Having just flown back to Seoul from a short break in Guam, we were enjoying a late breakfast and listening to BBC World Service. Breaking news – Diana, Princess of Wales, had been in a car accident. My first thoughts were something along the lines of it being a fender-bender. No big deal. Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed had probably walked away from it. The media makes so much of her life. My second thoughts were that in Britain, it was about one in the morning, while in South Korea it was just after nine. There was a sense of satisfaction knowing that we had heard this nugget of news while most of Britain was sound asleep.
Within an hour, we learned that Dodi Fayed had died and that Princess Diana was in hospital. This was serious after all. Living at the foreign faculty apartments, the rest of the morning was spent in gossipy speculation. Any colleague I bumped into on my way to the laundry room or shops was quick to ask if I’d heard anything. They didn’t have to say what it was about. As the hours passed without any news from the BBC, we suspected that it was likely a life changing injury or that she was dead.
It was late afternoon, David was off playing cricket with some international ex-pats and I was by myself in our tiny apartment preparing my lessons. I turned on CNN for an update and heard for the first time that Princess Diana had died. Even though I expected it, the news still stung and caused my eyes to tear. I was aware too that with an eight-hour time difference, Britain was waking up to this surreal headline. I felt reconnected to Britain, to my friends there and oddly to people I didn’t know.
In the days that followed, I sensed a closer bond to my fellow British, American and other Western colleagues and acquaintances. We were all shocked and felt the sense of a void being created with the young princess’s death.
Koreans, on the other hand, couldn’t understand all the fuss. One of my Korea students explained to me that Diana was no longer popular in Korea because she was a divorced woman. They couldn’t understand how people could still like, let alone admire her. Watching British people on the news leaving bouquets and blubbering in front of Buckingham Palace made my students shake their heads, some even smiled. At some point, a Korean student asked me if I was sad about Diana dying. Yes, I guess I was, but not deeply sad.
In truth, Diana didn’t mean much to me. She hadn’t said or written anything famous or thought provoking. But like millions of others around the world, I enjoyed watching her, envying her clothes and style, delighting in her expressions of joy, empathising with her looks of boredom. When she first came on the scene as Lady Diana, she was a breath of fresh air among the stiff, restrained royals. She soon filled her job description giving us the heir and the spare, but was otherwise not particularly interesting. I started to pay attention to her again when she supported AIDS research, holding the HIV babies in her arms and sending a message to the world. Around that time she had started to diminish, becoming thinner by the month. The stresses of her life were there for all of us to see before the advent of reality TV. Only after her divorce did Diana appeared to be a healthier and happier person, travelling the world to draw attention to various charities, entertaining us with her stylish appearance. There was little not to like, but not enough substance to dislike.
As ex-pats, David and I had become regulars at the British Embassy in Seoul. In those days, the Embassy had a pub in the basement, complete with British ales and a dartboard, that was open to UK citizens and their guests. I can’t imagine, post 9/11, the pub still operating. As most of us didn’t have access to BBC television in Korea – and the internet was in its infancy – the Ambassador invited us pub regulars to his private home to watch the funeral. About thirty of us sat in a grand room silently viewing the service on a wide screen, the only movement, the occasional face dabbed with a handkerchief.
The images and the emotions of those days seem as clear in my mind as if they were yesterday, or the day before. I suppose it’s the effect of shocking news that’s shared with a wider public, along with the fact that I was in South Korea. Having been a toddler when JFK was killed, this is my moment of remembering exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. And that might be all it will ever amount to.