By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French
The Croft Magazine // In this week's Letter from Paris, Xander Brett reflects on the death of Princess Diana.
2nd May, 2021
If you go down to the Pont de l’Alma, there’s a golden flame. It’s a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales, who crashed in that tunnel in the early hours of 31st August 1997. When day broke, the sun was shining, the Seine was shimmering, and Parisians were supposed to be enjoying their last day of the holidays. Instead, forensic teams were picking up wreckage and analysing remains. Diana had died in hospital at 4am.
Diana was with her boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed, switching between a suite in the Ritz and his address on the Rue Arsène Houssaye. When the crash occurred, they were on their way to Al Fayed’s apartment. Their usual chauffeur had been instructed to drive a decoy car, so the couple left the Ritz in a Mercedes driven by Henri Paul. He was the Ritz’s deputy head of security and was accompanied in the front seat by Trevor Rees-Jones, the couple’s bodyguard. They travelled along Cours-la-Reine and Cours Albert-1er before, around 00:23, swarmed by photographers and travelling at 105 km/h, they entered the tunnel. They chipped another car, hit the thirteenth pillar and spun into the opposite wall. Photographers were first on the scene, before an off-duty doctor arrived to await emergency services. What happened next is grim, and I see no reason to dwell on it. Suffice to say, there is one survivor: Rees-Jones, who can no longer remember the crash.
Behind the scenes, officials were in a frantic search for President Chirac. He’d been rumoured to have slipped security in order to spend the night with Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. He resurfaced at breakfast to contact staff, and they quickly added him to plans. By 5pm, Diana’s sisters and the Prince of Wales had landed. Foreign reporters flocked to Paris and Lorient, where Paul’s parents lived. The eighteen-month French investigation found Paul three times over the legal alcohol limit, and that he’d been taking anti-depressants. Around the time of the twentieth anniversary, reports emerged that the remains of the crashed car were stored at a police compound in Bonneuil-sur-Marne, ten miles south-east of Paris. The French police, apparently, had demanded them back after Scotland Yard concluded their investigation. This is unconfirmed, but the fateful tunnel remains open, and I believe there’s a small memorial on the thirteenth pillar. The public co-opted the Flame of Liberty to be put outside the tunnel and, while the condolences have vanished, the French remain upset and embarrassed. The atmosphere at the Pont de l’Alma is still, twenty years on, incredibly sombre.
My sister has taken on the apartment as my semester comes to an end. Having someone else arrive, I felt the excitement at arriving in Paris for the first time. I also saw the pandemic with fresh eyes, realising how absurd things are. The prime minister has been receiving strange things through the post in protest at the closure non-essential shops (record shops, for example, can stay open while clothes shops close). As I depart, the pandemic is something I’m glad to escape. This, indeed, is the last letter written in Paris, though the pre-recorded letters and written articles will continue until 30th May.
Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett
Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.