Between September 1996 and her death just under a year later in August 1997, Dutch businessman John Van der Heyden sent a series of extraordinary letters to Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Fortunately he kept copies of this one-sided correspondence and was thus able to compile it into an instructive book for the benefit of all.
Van der Heyden does not say why he chose to publish his letters, but as it happens they tell an inspiring story. Here is a man who chooses to follow his dream against all reason: he sees himself as a latterday Don Quixote, which indeed he is, in a somewhat post-modern fashion.
To understand how, you first need to know a little about the Instituto Cervantes. Wikipedia says:
The Cervantes Institute is a worldwide non-profit organization created by the Spanish government in 1991. It is named after Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), the author of Don Quixote and perhaps the most important figure in the history of Spanish literature. The Cervantes Institute, a government agency, is the largest organization in the world responsible for promoting the study and the teaching of Spanish language and culture.
This organization has branched out in over 20 different countries with 54 centres devoted to the Spanish and Hispanic American culture and Spanish Language. Article 3 of Law 7/1991, created by the Instituto Cervantes on March 21, explains that the ultimate goals of the Institute are to promote the education, the study and the use of Spanish universally as a second language, to support the methods and activities that would help the process of Spanish language education, and to contribute to the advancement of the Spanish and Hispanic American cultures throughout non-Spanish-speaking countries.
Shortly after the founding of the original Instituto Cervantes, Van der Heyden seems to have had the brilliant idea of setting up his own company of the same name based in the Low Countries with comparable aims to its namesake such as offering lessons in Spanish. To the casual observer, this might look like a classic scam, rather like those foreign language schools in Oxford that are named so as to trick students into thinking they are affiliated with the university. But Van der Heyden, whose motives, at least in his own mind, appear spotless, never appears to actually achieve anything of significance, possibly - and I am guessing here - because any potential business associates suspect he is unhinged. He does however manage to register his Instituto Cervantes as a company in the UK, where its registered address is at a nondescript terraced house in Folkestone.
In one of his letters he explains the financial situation of this company and gives a breakdown of its profits. Expenses amounting to £5,044.99 (including a mysterious entry of £0.66 for "accommodation") are listed against total receipts of a staggering £26,822,425.99. These receipts are made up of a mere £490.55 for "course fees" while the balance of £26,821,925.44 is for a "claim on the state". I am not an accountant but I believe it is considered not quite the thing to count as a receipt money that has not actually been paid to you and probably never will be. Why Van der Heyden thinks the Dutch government owe him this sum is not clear - though it may be connected to his having been forcibly incarcerated some years earlier in a mental hospital - but he's convinced of his dues, as he explains in a document headed "State of the Union", originally sent to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and then later to his Dulcinea, Diana:
My claim on the State of the Netherlands as stated in my fax of 13 September 1996 to the Prime Minister is a rock-hard claim and completely legitimate. It is not a matter of terror of figures, but of figures to avoid terror. This claim will be maintained unimpaired. This will also be the case with respect to the proposal for an arrangement. After having received the amount a reputable financial economical expert will he attracted in order to offer the policy a thorough financial economical basis and a contribution to further economical growth and improvement of the infrastructure of the European Union.
The letters are not all concerned with such serious matters, far from it. In general they maintain quite a chatty tone that is often reminiscent in its non-sequiturs and unselfconscious presumption of the great Henry Root. He sends her snapshots of himself and things of interest taken during his travels (pub signs and parked cars feature quite a lot). He quotes astrological forecasts from popular newspapers. He is a keen reader of the UK tabloids and repeats what they are saying about Diana back to her.
Above all, Van der Heyden is a man of projects. Throughout the letters he pursues first this venture, then that:
- He recommends himself for the post of "Educational Officer with salary and residence" to oversee the schooling of the young princes William and Harry. In anticipation he orders "the vocabularies of German at Reader's Digest because William is fond of languages".
- He decides that his pen is worth "a million guilders or more" for its historical value. When he wants to auction it, though, he finds it is missing.
- He considers moving to England to further his plans in relation to Diana and the Instituto Cervantes. "I herewith request your collaboration in finding me a residence to live in. Anne Hathaway's Cottage would be very suitable to start all activities."
- He undertakes a legal process to formally change his name from its Dutch spelling of "Van der Heijden", which is somehow an impediment to his success.
- He requests that the Dutch High Council of Nobilty grant him the title "Graaf" (Count).
- He applies for an important teaching post as follows:
I sent my application to the Head Master of Eton College with the following note: "As I noticed that you had some problems at your Language Department I herewith have the honour to apply for the function of Head of Modern Languages at Eton College as from the First of June of this year. Enclosed you find mu curriculum vitae and personal biography. My practical knowledge of languges comprises Dutch, Spanish, English, German, French and Italian. My Diploma of Spanish is of the First Degree. As you will notice my core business in life aiways has been education. As the owner of the trade mark 'Instituto Cervantes' in the Benelux and the Limited 'Instituto Cervantes England and Wales' I like to delegate all development tasks to other people and stick to my core business. When you may be interested I will send you my diplomas, certificates and letters of recommendation by fax".
Wisely when listing his linguistic qualifications, he does not mention that he once described a woman as wearing a "Scottish kilt and head". I'm sure the pupils at Eton kindly overlook minor slip-ups in English, or at least politely correct them. "Do you mean 'hat', Sir?"
Most importantly of all, is his a letter of 28 December 1996 which reads, in its entirety:
Decision. Dear Diana. If we can reach a business agreement I will marry you. If not, I will marry you too. If you want. Yours, John Van der Heyden.
At Applebee's [restaurant] I had a conversation with two British gentlemen from Yorkshire (yellow T-shirt and lettering 'Russel's') and Hampshire (Plymouth). It was a rather disagreeable conversation as a matter of fact after I had expressed them my embarrassment about the break-in at Kensington Palace and I had shown them your photograph. The man from Yorkshire was about to punch me in the face. I told him however that I am an honourable man. The Situation obliged me to withdraw and to sit down at a table under the poster of 'The Wizard of Oz' next to a broom on the wall that reminds me of 'Operation Heather Brooms'. I took a glass of 'Imperator' and offered the same drink to the English 'gentlemen'. They refused but preferred a glass of 'Brewtus'. I granted their request, because 'Brutus was an honourable man' (Shakespeare: Julius Caesar).
Others also question not merely his motivation but his sanity, yet he is unabashed:
I should like to have my hair cut just like Mario Testino. Then you don't have to go on with a surrogate. One person - in Stratford - told me once 'You're mad'. I replied 'Some people may think so, but I am not'. It was the boy from Monaco. I do enjoy life - YES - that's true, but I am only mad about you. May I? A certain Mr Whitaker does not believe in 'IF' anymore. But I do Love.
Despite there being no reply to his proposal, positive or otherwise, he continues with his plans. After the marriage, to take place "next 28 September in Palace Het Loo in Apeldoorn", he expects to be made Earl of Warwick, though for some reason "that depends for a great deal on Madame Tussaud's". Although he understandably disapproves of Dodi Fayed, he contacts his father Mohammed Al Fayed and invites him to invest in his company. Excitedly, he tells Diana "If Mr Al Fayed wants to participate We can buy our own Yacht in due course and go to every place you want in the world!" As the cherry on the cake, he sends her a "limerick" of singular literary quality:
When William and Mary went together They saved Britain and Holland from bad weather As from today in the future To our countries there will not be a malicious creature When Diana and John get together P.S. Red colours very well in the heather
Unfortunately, Diana and John were fated never to get together, as she of course died before their expected wedding date. His process of mourning on hearing the news involves a pub crawl:
... I took the train to The Hague, to pay a visit to Vitalizee [health spa]. In the train they told me Lady Di is dead. She died in a car crash in Paris. Is that not a typical coincidence since I sent my postcard to ‘My Fifth Rose’ [one of his names for Diana] in K[ensington]P[alace] on 30 April and I took the wrong train to Paris? I had to carry on, because You’re still in my life. First I went to Vitalizee and spoke with Marc Sanders, cousin of Emily Bremers and looked at the Pavilion of 'Watermans', that reminded me of my stay at 'Watermans' in Henley. I had four glasses of 'De Koninck' that reminded mc of the support of the Four Royal Houses of The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Spain for Our new relationship. Then I went to Noordwijk. De Baak was closed of course. So I went to Huis ter Duin and they offered me two glasses of 'the queen of beers'. Then to Hotel Oranje. They played 'Lady in Red' and I realized that My Number One is dead!!!. I told this to an American Manager and We have to continue. I trust in Your Brother Charles and hope to meet him very soon.
So, if Van der Heyden is a Don Quixote for our times, befuddled with visions of corporate success and royal weddings, tilting at the windmills of imagined state injustice, sadly he seemingly lacks any Sancho Panza to keep his feet on the ground. Nevertheless, he remains cheerful and resolute throughout, as in his final farewell to Diana:
I will finish The Job and You will always remain in my Heart.
As Don Quixote teaches us, even if The Job is quite imaginary, it's the sentiment that counts.