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October 1997, No 42, pp8-9

More chaste, less speed

Brian J Ford

Brian J Ford's first national broadcast was on driving. He has also written in The Guardian on joy-riding. In this article, written the day after the death of Princess Diana, he offers some important lessons we still have to learn.

Today's culture of speed, pills and recklessness killed Diana. It was not just the intrusion of the media and the lust for stolen images. Diana could only have become known as a caring and compassionate woman through her cultivation of the media. Arrival in a conspicuous private aircraft, shopping in the highly public Parisian stores and dining at the Ritz are not the actions of someone terrified of exposure, and anxious to avoid the eyes of a curious press.

The paparazzi, hanging like scavengers around scenes of illicit meetings or shocking behaviour, are really little worse than the rest of us. Many of the photographs used to decorate reports of the terrible tragedy in which Diana died were snatch-shots which infringed privacy. The best of newspapers used them, and the best of readers avidly devoured them.

The press are simply the advance guard of the rest of us, insatiably curious to know what the others are doing. To accuse the photographers of neglecting to aid a fellow human in wretched and agonising distress may be good sense, and good law; but to accuse them of causing death through pursuit is a nonsense. Everyone is curious to see the indiscretions of a beautiful woman, courted by a middle-aged man with money. Drive at thirty, and that's the speed at which the chasers will travel. In France you can phone and have prying eyes apprehended. There's little excuse for wanton recklessness. Diana was killed through senseless machismo and a failure to follow the normal tenets of civilised life. The hallmarks of her tragic demise are redolent of this modern age - speed, intoxication, pill-popping, a disregard for the law, and bravado. Like little girls on housing estates beset by joy-riders, she died at the hands of a crazy driver.

In so many countries you can often see the foolish sons of the rich. They drive fast cars, they drink to excess, seduce pretty women, and often act with indifference to the feelings of those attracted to their world. Few of them have the brains to make money; often it is heaped upon someone lacking the refinement to handle it by an over-generous relative. They tell me Dodi Fayed was courteous and kind, so he must have been an exception to the rule.

His father Mohamed Fayed may not have gained his British citizen just yet, but he captured the hallmark of the sophisticated British way of life: he purchased Harrods. Then he bought some of our leading politicians, and was instrumental in the fall of the Conservative Party. Next his son went off with our future King's mother. He might not mount the throne, but he did the next best thing. Yet all the while lurked the danger of death.

Many playboys care little for convention. Seat belts? Discard them. They are for the meek. Speed limits? Ignore them; we can cover the heaviest fines. Drunken driving? Nobody will catch us in our powerful cars; we can buy our way out of anything. There have been accounts which suggest that Dodi Fayed avoided drunks like the plague, behaved with perfect charm, and was frightened of speed. Heaven knows how terrified he must have been of those jet skis and fast cars, so he must have been brave as well. Now we have to live with the knowledge that the radiance of the most powerful icon in the history of womanhood has been crushed in a tunnel. Mohamed Fayed supported his son's life-style, and has now tragically paid the dearest price a man can pay. The loss of a much-loved child is something that haunts us all; for the Fayed family this must be the cruellest blow.

The great gain in dignity through death. Princess Diana, stripped of her royal title, was being described as gaining weight, losing her looks, lurching unsteadily into middle age on the arm of a charmer as the latest in a line of conquests. In death, she has become our stunning princess, beautiful and compassionate, her tragic life snuffed out underground by fate.

Yes, the media will expect to be persecuted. There are ample reasons to direct attention against its excesses. They are now so quick to explain that they will never intrude so much into the lives of those sad young princes, left motherless at a crucial time in their fast-forming lives. It is an easy promise to make. There is little to be made from snapshots of earnest young men out on dates, riding on horseback, writing a letter or planting seeds. Only when there is the sense of lasciviousness does the prurience emerge.

Much of this morbid interest derives from our age-old our sexual fixations. The woman who sleeps around is still somehow immoral, little more than a call-girl. Our out-dated notions fall back on a concept coined by the ancient Chinese, teaching that it is normal to have one teapot pouring into several cups; but one cup being poured into by different pots is against the ways of nature. The man who sleeps around, on the other hand, is always spoken of as highly sexed, or having an insatiable carnal appetite. That's a fiction. The woman who sleeps around (like many of the single mothers without a friend or a GCSE between them) is often yearning for love, and for someone she can love in turn. The truly highly-sexed man does not need to sleep around - only those who doubt their sexuality need the continuing promise of the gasping virgin and the one-night stand.

What are the real causes of Diana's death? The only sensible conclusion can be death by dangerous driving - the consequences of a culture of selfish disregard and overweening indulgence, where you can discard your seat belt and drive like a lunatic because you are so high on the trail of excitement. I only hope that we can abandon some of these traits in the shocking aftermath of this distressing affair.

Speed kills. Drink and pills don't mix. These are the facts of the matter, which nobody wants to face. Compassion, on the other hand, saves lives. Diana knew that, and I only hope it is a lesson not lost upon the young.


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