Brief encounter – the murder of Diana

diana and dodi

IT was a wet February in 1997 and I was ensconced in a four star hotel in Islington, tasked with bringing home what could be the biggest newspaper story of the decade.

My job as Chief Investigative Reporter for the Scottish national daily The Scotsman was to gather information from Harrods owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, about an alleged conspiracy involving his business rival Tiny Rowland and a senior Conservative government minister.

It was an enjoyable and wholly productive three days of interviews with the gregarious and at times incomprehensible Mr Al Fayed, his PA Michael Cole and head of security John MacNamara – a former Scotland Yard senior detective.

The daily routine was purposeful: breakfast at my hotel, a taxi ride across London to Knightsbridge, an escalator to Mr Al Fayed’s office on the fifth floor of the Harrods department store, a coffee and croissant with Michael Cole and up to three hours of talking, questioning and sifting through reams of documents and photographs.

On Wednesday 12 February, I arrived as usual at 10am in the reception area outside the office and boardroom.

I was greeted cheerily as usual by Mr Cole. But on this morning he asked me if I minded waiting in an ante-room for half an hour as his boss was expecting a personal visit from Princess Diana.

I was shown into the room and given the usual coffee and croissant plus copies of the day’s national newspapers to browse at my leisure.

After 10 minutes waiting, I suddenly needed a quick loo break so quietly made my way to the now familiar private washroom.

Upon my return to my isolated coffee and partly eaten croissant, I stopped suddenly as the most recognisable woman in the world walked by, accompanied by Mr Cole and an as yet unknown young Middle Eastern man.

Diana turned briefly and smiled at me.

It was a memorable brief encounter.

But a tragic event some six and a half months later undoubtedly made it more memorable.

Later that day, I caught my return train to Edinburgh and The Scotsman offices at North Bridge.

Upon my arrival I was introduced to our new editor Martin Clarke, who had taken up his position while I was away in London.

My first meeting with him was also memorable, but for very different reasons.

I was brusquely told that our investigation into the conspiracy surrounding Tiny Rowland had been spiked for ‘political reasons’. I was also told I was ‘wasting my and the newspaper’s time’, not to ask any more questions and to ‘get on with some proper reporting’.

The months passed and on 31 August 1997, two events coincided: it was my final day working for The Scotsman and ironically Princess Diana, 36,  her lover (Mohamed Al Fayed’s son) Dodi Fayed, 42, and driver Henri Paul were killed in a horror car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris.

My reaction to the deaths at the time was the same as it is now: they were murdered.

But it was only 10 years later at a judicial inquest, following a three year inquiry into their deaths and possible murder, that my own brief encounter came back to haunt me.

The inquest, under Lord Justice Scott Baker, heard on at least six occasions that at the time of his romance with Diana in the summer of 1997, Dodi Fayed was engaged to an American model, Kelly Fisher. Dodi had bought a house in Malibu for Fisher and himself with money from his father.

The inquiry also heard heart surgeon Hasnat Khan give his first detailed account of his two-year relationship with Diana, during which he says he often stayed at Kensington Palace and met the princess’s sons.

He described how the princess broke up with him after she got back from a holiday with Mohammed Al Fayed and his family.

The inquest dismissed reports that Dodi and Diana were in a relationship prior to that summer and therefore any talk of an impending engagement in August 1997 – and possible motive for their murder – were subsequently rubbished.

Something I knew then and now to be untrue.

The Inquest jury returned a majority verdict that Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed were unlawfully killed due to the gross negligence of their driver, Henri Paul, and the paparazzi.

But I am still left with the haunting question: if that was the case, what were Diana and Dodi doing making a personal visit to Mohamed Al Fayed on 12 February 1997?

Mr Al Fayed later claimed that a plot to kill Diana was kicked into high gear as soon as British authorities found out from the CIA that Dodi had picked out a $215,000 star-shaped diamond ring for his future bride.

“The only reason my son and Diana were in Paris that night was so that he could personally collect the ring and propose to her,” he said.

“I spoke to Dodi and he was so excited and happy. Diana was too. They deserved a lifetime’s love together, and this beautiful ring was to put a seal on that,” he added.

“Diana believed all her married life that she was under surveillance by British and foreign intelligence agencies who reported back to her husband Prince Charles and the British establishment,” said Laurie Mayer, Mr Al Fayed’s press spokesman.

“She had every reason to think they intercepted her phone calls. The call she made to Lucia on the afternoon of her death could have alerted them she really was going to marry Dodi and that he, a practising Muslim and the son of a man who helped bring down the British government, would be stepfather to Prince William and Prince Harry.”

Mr Al Fayed also wanted – and got – files on two photographers, a Frenchman and a Dutchman.

“These men know what went on that evening,” said John McNamara.

“They filmed the motorbike we know was blocking the exit road, forcing the Mercedes to take the tunnel. That could show the license plate of that bike and another one we believe shot into the tunnel behind the white Fiat Uno.

“The Fiat Uno was waiting at the mouth of the tunnel. There was a collision and since then the bikes and the Fiat have vanished.

“Immediately after the crash, the photographers sent their pictures round the world. Some of those wired to an agency in North London had vital frames showing the vehicles we cannot now trace.

“The agency was broken into just hours after the crash and neither we, nor the police, believe it was an ordinary burglary.

