An Asian, a socialist and a tear for Diana

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

I see myself, I suppose, as part of a cynical elite. Or did, until August 31, 1997. People like me - journalists, broadcasters, politicians, academics - set themselves up to be the interpreters of life to all those others, the unthinking, gullible and (worst of all) sentimental masses.

So why was it that when I was told the news of Diana's death by a weeping Asian cabbie, my heart felt it would burst?

I am Republican and a socialist. I feel strongly that we need far-reaching constitutional changes. I have spent my life fighting for equality, and believe that the Royal Family is a symbol of a country that has never accepted that fundamental human principle.

And yet I cried and cried for Diana. Finally, on the Wednesday night, I took myself, my four-year-old and my husband (who was also feeling unexpectedly moved) to Kensington Palace. It was 11.30 at night, before the frenzy that came later had begun to build up. I walked around in the darkness, a somewhat confused and surreptitious mourner, hoping fervently that no one I knew would ever see me being this absurd.

Thousands of people were walking towards the gates of the palace, clasping their flowers and candles. There was a reverential hush. Even the children were unnaturally quiet. Then intermittently you heard the crying break through. Three young black men were clutching each other and rocking gently. One of them, a man with a hard haircut, repeatedly moaned: "It's all finished, man." Surrounded by the intoxicating, almost reverberating perfumes of the fading flowers, my pain began to take shape.

Under one tree (every tree had been made into a different shrine by believers) there was a group of Asian people, being led in soft prayer by an elderly woman with a tasbi (prayer beads). A teenage girl interrupted her, asking her in Urdu not to pray aloud because it would offend other people.

This is when tears came most readily into my eyes. Such terrible apprehension still - about our very presence in this country. On the Thursday night, the whole of London's Southall Park was lit up by candles and chanting prayers by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims - all of whom felt perhaps that here they could be free to own their bit of the princess and what she meant to them. To us.

It isn't just that she was kind to us - those sorry folk described as being at the "margins" of society. It was not her compassion that we responded to, but her respect, and her realisation that the Britain of the next millennium could not carry on being a fusty, backward-looking "white" nation with an aloof and supercilious Royal family.

Unlike anybody else in the establishment and the political leadership, Diana saw what we were and what we had to offer this country. She chose Martin Bashir for her most moving television interview. She formed deep, real relationships with Imran Khan and Professor Magdi Yacoub among others.

Finally, she fell in love with an Arab whose affection made her shine like never before. Dodi represented, said the New York Times journalist Youssef Ibrahim, a new age - liberation from those who were "fighting to hold down immigrants".

Diana was part of that movement. But sadly, this central aspect of her life was not reflected in the way she was laid to rest. The funeral service turned this country comfortably white again. No prayers or songs by those of any other faith - not even as an act of consolation for the Al-Fayeds who had lost their son.

Many years ago, the newspaper columnist Peregrine Worsthorne wrote: "Though this is a multiracial society, it is a long way from being a multiracial nation." Diana was leading us towards that new nation in which ethnic minorities are not simply patronised or tolerated, but admired, loved and seen as agents of change and inspiration.

Those involved in educating future generations need to learn from this extraordinary woman. The Government - which devoted precisely one page out of 80 to ethnic minorities in its White Paper on education - needs to even more. Filling charity boxes to keep her memory alive is easy. Keeping this other legacy going is likely to be far more difficult, and ultimately more important.

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