A famous face in the crowd

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Where were you, the day Diana died?

Despite our best laid plans stuff happens, and life changes forever.

And when it happens on a large scale, on the grand historical stage, Each of us who was close to the action gets  a unique perspective.

On the day Diana died, I was woken early by my mother in law, who had heard strange reports of an accident involving the Princess in the early hours of the morning. But it was all right, someone reported: she had got out of the car and was talking to people.

It soon became clear how very different that was from the truth.

We woke in Southport, England; our task for the day was to drive south to central England, right into the heart of a maelström which was just beginning to rage. All the way, we listened to the radio updates. History hung heavy in the air.

Other events of national and international importance have had the same effect. Like the execution of Charles I.

We know so much about the King, and how he was prepared for those final hours, and how dignified he was; and so very little about which of the great and the good came along to watch.

But they did. It is possible it became inexpedient, when his son returned tho claim the throne, to shout about their whereabouts that grim day.

But the execution of Charles happened a stone’s throw away at Whitehall, when London was a much smaller place and so many key people lived there. They would have had no screens to monitor: if they wanted to see the execution, they had to be there.

We know poet Andrew Marvell was probably there: his poem records what happened, for posterity. And Samuel Pepys, “a great roundhead when I was a boy” , was there to witness and rejoice. Much later, when he met a friend on November 1st 1660, he recalled:  “I was much afraid that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded (that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be ‘The memory of the wicked shall rot…’) ”

Was that other dour genius, John Milton there? Later, in October 1649, he published Eikonoklastes: a justification for the execution.

He had been made Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the regime. This was not only to compose foreign correspondence in the lingua franca of Latin; but also to create propaganda and act as a censor.

I’d place him in that crowd.

Not all momentous events required a monarch. Some had Death himself as grand master of the proceedings. When the plague came to London, Pepys was still in and out of the City:  “But Lord,” he writes,  “to see, among other things, how all these great people here are afeared of London, being doubtful of anything that comes from thence or that hath lately been there, that I was forced to say that I lived wholly at Woolwich.”

Milton? He  took himself away. Not for very long, it is true: long enough to finish Paradise Lost, though.

He came to a “pretty box in St Giles”, as his friend Thomas Ellwood called it. A pad 20 miles from the poisonous miasma of the capital, with a lovely little garden, next to the road which ran through the village now known as Chalfont St Giles.

How the landmark people of a time respond to momentous events; it defines them, and the time. The execution of a king, an epidemic, the death of a princess: each begs the question: where were they that day?

Think on it; and I shall leave you with pictures of the pretty box in Chalfont St Giles.

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41 thoughts on “A famous face in the crowd

  1. I was swimming at my sister’s birthday party when we heard of Kennedy’s assasination. I was hanging curtains early in the morning when I heard of Diana’s death. I didn’t know about Sept 11 until Sept 12, I was in Beijing and it happened overnight for us.
    Funny how these things stick in your mind.

  2. That was a sad day. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing that day, but do remember watching the funeral procession a few days later. Diana had a special place in the hearts of many Of us over here since she had American ancestors. I share several ancestors with her.

  3. I was not really a fan of Diana, and her death had less of an impact on me than with, it seems, the most. Like Sidey I remember the Kennedy assasination, and the shock to our whole commuinity. He was tremendously well regarded by all of us. I cannot forget Sept 11, either. I was supposed to be watching our little shop in the middle of nowhere in Natal Midlands – but we did have TV in the house, and that was where I spent most of the day after having seen the second strike live.

    1. I was sitting in a little house just outside London when Phil called – ever the journalist – and told me to switch on the television. Maddie was a baby, playing on the carpet as I watched, unable to grasp the enormity. Awful business.

  4. As a side note, Charles I was executed outside Banqueting House, the only remaining remnant of the great palace of Whitehall, and a place that can still be visited but many people haven’t. Worth a visit though.

  5. I was in Tennessee at my mean Aunt’s, and my crazy Aunt kept calling on the phone that morning and proclaiming that Diana was dead. Because she was crazy, we did not believe her until we turned on the television.

