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Hugh Schofield
PARIS - Anyone will tell you of the jolt to the heart, the swirling sense of the surreal that lasts for some minutes and then the return to earth as your mind grapples and apprehends the new terrible change in the order of things. It happens with the death of people close to you. And though never would I have described her that way, that is what happened to me a year ago with the death of Princess Diana.

It happened the day after the crash as I sauntered with my family down to a lakeside bar in the Perigord. "Elle est morte, elle est morte!", was the shriek from the plump lady chef, "Lady Di est morte!" She pronounced Lady Di as "Laddy Dee".

The radio was on and glum-looking relations gathered round it. The news focused on practical matters - Prince Charles flying in, plans for the body. As the shock subsided, and changed to a horrified sense of wonderment, I remember thinking how quickly we all accommodate ourselves to change.

For me - nearly a day late to the story- it was a bolt from nowhere. But for millions round the world, the news was already hours old. The death had been reported, now the story was developing: Who was responsible? How were people reacting? What kind of funeral would there be? I had been left behind.

A year on, we have grown used to the bizarreness of her death. It was the strangest and cruellest of coincidences. We feel it the more because of her previous omnipresence, because of the devotion many had for her. But all accidents have rational explanations: for Princess Diana, it was the misfortune of being driven at high speed through Paris by a man who was drunk.

Put that way, it doesn't sound odd. But a year on the facts, though not yet officially established, seem clear enough. The inquiry has still some months to run, but so far it has uncovered nothing that contradicts what was known within days of the crash - Henri Paul had more than double the allowed level of alcohol in his blood and was driving at speeds of up to a 100mph to escape the pursuing photographers - possibly spurred by Dodi al-Fayed.

Contrary to what is widely reported in Britain, by French standards the inquiry is not proving especially slow. Here it's quite common to read of investigations into fatal accidents or disasters winding up two or three years after they were launched. And given the massive interest worldwide in their findings, the two judges in charge want to make sure that every avenue is pursued.

The big picture has already been drawn, it is the details that need filling in. It seems highly probable for example that there was a second car - a white Fiat Uno - that the Mercedes clipped as it entered the Alma tunnel. Since that car has never been traced, the judges have to weigh up how much importance they should give it. Technical examinations of the car also continue.

But the real point of the inquiry is where responsibility for the crash lies, and if there should be prosecutions. It seems inconceivable that any of the photographers will be charged with "involuntary homicide". Some could be made to stand trial on a second count, the deliberate failure to come to the aid of a person in peril.

The finger of blame also could point at the Ritz Hotel. Is it guilty for employing a chauffeur who on the night of August 31 was drunk? The testimony of former Ritz employees is crucial. The barman at the Ritz has said that he served alcohol that night to Henri Paul, but that subsequently he was put under pressure to lie to the investigators. That is a very serious charge.

In the coming months, all this will be decided. But before that, on August 31st there will be the anniversary. Here in Paris it will be a low-key affair - no official commemoration, though there will be many pilgrims to the Pont de l'Alma, where poetry readings and music recitals are being planned.

For many - myself included - it will a moment to forget, just briefly, the cold rationality of the investigation, the whys and hows and to revisit those first emotions of a year ago - to feel once again that surreal shock and then the utter bafflement at the cruelties of human fate.


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