“Many photographs show Diana lying in the rear seat of the Mercedes, one arm flung across Dodi and her legs buckled up under, have been seen across the world. Some have even been published in Europe. But none has shown the bikes or the car.”

Just one of far too many unanswered questions over the death of the People’s Princess.

 

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The psychologist

I came in from the wilderness

Drenched to the bone

Darkness hung above me

Broken and alone

Your words fell like rain

And mingled with my tears

In pools at my feet

They washed away all fears

You sketched the view so clearly

Like a graphic artist in a play

A friendship etched quite dearly

There is much more I need to say

Hunted like a crocodile

Ravaged in the corn

Come in, you said, I’ll give you

Shelter from the storm

The Summer of 1976

Walking the dale in the morning

To where water babies play

The peewits are meandering

It’s just another day

The heat haze

The dry earth

A rebirth

A summer of one thousand years

 

The darkness of noon is high

Across the old soot stain

Everybody looks to the sky

They’re all expecting rain

The heat haze

The dry earth

A rebirth

A summer of one thousand years

 

But the sun beats down upon all hope

The cowslips are in bloom

Tumbling scree along the slope

Turning to evening’s gloom

The heat haze

The dry earth

A rebirth

A summer of one thousand years

 

Parenthood

You sit by his bedside

And read him to sleep

You kiss him goodnight

And let him count sheep

You tidy his room

And fold up his clothes

You tip-toe to bed

And count your own woes

 

The evening darkens deeply

The shooting star

That shines

Above

You do these things so freely

As they reflect your own true love

 

You wake him at dawn

And brush his blonde hair

You wash his small face

And see him downstairs

You watch as he eats

And check his school bag

You put on his coat

And write on his name tag

 

The morning lightens meekly

The pale sun

That shines

Above

You do these things so freely

As they reflect your own true love

 

You stand by the school gate

And hear the bell ring

He rushes to meet you

And you hear the birds sing

He walks by your side

And talks of his day

He looks up and smiles

And wants so to play

 

The afternoon brightens sweetly

The golden sun

Descends

Above

You do these things so freely

As they reflect your own true love

 

A day and a life following the Albion – with a little help from a friend

Albion cover

IT was 50 years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play… and exactly 50 years since my very first Albion game.

Lucy was in the Sky with Diamonds, but at the end of the so-called Summer of Love I was about to begin a love affair that would give me greater highs than any acid trip.

I was a wide-eyed 11-year-old kid when a neighbour in my home village of Mile Oak offered to take me to my first proper football match, at a place I had only ever seen from the top deck of a bus on the Old Shoreham Road.

David Knott was 32, and as an Albion nut he seemed cursed to have a daughter who hated football. So I became his Saturday surrogate son, at least for the purposes of having someone to take to matches at the Goldstone Ground.

My first Albion game was on a bright and sunny Saturday, 2 September 1967; and it was a trip into dreamland as I witnessed a 1-0 home win against Bury in front of a bustling 13,413 crowd.

I stood with David near the front right of the North Stand and watched in awe as these 22 men battled it out on the sun-kissed grass.

I soaked it all in, including the fact that Bury were captained by Scottish international Bobby Collins, who was hard in the tackle and ran the show from midfield, until we scored.

Our scorer was a tousle-haired inside forward named Kit Napier. He became my immediate hero, and along with Brylcreem-blonde crowd favourite Charlie Livesey, they remain personal Albion legends.

Others in our team that day were the solid Norman Gall, John Napier (no relation to Kit), George Dalton, the emerging midfield dynamo John Templeman and two wingers Wally Gould and Brian “Tiger” Tawse, who would match Knockaert and Skalak for trickery, but maybe not pace!

So I was hooked for life and began a routine of a bus ride on the number 26 from Mile Oak to the ground for a home match every fortnight, and a Football Combination (reserve game) on alternate Saturdays – the matches when you got to talk with the keeper during the game!

Then there came the waiting-in-line at the North-West corner gates for players’ autographs after training, during the school holidays, scrapbooks of match cuttings from the Argus and the obligatory club scarf and a matching Subbuteo team.

It was an all-consuming schoolboy passion.

And a passion, which over these 50 years has endured living in Scotland, Yorkshire and the North East, the hellish fight for the survival of our club in the mid-1990s, the Gillingham and Withdean years and at last the glory of the Amex and our promotion to the promised land of the Premier League.

In 1967, England were World Champions, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, the newest must-have car was the Ford Escort, mods still fought rockers on Brighton beach, man had yet to land on the moon and colour TV was still just a dream.

Yep, times have changed…

My return bus journey to the Goldstone in 1967 was 8d (about 3p), admission to the North Stand was 2s 9d (13p) – a lot less for the reserve games – the match programme was 1s (5p), a cup of Bovril 2d (1p) and a bag of crisps the same!

So to travel and watch my heroes every Saturday, and enjoy a half-time snack cost a stately 22p!

To put things in perspective: in 1967 a man’s average annual wage was £900, the average mortgage was £80 a year and a loaf of bread was just 5p… a season ticket to watch the English champions Manchester United was £8.50.

To allow for inflation, £1 in 1967 is worth £16.80 today, so I’ll let you do the maths and comparisons.

Now, aged 60 and sitting in front of a state-of-the-art PC with Sergeant Pepper’s playing on iPlayer, the years come tumbling back and memories of that sunny Saturday in 1967 will never leave me.