A dimly lit London hospital lift on a wintery evening in the late 1980s shudders as it climbs the floors. Inside sits a frail elderly man, my wonderful grandfather, with an orderly behind his wheelchair. My grandfather (known to his grandchildren as Pa) was stylish to the last in pale blue-striped pyjamas and a navy blue robe. He wore his halo of remaining white hair slicked neatly behind his ears, his slim trademark moustache would’ve been groomed as best he could but surrounded by a dusting of a few days of growth because he was too weak to shave -the flickers of white stubble gave him a glow and his pale blue eyes had not lost their sparkle behind his thin silver-framed glasses. He was weak and near the end of his life.
As the lift journeyed silently, the doors opened and in walked Princess Diana accompanied by a bodyguard. Without missing a beat my grandfather broke into a wide smile, lifted his arms in faux dramatic style and said: “How did you know I was here Tatelleh?”
The Princess, amused by his quick wit and well used to humbly accepting the adoration of all ages, burst into laughter and leaned in to chat to him until he reached his floor. As he was being wheeled out of the lift he thanked her again “for coming to see me.”
She didn’t know that he had served as a fireman during the Blitz or fought in the Battle of Cable Street. She couldn’t know his heart, but not his soul, was shattered from losing his son (my father) and his wife a few years previously.
It was just a smile and some kind words en route to her next secret visit and afterwards he was expertly nonchalant about the whole episode.
Despite this heart-warming encounter, I am ashamed to say I felt little guilt a year or two later when I spent a summer working at a photographic agency and my main job was to file stills of Princess Diana into two categories: fat Diana and thin/ill Diana. Such was the demand for those sort of pictures they needed to be separated and accessed quickly. While most of the personalities featured in the vast photographic library (one of Europe’s largest) had a single file in an alphabetically arranged filing cabinet drawer, there was a wall of filing cabinets, devoted just to Diana.
The part of the job that tickled the teenage me the most were the scrawled, off-hand references that accompanied some of the personalities. For instance: Caroline and Chrissy from neighbours (remember them?) were labelled: pointless Australian twin wannabees and Sonia (80s popstar) big-gobbed-Liverpudlian-one-hit-wonder. The references on some of the files pertaining to Diana’s then sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, are not repeatable for print but they made creative mention of toes and American bankers. In fact there were very few personalities who escaped abuse and got a favourable reference save for a few iconic sporting heroes.
During lockdown I went down a rabbit hole and looked through my old work diary from that time. In the spare pages at the back I had noted down things that amused me. Often it was overheard snippets of conversations from around the office or on the underground journeys to work.
Here is my favourite: Two Jewish middle-aged men get on at Hendon Central (please read in an old East End twang): “My (daughter) Katie’s got a fella. Met him at the gym. He’s from Somalia. Obviously Barbara has gone doo-lally. Refused to have him over for Friday night. But I actually met him.”
“Blimey!” responded the second man, as we pulled into Brent Cross, “what did Barbara say about that?”
“Well this is where it all gets a bit tricky,” continues the concerned father as we trundled into Golders Green. “I don’t have a problem with him not being Jewish or being black – which is what I told Barbara. But I do have a big problem because as it turns out, Abdul, (pause for the beeping doors) is a bit of a git.”
We hit the tunnel for Hampstead just as he began explaining how he felt his daughter was being mistreated but didn’t want to seem racist. Both men had agreed the new boyfriend was “taking liberties” by the time I needed to change trains at Camden.
As I write these tales, snippets of the Oprah interview are trending everywhere. I am drawn to the example of Princess Diana who in her too short life inspired hope through her acts of kindness and humanity and of the Queen who is a paragon of: saying a little yet doing a lot.
Among the important issues raised by the interview, is perhaps a moment of self reflection for us all: “Do ‘they’ not like me/treat me badly, because of my race/religion /skin colour /gender/other?”
Or is it because: “I’m a bit of a git?”
And a reminder to us all that our files are still open…