Diana - The Last Farewell: Getting to the heart of the mystery

In a leading article we applauded the cathartic effect of the `Neapolitan' show of mourning
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Britain is becoming less British. The displays of grief and anger about the death of Diana have been not only mass, but impassioned, florid as well as floral, public not private. There has been crying, shouting - open displays of emotion, not private reflection. This is not how the nation popularly supposed itself to behave; we are meant to be a people of gritted teeth, suppressed feelings and stiff upper lips. The great mounds of flowers - and why, by the way, do we leave them wrapped in Cellophane, not properly open? - the clipped-out photographs from magazines, the piled teddy bears, the poems and pen messages, and the snaking, loudly conversing crowds outside the palaces ... all this seems somehow foreign to the received images of the British in public sorrow. Traditionally we think of the grave, silent faces at the Cenotaph, of military processions and of the dignified but repressed and duty-lined expressions at Establishment funerals or memorial services. Compared to that buttoned-up nation, the current torrents of grief over the dead Princess seem American, or even somehow Neapolitan.

The change in public behaviour is neatly caught by the reported difference of opinion between Buckingham Palace and Tony Blair's circle at Downing Street over the right way to lay Diana to rest. All the instincts of the Windsor family seem to have been traditional, with the emphasis sombre, dignified and vaguely military. They come from a class, as well as a family, sternly schooled in public reticence; from a culture in which it is a weakness to break down in front of strangers. The Prime Minister has consciously decided, it seems, to speak for another and younger strain in British public behaviour, which rather approves of tearfulness and finds mounds of flowers and notes moving and appropriate, rather than maudlin or common. The difference is seen in the debate about how much leeway should be given for vast crowds of ordinary people to feel involved in the funeral; who should be invited to the Abbey; and whether soldiers should be prominent in the event, or people from charities patronised by Diana. It is likely that the discussions have not been as sharp or as divided as malice reports; nevertheless, some difference of tone and instinct seems to have emerged.

If so, it is a poignant and important distinction, which says much about the task of royalty at the end of this century. It is easy to see a repressive, Victorian hauteur in the Windsors' reliance on sombre pageantry which contrasts not only with Diana's thoroughly contemporary tastes, but also with the instincts of the millions of her mourners. They have learnt to let it all hang out. They are not ashamed of tears and have built flimsy, touching shrines which would have meant vastly more to her than ceremonial guards or intoning archbishops. They would not have sent their bereaved sons to ordinary Sunday church services. Their emotional expectations are a world away from the self-deprecating and contorted dignity of the Prince of Wales or the amazing, iron self-discipline of his mother, who seems almost like an ancient Roman matriarch, stern-faced and unfaltering as the family tragedies pile up around her.

The people are not, it seems, like that any more. That was why, after all, so many loved Diana: the same confessional tone and readiness to admit fault which embarrassed the Windsors and their friends so intensely was what made her, to millions, ``one of us''. She drew little smiley faces in biro on children's plaster casts, and enjoyed the corny jokes, horoscope readings and ready, hug-generous behaviour of her most substantial group of mourners. The less hung-up sections of British society, including ethnic minority Di-worshippers, gays and teenagers, have been prominent in the response. But so have millions of the stolid centre of Middle Britain.

To those brought up in the old ways of the British upper-middle classes (and the simple ``uppers'' too), much of this is, in truth, a little cringe- making. But the word "old" in the previous sentence is at least as important as the class element. Diana, after all, was hardly a proletarian infant. She goes to rest in an impeccably aristocratic family chapel. What distinguished her from Charles was not class but age: she was a child of the post-Sixties global culture. He, on the other hand, is in many ways - and given his education this is no exaggeration - still the child of Edwardian values. There is absolutely no doubt which of them the vast majority of the British people identify with. And there is absolutely no doubt that this presents the monarchy with a genuine dilemma. If the princes grow up more like their father than their mother, the people, who have changed so much already, will not recognise them as belonging to the same country.

We applaud the louder, more emotional and sentimental sorrow, the Neapolitan style of the mourning streets. The inclusive and democratic nature of the response would have been everything she hoped for as ``Queen of hearts''. It feels curiously positive and properly cathartic, as a sombre state funeral or a muted private grieving, would not have done. Modern Britain knows that, unBritish or not, it is good to cry. The heaped flowers, even with their Cellophane, are intensely moving. So are the crowds. This is clearly becoming a populist event, far beyond the reach of official control or the carefully graded rituals of monarchy. It is growing, not shrivelling. It is only a little hyperbolic to describe the mourning of Diana as a kind of emotional revolution of the streets - St James's Palace being stormed in an utterly polite but insistent way by those determined to queue through the night to express their grief. This is an unthreatening revolution, except to the Household Gods of the stiff-upper-lips. We do not mock them. The traditions of repression and self-control are linked to those of duty and sacrifice, and are therefore admirable too; perhaps as a country we have lost a certain national dignity that became us.

Be that as it may, we have moved on, and returned in spirit to the more raucous and sentimental nation we were before Victoria's reign. That is part of the meaning of what has happened in the past few days. We hope the Windsors and their advisers are watching the mood on the streets and learning from it. What would really do the monarchy good, and show that they had grasped the lesson of Diana's popularity, would be for the Queen and the Prince of Wales to break down, cry and hug one another on the steps of the Abbey today. That such an event is unthinkable shows how great is the gap between the people mourning ``their'' princess, and the Royal Family to which she never, quite, belonged.