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.

 

Brief Encounter #10

diana
Princess Diana
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 task 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.
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 ‘the most memorable’ of all these encounters.
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 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.
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?

Further interesting reading may be found here:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7026611.stm
http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/al-fayed-and-the-cia-conman-1161637.html
http://www.public-interest.co.uk/diana/dianawhydie.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7337789.stm

Saving Grace

stand up to cancer

“By this time I thought I would be sleeping in a pine box for all eternity, My faith keeps me alive and I know I’m only living By the saving grace that’s over me.”

(Bob Dylan 1980).

“Tell me how it feels?”

It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.

She clenched my left hand.

Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30. I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later I again opened my eyes.

Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”

I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.” The ward clock betrayed 10.10.

“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.

“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.

I gagged for some reason… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?

Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.

It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.

It was the final stage of a rebirth of life and spirit.

Some eight months earlier, I had been diagnosed with a malignant histio-cytoma of the right shoulder.

The diagnosis followed a year of failing health, tiredness and a strange and growing lump on my shoulder blade that would not go away.

Eventually, after claims of a sebaceous cyst and a muscular haematoma, I was told the truth.

“I dinna ken what it is,” said the plastic surgeon, betraying his Glaswegian roots. “But it looks malignant and we had better have a closer look.”

It was like being knocked down by a bus: cancer only happened to other people. It was a disease, which was difficult to talk about and even more difficult to contemplate.

Now I struggled to take in what I had been told.

A simple biopsy of the lump, as we all learned to call it, confirmed the surgeon’s suspicions. I was quickly booked into a local hospital for immediate and radical surgery.

Whether in shock, or just out of single-mindedness, the diagnosis passed me by.

I responded by reading every piece of medical literature I could find. Somehow I had to cope and knowledge is a weapon.

My sister-in-law was a cancer research specialist at Leeds University Hospital and furnished me with reams of reports about this rare and seemingly deadly cancer.

As I prepared for the surgery, I asked questions of doctors, cracked jokes with my parents and worried for my ability to cope. I saw fear in the eyes of those I loved and suddenly felt alone.

Eventually I cracked… and phoned the Samaritans.

It was probably the most important call I have ever made. I hurriedly explained to the female voice at the other end of the phone that I was not suicidal, but terrified of dying. I detected an intake of breath at the other end of the line. There was a rustling sound as she rummaged through her files and with an uplift in her voice she gave me the number of the organiser of a local cancer support group.

I tucked the number away.

A few evenings later, when the depression hit me again I picked up the phone. Diana was her name. At 38, she was a few years older than me and had recently been given remission from breast cancer. Diana was ebullient, encouraging and above all told me that whether I lived or died was up to me.

“You must visualise this thing that has invaded your body and fight it,” she said.

“Only you can beat it… with perhaps a little help from the surgeons and God.”

That was the key.

Diana and I were to begin an enduring friendship. I was able to reciprocate her help, I hope, when her cancer came back to taunt her three years later. I began to learn the value of friendship.

But what about God?

I had always believed in the saving grace of a higher spirit, but my church-going days had lapsed many years earlier and to be frank I was an atheist.

Somehow I had to find my own strength and faith to deal with this cancer.

The next morning, calmed by a warm early autumn sunshine I walked to my nearest church. After all, if there was a God, this was where he was supposed to dwell.

Gothic, cold and empty, the church provided space to think and pray to whatever was out there.

I made a few more visits to the empty church over the next couple of days before I was taken back into hospital for the surgery.

The operation to remove the cancer and replace my shoulder and back with re-constructive surgery was awkward, at times bloody painful and most of all seemingly endless.

Many days and nights of lying cramped on my left side as the skin grafts and flaps healed. Days and nights to think and determine whether I would recover.

I didn’t fear death… but I did fear pain.

I lay there warmed by the gospel lyrics of my musical hero, Bob Dylan. I still find it difficult to call it God, but a gentle spirit always seemed to be there and never again did I become frightened of this cancer or its likely consequences.

Three months of radiotherapy followed at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital. Three months of finding more about myself and more about my fellow human beings.

Housed in a small hostel within the hospital grounds, up to 50 patients of all ages and with all forms of cancer worked within and without to tackle their own disease.

There was Coral-Ann, who denied her own malignancy. “It’s just a small tumour and is what you say: benign,” she lied. There was Maureen, colostomy bag in hand, who sipped morphine as she told tales of her childhood in Rhymney.

There was my roommate David, whose pituitary cancer had given him a grossly large head, hands and feet and made him appear like a freak at his job in the local tax inspectors’ office.

“Well boyo, this thing won’t beat me,” he cracked. And it didn’t.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most beautiful girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer, she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.” She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later David and I stood together and shared tears at her funeral.

There is no reasoning in this.

My memories of Andrea remain. Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the gym floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

And then there was the rainy December day when she returned from a Christmas shopping trip in Cardiff City centre laden down with presents and a £300 hole in her Visa card.

Her pleasure was manifest and her laugh stays with me.

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled. “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair,” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl under an horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I had found God in my fellow human beings and in the karma of knowing that far from myself being the key in this battle, the door was unlocked from without.

When the cancer returned to my right lung some months later I knew I had the strength to face it down.

My life was saved by the dedication and skill of the surgeons. But my spirit had already been saved.

At the time I was told I had less than a one in 10 chance of surviving beyond a year. But I was also told: “Doctors are seldom right when they predict the end.”

Now 26 years later, to the very month of the diagnosis and first operation,  the cancer is gone for good and I know my life is still in its springtime.

And Andrea never leaves me.