    I’ve never understood the need to witness an execution. I’ve read about numerous ones in history, but the public’s gruesome need to be there has always sickened me.

  6. I’ve paid very little attention to the doings of British royalty in my life, but two things stand out — the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, a fairy tale come to life for a little girl, and the death of Diana, the tragic end of a modern fairy tale.

  7. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing with so many of the moments that seemed shocking at the time. Kennedy’s assassination was probably my first, and since then, there have been so many. It’s always fascinating to watch how others respond. I just had the opportunity to once again visit the “Diana” exhibit at the Queen Mary, taking my sister-in-law as a birthday gift. She and I talked quite a bit about the details we either remembered or had forgotten, and our memories and interpretations were somewhat different. I do love the photos of “the pretty box” and like the term “landmark people of a time.” Great weaving of history and story, Kate.

  8. That is a pretty box. Milton chose well. I never thought about that, about who would have witnessed the execution. But since all executions were public events, the execution of Charles I would have been sure to attract all kinds of fancy attendees. And I would agree that Milton would have shown up. As for Diana, I had just flown back from a visit to London the week before, and I was up late flipping channels. I came across a newscast with the banner “Princess Diana gravely injured in car crash” at about midnight New York time. Around 1am or so they announced that she had died. I actually stayed up for a few more hours so I could call my friends in London, who were fans of hers, to talk with them about it. When I called them they hadn’t even heard yet–they were just puttering around and hadn’t turned on the television or radio yet. I was very sad about her death; she was a troubled soul but I liked her.

  9. I was living in SW Turkey and walking into a bar at the time. Somebody thought it was a joke at first then suddenly the tv channels all starting showing the news everywhere you went.

    1. Hi Nicola! Lovely to hear from you! I think most people thought it was a hoax. We listened to tales of her getting out of the car and talking to people and thought, oh, that’s all right then. But it wasn’t, and what a sad end to the story.

    1. Four stout sides and a roof, I suppose, Madhu! These days we often call them ‘cocolate box cottages’ because they resemble the pretty English scenes on boxes of chocolates, but that’s something different.
      The end of Diana’s story was as compelling as her life had always been…

  10. I went to work on the morning that Diana’s death was announced to the world, and I visited patients all day – it was a weekend – arriving home to my husband not yet having heard the news. I thought that he was playing a trick on me at first, so unlikely did it seem.
    I can hardly believe I got through a whole day not knowing.

  11. Sitting in our family room on the couch, the television muted, my friend Cathy had called to offer us her condolences. My sister-in-law had passed away less that 24 hours before. Our 16 year old daughter had just been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. A news flash came across the television screen, reading Princess Diana killed in a car crash. I remember it like it was yesterday, Kate; my heart so heavy already, became heavier still.

    9/11 was surreal. I walked down the stairs, entered the kitchen. Tom had left the television on when he left. As I walked in, I saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center and just stood, staring, for several moments before it registered that I was watching a horrific event on my television screen.

    On November 22, 1963, several of us ate lunch in our 8th grade classroom and then decorated the bulletin boards. The bell rang. Students came in. Some were crying. Mr. Robinson, our teacher, came in. He looked strange. Our principal came on the loud speaker, crying. In 1963, school principals didn’t cry. She told us that President Kennedy was shot and killed and that it was a very sad day for our country. We would be dismissed to return home. I thought the world had ended. It didn’t, but, the world as I knew it did.

    I’ve lived long enough to witness far too much of history’s evils. Still, I am a hopeful person. Your post is moving – and has struck many chords today.

    1. Your comment was equally moving, Penny. To have seen all those things happen: you write about them so beautifully. I wonder if we remember the good things as easily as these times we heard bad news, a terrible moment in history; perhaps good things are usually planned and anticipated and rarely come as a shock.

  12. I heard the Diana news at a car boot sale.

    I had left early to collect Spud from school on 9/11 and the Hub phoned to tell me. I thought at first it was a light aircraft, because who could imagine the horrible reality?

    I heard about John Lennon on the radio before school. It was a snowy day.

    I was a babe in my mother’s arms when she heard about Kennedy.

    I don’t remember where I was when Michael Jackson died, but I was at Butlins, buying a newspaper when I read about Elvis.

    Funny how we remember these moments, isn’t it?

  13. Just the idea of witnessing a execution repulses me. It seems like sadistic voyeurism was the norm back then. Glad I was hatched in the Eisenhower era.

    JFK’s assassination is one of my earliest memories. I was 4. My father, a very masculine man, came home early from work. I was thrilled to see his car, but when he entered our house, I saw tears streaming down his face. That shocked me. He picked me up, asked me where my mother was, and held me very tight. I knew something very bad had happened. It was a very stressful time. The Beatles could not enter our household soon enough.

    When the Diana tragedy happened, I was working as a cog in the broadcast news-making machine. I had just returned home from a very nice date with a lovely lass and I anticipated sliding into home plate very soon. Almost as soon as I entered my abode, a colleague was calling telling me to turn on the TV and prepare to report to work. Our network was going to send my special brand of news crew cogging to London. I was often assigned to work remotes. But, there was a glitch, I didn’t have a passport. My department’s director ripped me a new asshole over that. In my defense I told him that if he wanted me there so badly, he should spring for my passport. He sent someone else.

    Ironically, I had put in for a vacation day for 9/11, but I had the radio on as I was doing my morning workout. I liked listening to a hip hop R&B station, a station that was always packed with attitude. On that morning, the dee jay, a normally snarky woman, was weeping copiously on air saying something about one of the towers collapsing. I turned on my TV, just in time to see the second tower collapse. Neither my landline nor my cell phone worked, so I ran into the street to call my network on a pay phone to say I’d report to work. My supervisor told me that it was “just a terrible accident; it’s okay, stay home and write” (I was writing an article for a screenwriting publication). I told him, “One plane crashing into one tower is a terrible accident, but two crashing through both, that’s intentional. We’re being attacked. This is like Pearl Harbor.” On my own, I went to work. The network was walking distance from my apartment. Buses and subway service had come to a grinding halt. People, many covered in dust, were walking up the empty streets of Broadway. Many looked shell shocked. The silence in the air was so eerie. The only sound was footfalls. It was a profoundly disturbing sight. Plus I was shiny clean and walking against the current. As for my supervisor, he quit by the end of the week. He was not a guy that could stand up to the grueling pressure of the 24/7 news cycle. I used to tell my friends and family that I reported to work on 9/11, and I wasn’t allowed to go home until Thanksgiving. I did not get a single day off until ten days after the event, and the hours I was assigned to work were mega. I got very few days off for the remainder of 2001.

    Sorry to write a history book on your site.

  14. In Sept 2001, our phone rang in the middle of the night in Australia and I shot up thinking that my father, who was terminally ill, must have died, but then the answering machine kicked in and I heard his voice apologising for the call at such an hour and telling us that a terrible event was unfolding in America. It’s odd but I remember thinking that I wish he hadn’t had to see that when he was dying.

  15. Certain historical events are sticking points in my life: Diana’s death, Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11.

    The first I was aware of Diana’s death was when I opened the newspaper. I was stunned and filled with sadness. She was so beautiful, so young, so loving toward her boys, and did so much for the unfortunate in the world. A real loss.

    The same can be said for the other events I mentioned. So many wonderful people lost who had so much to live for and who could have accomplished so much. Tragic.

  16. What an outlet for us to share feelings on such profound events. Thank you. They can be life changing or mean nothing at all to someone. My parents were engaged the day Kennedy died. My mother says that they must of been the only happy couple on the planet. For me, Princess Diana’s death was and still is a bit tramadic for me. It is who we look up to, who we want to believe to be worthly of our admiration. I enjoyed reading others thoughts on this.
    on that note – I was in Mexico on a trip when the news hit about Diana. Even in a foreign tongue I understood the damage.

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