During the long hours before the funeral bell began to toll, the stalwarts who waited, draped in Union Jacks and black ribbons, were revealed in their true colours.
By dint of obsessive determination they had each won a space in the most coveted of vantage points and, as a result, they were in a volatile state.
From early on, the atmosphere in the small encampment was fevered. Sex was a big theme, and so was fashion. Several frenzied appointments were clearly being kept in the public conveniences just outside the police railings, and one Diana-devotee managed to change his outfit three or four times during the afternoon. He had brought a large suitcase, packed with a range of day wear and clubbing gear, as well as a smart DJ for the funeral itself.
As a reporter on the scene, I sheepishly took my place in the fourth tier of onlookers as the sun began to set. To gain entry into the cordoned- off zone I had to pretend that I was joining a friend. Then I rapidly had to make one, perching on the edge of a ground-sheet shared by an engineer from Stoke and a South African tourist.
It was obvious from the first that rivalries had already become entrenched. The group in front of me snarled with hatred at those in the front row who were constantly being interviewed by a cavalcade of TV crews. "That's the only reason they're here at all," they jibed.
It took only two or three hours longer for the deckchair-and-sandwiches camaraderie to break down completely. Tensions centred on the fact that some mourners seemed to spend very little time guarding their spot, leaving neighbours to look out for them while they went to the pub.
"He is only interested in getting on telly," one man told me in a stage whisper as he jabbed a finger at the back of a man who was returning to the front row. "You know, the one next to him is checked into a hotel down the road and only comes back here when the press are around."
In this way, with an unnerving, dreamlike logic, the evening was developing imperatives of its own. Safeguarding space was suddenly everything. Other peoples' comfort meant nothing.
While I dozed briefly at around 1am, yet more people managed to squeeze their way past police officers and inside the small enclosure. From then on we were all subject to repeated scare stories. The police, we were told, would be moving the barrier forward to let more people in at 2am. No, they would wait to move them at three. No, at four.
With each piece of fresh intelligence we got up and grimly shuffled forward. There was no possibility of sleep. All around, arguments raged.
"Don't talk to me about Diana, I have been here for two and a half days," said one testy invalid.
"I'm going home," sobbed another man in a Union Jack cap. "If I had known how nasty everyone would be, I would never have come. And I loved her so much." Two minutes later he was swearing violently at a man crouched next to him who had suggested he pipe down.
"Just remember why we are all here," said a middle-aged woman sanctimoniously, as she elbowed her way into a coveted space in the second row.
The most perilous moment of the night came without warning when several of us were caught underfoot in one of the hourly stampedes. The huge boot of a spookily clean-shaven young man came down heavily next to my head.
Standing up, I could see he was clutching two Union Jack flags tied with black ribbons. He did not say he was sorry, but he did tell me that last year he had queued for three days outside a new store in Reading in order to win a free computer.
The lowest point of the vigil, however, was at around 4am, when, wet with dew, I straightened my neck and opened my eyes to stare straight up at a full colostomy bag suspended about three inches above my head. It had slipped out from under the jumper of the man behind me and was alluringly illuminated by the flickering light of a candle burning on the ground by my left ear. I struggled to move away, but there was no room.
It would be good to say that the beauty of the pink dawn, on the west side of the Abbey, erased all these phantoms. But in fact when I remember that night, the only upbeat image I can muster is that of the face of an unstable, would-be NBC reporter from Alabama who had flown out at her own expense to attempt to film the princes in their grief. Throughout the night she led the crowd in her own customised versions of popular anthems, such as "Kumbaya". I woke at one point to spot her clapping and swaying along to the lyric: "He's got Harry and Wills in his hands, he's got Harry and Wills in his hands."Reuse content