A ringside seat at the Diana circus

John is as much a part of proceedings inside Court 73 as anyone, representing as he does the more tr

Inside Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice this past week, a break for the shorthand typist punctured the tortuous proceedings of the Diana inquest. "This trial is ruining my life," whispered 52-year-old John Loughrey, a Diana "superfan".

I wondered why. With DIANA daubed in appropriately royal blue greasepaint across his forehead, and only his nose interrupting the passage of DO-DI across his face, he seemed to be in his element. "Because I have to paint the words on my face backwards in the mirror and it takes hours to get the letters right," he explained.

"I do it before bed because it takes too long to do it in the morning. Then I can't sleep, in case I smudge them."

John is as much a part of proceedings inside Court 73 as anyone, representing as he does the more troubling aspects of the public's relationship with Diana. He is the personification of the public outpouring of grief, with its overblown scent of rotting flowers, that swept Britain in the days after her death. John never woke up from that moment of national madness.

A decade later, it is as if the collective shame of that very un-British episode is being played out in anti-inquest sentiment, as the proceedings are vilified by talk-show hosts and belittled by opinion-formers from cab drivers to Question Time panellists. A week ago, Newsnight was given permission by the Attorney General to hold a discussion on whether the inquest is a waste of public money.

By Sunday, Ken Wharfe, Diana's former protection officer, had called it a "tawdry spectacle" (in contrast to his own book Diana: Closely Guarded Secret). On the Monday, Max Hastings called it "a dirty-raincoat show" (see An Inside Story of Newspapers by Hastings for more elevating memories of the "divinely beautiful, lonely, bewitching" princess). Both referred to the inquest proceedings as a "circus".

Indeed, there have been months now of grotesques in the witness box, and double-jointed verbal acrobatics. Houdini would have had trouble escaping from the knots in which the former royal butler Paul "I'm Not a Celebrity" Burrell tied himself in giving evidence this month. But just as the circus has often been understood as a mirror held up to society, this sideshow still has a strange power to show us something about ourselves, if only our own faces with the name "Diana" written backwards in royal blue.

A huge part of Diana's appeal was the way in which she refused to be cowed by her detractors. For all her human failings, she refused the box that was held open for her, that tight little coffin labelled "quietly dignified mother of the future king". Ten years on, what's remarkable about this inquest is the access it has to people who are normally both invisible and unaccountable, from senior police figures to members of the royal family, from old-style aristocrats to members of the intelligence services, from the paparazzi to the clergy.

In death, however awful it must be for her sons, Diana is still holding the Establishment up to the light - and its servants are hating every moment. Lord Condon, Sir David Veness, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, the Honourable Nicholas Soames and Raine, Countess Spencer have been mauled and flattered and cajoled in the witness box. Indeed, there are so many lords and ladies involved that even the myriad eminent barristers - Michael Mansfield QC for Mohamed Al Fayed, Ian Croxford QC for the president of the Ritz Hotel, Paris and Richard Keen for the family of Henri Paul - have been thoroughly confused at times.

Mr Croxford: Lord Mishcon -

Lord Condon: I am Lord Condon.

Mr Croxford: I am so sorry.

Lord Condon: Lord Mishcon is deceased.

Mr Croxford: And would have presented a very different figure in front of me.

Though none could surpass the squirming of Burrell. (Keen: "Are you perhaps quite a porous rock, Mr Burrell, given how much leaked out into interviews, letters and books?")

The Diana Story, after all, was more than your average celebrity soap opera. It had princes and adulterers, dark forces and taped phone calls, polo players, playboys, intelligence agents; and it also had another side, where the heroine held hands with an Aids patient or stood bravely in a field of landmines.

A decade on, the modern-day "icons" with whom popular culture is now obsessed are a truly tawdry spectacle by comparison - as Amy Winehouse slowly overdoses on the front of This Week! magazine and a bloated Britney Spears holds her kids hostage on YouTube. (The only way most of the current crop of celebrities would find themselves on a minefield would be if they had accidentally stumbled across one on the way back from partying with Kate Moss.) For the non-Newsnight-viewing classes, the Diana inquest is a reminder of gentler days when celebrities dated cads rather than crack addicts, and at least tried to care about something other than their next fix or selling their latest product.

In comparison with today's circuses, Diana's was a Shakespearean tragedy. Her inquest may be a colossal waste of public money, but then wasn't the royal family always?

Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer