A Princess In Pakistan
In a new book, Sir Nicholas Barrington recalls a visit from the Princess of Wales during his posting as High Commissioner in Islamabad
It was Benazir, on an early visit to London as Prime Minister, who had invited the Prince and Princess of Wales to visit Pakistan. Programmes were full. An old friend of mine working in the Palace told me it had been decided this would be a good opportunity for Princess Diana to make a solo visit of substance, in other words not just a visit to the US to open an exhibition. It was to be an experiment and test case for the Princess to see whether she could use her international popularity to promote British interests more widely. My friend arranged that on first leave from Pakistan I should call on the Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace. I had met her at a big Buckingham Palace reception but talking at close quarters was a more intense experience. She turned the glare of her attention on to me as she expressed interest in Pakistan and the sort of things that could be included in her visit. I confess I was dazzled.
A date was fixed and plans went ahead for a full programme in which I was closely involved, brushed up by an advance party visit (both her Private Secretary Patrick Jephson and her senior protection officer Ken Wharfe, who wrote books about the Princess, claimed that they had been mainly responsible for the programme!). The unexpected dismissal of Benazir as Prime Minister and announcement of elections meant plans had to be cancelled. But Nawaz Sharif, the new Prime Minister, renewed the invitation, so they were only postponed.
As the time grew near, great excitement was built up in the Pakistan press and in all sections of society. Everyone was particularly nice to me, hoping to get the chance to meet the Princess, sometimes pressing, pleading and even intriguing to this end. Our briefing and preparation was meticulous. As the Duke of Wellington wrote to one of his brothers, “I am obliged to be everywhere and if absent from any operation, something goes wrong.” Actually I had staff I could trust who took great pains with all the details, though I double-checked everything myself.
I had won a battle with the Pakistanis so that the Princess could stay with me at the Residence, to assure her privacy. I was not so much concerned about her safety, which seemed under little threat since she was such a popular figure, but there was always a risk that paparazzi photographers could take an indiscreet picture. We had reliable guards patrolling the walls outside the Residence garden. My pool was out of range of photographers. She swam every morning. As I was having breakfast I would catch a glimpse of a slim vision descending from the balcony and crossing the terrace to the pool – where I let her swim alone.
Jephson, fairly new to the job, was very protective of his mistress. He had sent copious instructions and advice in advance which we did our best to follow. I briefed the press the day before the Princess’s arrival. She came on a Queen’s Flight BAe 146 aircraft in which she had flown from an overnight stop in Muscat. When I greeted her at the foot of the aircraft steps she was looking fabulous in a pale green, longish dress. “I am here at last!” she said. As I drove with her in the car to the first engagement, a photographer snapped us through the car window and gave me a copy. Beside her I looked like a cat that had just eaten a bowl of cream. Like my Japanese television star friend Tetsuko, Diana’s face was always ‘open to the camera’, a talent I have never achieved. I sometimes end up with a rictus grin, more often a lopsided smile. But the camera loved Diana and she always responded.
She laid a wreath at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery after a prayer by the Reverend Graham Burton, then talked to Pakistan’s elderly VC recipient Jamadar Ali Haider and some other war veterans. She visited an academy for deaf children, a prevalent problem some think affected by the frequency of inter-cousin marriages in Muslim Pakistan. She showed there an ability in sign language. Then she drove back to the Embassy, met the numerous British staff, admired the view from the balcony and took a rest. For most of her journeys she preferred to travel only with her long-serving lady-in-waiting Sarah, Viscountess Campden.
Any political content for the visit was in the carefully drafted speech that she read out clearly at the Prime Minister’s grand dinner that first evening: links were close, including economic; friendship should not be taken for granted; her compassion for the suffering and underprivileged was reflected in our aid programme; Pakistan’s decision to rejoin the Commonwealth was very welcome. She was nervous about making the speech but carried it off well, in response to Sharif ’s own friendly remarks. She wore a long, black gown with a white top, contrasting with the Prime Minister’s black jacket over white shalwar trousers. Nawaz Sharif ’s wife was very much in evidence. Benazir had found some other engagements that prevented her being in Pakistan during the visit, perhaps because she did not want to appear to be playing second fiddle as opposition leader. The following evening Diana was entertained more intimately by President Ghulam Ishaq, whose wife made a rare appearance. Diana charmed both these dignitaries, as indeed everyone she met.
She did her duty visiting commercial operations where British firms were cooperating profitably with local partners. She met Pakistani students returned from the UK at a lunch half way up the Margalla hills, with a good view over the city. She visited a school where, as with the deaf children, she would squat down beside some of the children to talk to them. She helped our aid programme by visiting a family planning clinic in a village near Islamabad. I was impressed that after meeting everyone and being briefed she did not hesitate when asked to sit down on a bench by one of the ladies for a photograph, even though that bench was dusty. She squatted down also to meet the children from the local British school gathered at the Embassy round our flagpole and the newly acquired statue of Queen Victoria.
Before the presidential dinner on the second day she attended my own reception that we had orchestrated carefully. The garden was full of over 400 prominent people from different walks of life. I may have blotted my copybook beforehand because, after people had been waiting for quite a while, against Jephson’s advice I went upstairs to tell the Princess that everyone was ready. She was gossiping with her dresser and hairdresser, essential members of her close team, and taking a little champagne for courage. It made sense for her to keep close to them because, like mechanics preparing the car for a Formula One driver, they had an important job to do to make sure that she emerged from their hands in perfect order. Her butler was also there.
My garden was looking great but Diana was not interested. At one point in the visit when there was some free time I asked if she would like to take a look at some unusual plants. I was thinking not only of my pepper trees but of the series of pots of mimosa pudica, of which my gardener was proud. They had delicate feathery leaves that when touched would immediately curl up, giving delight to children of all ages. “No thank you,” she said, “That is my husband’s department!”
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