Mourning Diana

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It was late on Sunday evening, 31 August 1997. The whole family was home, but they were all doing different things in different parts of the house, and things were pretty quiet.

Work tomorrow! But before thinking about getting ready for bed I turned the TV on to see if there was a news update. There was. The reporter was doing an outside broadcast from the grounds outside Kensington Palace, a piece to camera, while in the background you could see floodlights and streams of people seemingly strolling in and out of the pools of unnaturally bright light as they made their way through. There was no let-up, said the reporter, this is obviously set to carry on for at least another hour or two.

It's like a solar eclipse situation, I thought. Halley's Comet. Or it's as though we were living in the suburbs of Berlin and they were tearing the wall down and all I was thinking about was what I should wear tomorrow, and don't forget to put the empty milk-bottles out. You need to go there - tonight, I told myself. Tomorrow won't be any good, it'll be chaotic with huge crowds, traffic jams and all that. Let's see, this time of night it shouldn't take too long in the car. Should I go? And by myself, or what? I went round the house to see if anyone else was interested. Nobody was really keen except my youngest daughter. "I'll come with you - let's go!"

We went down to Kensington. I had thought the easiest way in would be through the gates on Bayswater Road but they were coned-off, and we were directed on and had to go round via Kensington Church Street to the other side. So much for my ideas of avoiding heavy traffic - it was nose-to-tail all the way round. We would never get there at this rate! Surely it wasn't just the road-works? And when we got round to the other side there were more road-works and more cones, and among all that the miracle of a parking space.

The scene that greeted us was totally surreal. It was like a scene out of Truffaut's film Close Encounters. Great towers of floodlights had been hastily erected, powered by the constant rumble of foul-smelling generators. Various TV crews were dotted around, with reporters speaking into hand-held microphones or boom-mounted furry ones in a dozen different tongues, so that the floodlight supports really were towers of Babel. Many people were leaving by now but nevertheless many, like us, were still arriving, following the gravel path on towards the elaborate black wrought-iron gates which were picked out by another bank of floods. Everyone - reporters, camera crew, technicians, police marshals, young policewomen, visitors like us, people peering out of the windows of the red London double-deckers on their way down past the Albert Hall towards Knightsbridge, cab-drivers - everyone was in a state of a sort of respectful bewilderment.

When we got up to the boundary of the Palace gardens proper, some of the messages and teddy-bears had been hung on the railings. Bouquets were piled-up on the ground and propped-up against the railings, but there were so many that they spilled across half the width of the gravel path. It was like this all the way round the perimeter of the palace gardens, and we marvelled at the sheer quantity of blooms that had been laid there in so short a time, never imagining that within the space of a couple of days the massive collection which we saw that night would come to represent only a small proportion of the final total.

Part of the gardens was bounded by a wall rather than railings, and in its lee candles, night-lights and even oil-lamps flickered eerily. Here, away from the glaring floodlights, the noise and fumes of the generators and the garish reflective tunics of the policegirls, it was so much more peaceful! The crunch of gravel had given way to the swish of silken grass underfoot; the night sky was dappled, here, by branches arching overhead. One candle-lit message half-caught my eye. 'You touched so many...' it began, and I thought: yes, here's another pitiful self-pitying text. But something made me read it again. It said: 'You touched so many - who will touch them now?'

And there, I thought, in those few words, we have it: the real tragedy of the situation. Not the grief, shock and mourning of the British public or any other public, but the fact that such a diversity of people had for a few years been recognised, validated, supported, accorded respect and dignity - and touched (in every sense of the word). Amputees in Angola and lepers in Lesotho, yes, these and the AIDS sufferers caught the headlines - but also the 'ordinary' people, the suits and the jeans in equal measure, drinking coffee or white wine with Diana: who will touch them now? She was an impossible act to follow. That's the tragedy.

Diana was no saint, but she was a world figure and she touched (both metaphorically and literally) many 'ordinary' people.

While I was still at home wondering whether to go there or not, I had thought that the atmosphere in the Palace grounds might have been like I'd heard about long ago. Like when the train you're on stops between stations and just stays there for ten minutes ... half-an-hour ... an hour, and complete strangers on the train start talking to one another. Like the old newsreel footage I'd seen: London In The Blitz, with people getting ready with Thermos flasks and blankets to spend the night on a Tube platform with complete strangers.

But it wasn't like that. There wasn't that sort of camaraderie in old London Town that night. People felt they should be there but weren't really quite sure why; or they were wrapped-up in their own emotional stuff. Everyone was in the same boat, but each individual seemed to be still closeted within his or her own cabin.

We stayed for about an hour. As we started back for home people were still arriving, reporters were still reporting, TV cameras still panning across the lines of - should I call them mourners? pilgrims? visitors? tourists? And driving back home in the small hours through the now-emptying streets of London's West End I could have sworn I heard it: that night, a nightingale sobbed in Berkeley Square.

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