 years after Diana, another death, similarly ill-timed for the papers. The same time: three o’clock on a Sunday morning, when all but the most desperate hacks are drunk or asleep. Next morning we all wake up and Jade Goody is dead. Death is perverse, it finds its moment, it knows when we are at our weakest, in those small hours before the dawn, both those dying and those delegated to watch.
Three days after Princess Diana’s death, a new clanging was hammering away inside my head. My friend John Humphrys, as clever and seasoned a journalist as you could wish to find, arrived home from his holiday in Turkey and called in patent astonishment. ‘Can you explain to me what the hell is going on with this country?’ he asked, but I couldn’t. It felt the same to me, just as alien and inexplicable: the vast incontinent outpourings of grief, the condolence book, the mountain of flowers, the bloody teddy bears which some people tried to nick before they were beaten up for their despicable behaviour, the relentless television coverage, the sotto voce expressions of solace from apparently sincere politicians. The retrospective elevation of the woman into something which she had never actually been, or something which made no sense. Queen of Hearts? What does that mean, exactly? All you knew was that the country had changed for some reason. And which was nothing to do with Diana, but something from well beyond Diana.
Twelve years on, much the same stuff has been rolled out for poor Jade Goody. At least with Diana one could pretend that here was a national figurehead of sorts; a woman of quasi-constitutional importance, if little achievement. There was at least that excuse, or semi-excuse. With Jade, what is there? There was the additional excuse with Diana that her death was sudden and thus genuinely shocking. Some people at the time blamed the national outpouring upon this, that such a death was difficult to comprehend because of its peremptory nature.
Cancer we all know about, however. We know what happens in the end when people have cancer. And yet there it all was, even though we knew what was coming: the page one headlines, the page one headlines again the next day, the preparations for the funeral, the outpourings of grief (this time online), the sotto voce expressions of solace from apparently sincere politicians. Except they can’t really have been sincere, can they? That slightly emetic stuff from Gordon Brown about Jade Goody’s courage, was that sincere? And for those of us who felt estranged from this self-propelled juggernaut, as it trundles relentlessly towards the cemetery with half the population of Britain clinging to the running boards, the bewildered question: do you not have people of your own to bury, to grieve for? People who, uh, you actually knew?
The rather likeable television actress Wendy Richards, she of EastEnders and the truly awful Are You Being Served? had her death — from cancer — filmed, again for early evening TV. Her death got less coverage than that of Jade Goody for reasons which I do not understand. But then I do not understand any of it, if I’m honest. I do not know what people are grieving for. I feel sorry for Jade Goody and wish that she had made a recovery, but that is about as much as I can say. I am not sure that many of those people publicly grieving can say even that much. The country changed with Diana, and not, I think, for the better. There is a sense that her death in 1997 was more seismic than that other event of the same year, the election of Tony Blair. In terms of a public response, though, I would argue that the latter is more easily understood than the former.