What it was really like to be friends with Diana

Lady Diana Spencer was 17 when we first met while skiing in Val Claret. 

She knew several of the friends I was with, and they brought her back to our apartment when she twisted her ankle, telling her I would look at it as I was a medical student at the time. Good fun, bright and mischievous, it was hard not to hit it off with Diana straight away, and so began the friendship she and I maintained for the rest of her short, eventful life.

As we reach what would have been her 60th birthday, to the world she remains an enigma. All who knew her hold different views of how she was – I can only tell you my own.

The Diana I knew enjoyed interacting with people. She had an extraordinary ability to pitch her conversation and tempo at precisely the right level and timing for whoever she met, whatever their age, and whether the occasion was formal or informal. It came naturally to her and undoubtedly formed part of her charisma.

Her engagement and marriage to Prince Charles brought her global fame. But I felt, when she joined the Royal family, she may not have been fully aware of the machine she was in. The Firm, for its part, was unaccustomed to having a superstar in its midst, and I don’t think it knew how to cope with the enormous amount of publicity she generated.

She wasn’t given much of a brief at Clarence House in the build-up to the wedding, and no-one realised quite what was about to happen: that she would take off and become immensely popular in her own right. This, I think, caused problems: in Charles’ team there was jealousy at Diana’s growing profile. I gave Diana a copy of Robert Graves’ classic book, I Claudius, as a manual for that time.

When her two sons arrived, she took to motherhood easily. She enjoyed having her children around her, and had a lot of fun with them. Up to a point, they also created opportunities for her to escape to do informal things from time to time.

Dr. James Colthurst, seen here in a white coat standing behind Diana during her visit to St. Thomas' Hospital in 1986, first met the princess while skiing in Val Claret

What was hard, as her friend, was watching her become labelled as ‘bulimic’. The truth was that her ‘illness’ was a symptom of her unhappiness, and not the underlying cause. She had a long-standing fear of losing her boys and felt the people she called “the grey men” were trying to label her as an unsuitable mother.

This wasn’t her only fear. When I helped her by hand-delivering interview tapes to her biographer Andrew Morton, whose explosive book Diana: Her True Story was published in 1992, she was worried I might be deliberately knocked off my bike and killed. She voiced this fear several times to me. It might sound like paranoia, but I don’t think she was paranoid.

Diana’s sense of responsibility to “the Job” (as she put it) and the Queen was huge. But, with a prodigious set of engagements, her preparation was sometimes rushed. I remember a call at 9.15am one day, when I was about to enter an all-day board meeting at work. She asked if I could help with a leaving speech for Lord King of British Airways. I told her I would do what I could that evening. Her response was: “Too late, it is for this morning!”  I told her to grab a pen and she copied down the impromptu speech there and then.

The speechwriting, for me, was an own goal. Over lunch, another day, she pushed a speech prepared by an AIDS charity across the table and asked what I thought. I told her I thought it was “corporate and dull” and might not gain them the attention they hoped for. Her response was typical: “You write it, then!”

Diana had a huge sense of responsibility to the Queen

Credit: AP

I spent a weekend researching the charity and the subject and cobbled together a draft. It was vetted at St James’s for sensitivities and then handed back to Diana for delivery. The reaction to the speech was a surprise: it was reproduced in full on the front pages of The Telegraph and The Times. Diana was delighted, but apparently there was consternation that she had achieved such coverage.

She didn’t have a big support team at the Palace herself: she was just trying to do her best. When she did what she thought was right, it was well received by the public but not always by the Firm. Neither did she particularly seek the adulation she received from her fans. What she enjoyed was her interactions with others, and if she could inject some humour then so much the better.

Perhaps one of the toughest features of being her friend was trying to encourage her to limit her task list as well as coaxing her over the many bumpy moments which she found almost overwhelming. But she was so happy to feel she had something to give that she took on a daunting number of patronages and these all took time and effort. She was interested in such a wide range of subjects that it balanced what seemed an unhappy life at Kensington Palace with daily encounters with happy, smiling faces.

Among the causes she embraced was helping those with HIV. She had a friend who was affected, and applied herself to make a change for all – something that forms part of her legacy. I remember a discussion at lunch about HIV transmissibility and telling her that shaking hands and so on was safe. The next day, she famously touched a patient with HIV and changed the world’s views.

Honest advice from her friends was not always well received, but was respected later. For a long while, during the rocky years of her marriage, I would sometimes receive between eight and 10 calls from her a day. Those of us who were direct or blunt with her knew she might then go quiet for a while. But a few days later, Diana would happily call again.

Dr James Colthurst remembers Princess Diana's humour and innate ability to connect with people

She tended to keep apart those in whom she confided and it has been interesting for me to meet up with others in her “circle” in the past few years. Most of us remember the fun Diana exuded and her sense of humour.

Despite her well publicised troubles, she seemed happy to me in her final months. She was enjoying a decent summer break and wasn’t in too bad a place. I remember the last conversation I had with her, not long before her death. She was laughing almost uncontrollably down the other end of the phone. Someone had gifted her a poem engraved on a silver tablet, and she was howling with mirth at their unusual taste.

As a statue of the ‘People’s Princess’ is unveiled at Kensington Palace this week, those of us who were close to her will remember the Diana we knew. What remains with me is her almost infectious laugh, coupled with her serious desire to help others. She set a high bar for her sons, who have both inherited her natural way with others. Both have her sensitivity and caring. But they are also gutsy and tough and share their mother’s passion for using their roles to do good in the world.

Diana gave something back in a big way. To celebrate that on what would have been her 60th birthday should bring a smile. I would like to think she was smiling too.

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