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Princess Diana. Photo/Getty Images

My chance encounter with Princess Diana in Harrods

Andrew Anthony's visit to the famous shop brings back memories of an encounter with the soon-to-be princess.

Recently, in an act of consumer desperation, I did one of those tourist things that Londoners seldom do: I went to Harrods. Like the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, Harrods is on the list of places “you must see” when visiting the capital. But although tourists account for a large share of its turnover, they are not the famous Knightsbridge department store’s only customers.

Oligarchs’ wives are also loyal patrons. Earlier this year, the High Court heard the case of Zamira Hajiyeva, the wife of a jailed Azerbaijani bank official, who managed to spend £16 million ($30.2 million) at Harrods, despite the fact that her only income was from her husband, whose salary was about £50,000 a year. Hajiyeva, who lives in an £11.5 million house around the corner from Harrods, spent £1 million in its toy department alone and £250,000 in its perfumery – presumably to conceal the stink of corruption.

When it comes to money, Harrods has never been the type of shop to ask awkward questions – unless you don’t have enough. And now that it’s owned by the state of Qatar, a nation not renowned for its business transparency, an ethical overhaul is hard to imagine.

Yet, it is undergoing a radical internal redesign that’s nearing completion. I hardly recognised the place when I dropped by, which was strange because I used to work there. Back in the early 1980s, when I was on something of an involuntary academic hiatus, I found myself working as a furniture porter at Harrods.

It was there that I met Diana, Princess of Wales, as she was then soon to be. At first, as the willowy young woman approached us, my fellow furniture porters Simon (who’s now one of the country’s leading neurologists) and Adam and I thought the befringed blonde was yet another Sloane Ranger Diana-lookalike. Engaged to Prince Charles, she was only weeks away from a state wedding, and on the cover of every newspaper and magazine.

It wasn’t until she was a few feet away that we realised her true identity. That’s when we decided to take the opportunity to offer some unsolicited advice. “Don’t do it, Di!” Simon appealed, going down on his knee in front of her. “He’s an unemployed 30-year-old [32 in fact],” I added, with crude agitprop wit.

She was just 19, a year older than me. She looked startled, but mildly amused, before her security detail emerged from the shadows and whisked her away. Simon was sacked later that day, then reinstated after he threatened to sell his story to the tabloids – it was a period of huge unemployment, and the optics were not good for Harrods’ management. Adam was given a warning and, eluding identification, I avoided censure and went down in shop lore as the Third Man. The story eventually appeared in the Daily Mirror under the heading of The Princess and the Porter.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened had she taken our advice.

Those memories flooded back as I vainly tried to find my way around the labyrinth – like some upmarket souk – that Harrods has become. It was packed solid, everyone as dead-eyed as zombies. The redesign was said to be aimed at the Southeast Asian market, but the most conspicuous customers were from the petrodollar economies of the Middle East, the men in designer clothes, the women, several steps behind, hidden within black chadors.

Trapped in a luxurious consumer hell, I felt claustrophobic and confused, unable to find any trace of the shop that I once knew so well. To make matters worse, they didn’t have the item I was looking for. It was with near deranged relief that I finally escaped the building. The Harrods motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique – “all things for all people, everywhere”. But not, anymore, for me.

This column was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.