Diana - The Last Farewell: Last journey for a broken butterfly

Waves of emotion will overcome the mourners watching her go past on the gun carriage. John Walsh reflects on the tragedy of the Princess
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It will seem the longest two miles in the world. Every inch of the funeral route through the heart of London will be redolent of memories. From her home in Kensington Palace, along Kensington Road past the Albert Hall which she used to attend with such delight, down Knightsbridge past her beloved Harvey Nichols and within sight of Harrods, which her last beau was to inherit, through the heart of Sloane Ranger land, that mythical social territory with which her name was synonymous in the early Eighties, past Hyde Park, where she used to ride with James Hewitt, and down the hill to Buckingham Palace and the Mall, with their walls, railings and trees festooned with tokens of love for the Princess of Wales. One can only guess at the wave of feeling that will overcome the solid block of mourners in the Mall - standing 40 or 50 deep - as they watch Diana's coffin, mounted on a gun carriage and flanked by mounted police, roll down Constitution Hill to the Palace whose senior echelons treated her so ill - ignored her, treated her coldly, behaved to her with blank indifference and finally took her royal title away. It will be hard to bear the significance of the moment - Diana on a gun carriage: a broken butterfly on a wheel.

And if, when the coffin and the King's Troop riders have gone, the crowds mill about within sight of the giant screens in Hyde Park, and the traffic is becalmed because 6 million people are refusing to go home, will some of them remember that the last time London was brought to a stand-still and several thousand people jammed Hyde Park Corner and stopped the home- going buses, it was for Diana as well - the night of the royal fireworks, on the eve of the big wedding in 1981. We all piled onto the streets that night with a raucous naivete, to offer a jolly send-off to this pleasant- seeming nervous young blonde who was marrying the most diffident, worried and

perennially neurotic man in the kingdom but (we thought) might make him more human. Sixteen years later, we're older, wiser and considerably sadder, and we're offering a heartbroken send-off to someone quite different. But who? What has Diana become?

It's too simplistic to say "a saint", despite the parallels with Evita Peron and the popular canonisation that followed her death. To call Diana "Britain's lost queen" doesn't make sense - nobody wept about her loss to the monarchy when she and Prince divorced last year (though it gave one quite a frisson to read about the black woman in the Bronx, New York, who, when asked why she was leaving flowers and salutations at a shrine to a posh aristocrat on the other side of the Atlantic, replied, "Isn't it obvious? She was the Queen of the World"). It's too sentimental to say she's become an angel, despite the wings with which young mourners are being encouraged to equip the late Princess in coloured felt-tips. It's not enough to recite her "achievements" again, as the television stations did so relentlessly last Sunday, which suggests that it is merely the combination of glamour and being nice to the sick that has given her this purchase on the nation's lives.

There is something else at work here - a kind of private contract between the Princess and the British people. It's hard to fathom. It defies reason. The Queen herself, who has seen a fair variety of the things available to human sight, will have looked out of the Palace windows on her return from Balmoral yesterday, looked at the sea of flowers and messages and candles, and not understood what is going on either. Something has happened to the whole British nation, that goes beyond mere grief for a dead royal, that inhabits a whole new territory with a personal language beyond ordinary forms of public expression, of protocol, of judicious editorials in the broadsheets, cliches in the tabloids, analyses on Newsnight, the whole paraphernalia of accepted opinion-forming. The people have taken the lead themselves, have organised - apparently spontaneously - their own response, have found a voice of their own. It's the voice you find in all those messages that accompany the flowers in the Mall and at Kensington Palace.

Ah, the Mall. It's been one of the strangest experiences in Londoners' lives to walk down the royal thoroughfare this week, past the patiently queueing thousands of punks, pinstripes, tourists, dowagers and Diana- clone young women waiting to sign the condolence books, past the Harrods emergency-snack vans kindly sent by Mohammed Al-Fayed, through the ocean of crackly Cellophane and vilely-patterned flowershop wrapping paper, the blown roses and massive sunflowers, the Queen of Hearts playing cards, the shiny helium balloons, the teddy bears in plastic raincoats and koalas with corks in their hats, the crown-shaped candles and Chinese paper lanterns and school-project collages, the fusillade of sniffing, the paper hankies, the extra-kindly policemen being photographed with children in their arms, the whole odd, oxymoronic atmosphere of carnival melancholy. It gets to you. It's got to everybody. I am a London journalist, with all that that implies - seasoned, pooh-poohing, unimpressed by displays of sentiment, suspicion of factitious emotion. In the crowds, I mentally note the high percentage of slush among the messages, the high incidence of the words "queen", "heart", "star", "light", "caring", "angel", "candle" and practically laugh out loud at the predictability, the bargain-basement obviousness, of it all. Then ten minutes later, for no reason, I cannot see where I am walking for the tears in my eyes.

"If only you knew how much you are loved by us all," writes Sandra, David, Mark, Paul and Alison. "Sleep well, sweet princess. You brought to me and to millions such happiness" writes Jean B., the ink on her card stained with rainy tears. "Diana - so loving, so caring, so beautiful, so sad. God bless you, love from All of Us" runs an anonymous note. "Now you are in Heaven," observes another sympathiser, "no more pain, no more heartbreak, no more rejection, no more lies, no more deceit - and no more PRESS to suffer". Many mourners offer acrostics: DIANA becomes "Delightful. Intelligent. Admirable. Noble. Angelic". There is much poetry, with long Ogden-Nash- style lines meandering off in search of a rhyme."

You look at these little messages, some conventionally sentimental about "finding peace" and being "together forever" with Dodie Al-Fayed, others embarrassingly personal, and you marvel at the closeness of the relationship they suggest. A lady called Hilary has written Di a letter in a relaxed, conversational style, describing, as though to a temporarily bedridden friend, the scene in front of Buck House; she has, she admits, put a previous letter to the dead princess in the post Kensington Palace, despite the futility of both enterprises. "Dear Diana, Please excuse this card..." begins another politely. Some messages are sweetly confiding, as if written to a cousin. Onde is "From Carol and family - and Olive who can't be here today". "Always in our thoughts," say a couple called Alison and Keith, in a form of words they might use about, say, Alison's granny. A lady called Michelle risks an analogy: "As children, we often have our favourite toy taken away to teach us a lesson for not treating it properly. I know I've learned my lesson. So when are you coming back?" Pausing beside a tree to look at another outcrop of spray carnations, you can overhear people chatting with great assurance about the royal family, as if gossiping about the neighbours: "Of course, William's quite strong-willed, like his Mum. It's Harry I worry about..."

Here, perhaps, in the unbearably touching assumptions of intimacy, we may be approaching the heart of the mystery - the true nature of the contract that existed between the Princess and the people, and which has been affirmed with such head-spinning enthusiasm in the week that's gone by. It's about love. Of all the many forms love takes - family love, romantic love, sexual love, amitie amoureuse, love of country - the love of a royal person for his or her subjects, and vice versa, is probably the hardest to guage. Kings and queens do not, by their nature, get the chance to meet their subjects in any meaningful way, bar a few public events at which the latter get to applaud the condescension of the former. Subjects, for their part, may feel fond of the odd royal personage in a benign, vaguely approving, "she's-a-very-special-lady way; they may grow attached to the old party whose face appears on the stamps - but, generally speaking, that about as warm as it gets.

Into this truism steps a woman who, from her broken childhood home to her broken body in the morgue of the Salpetriere hospital, never received enough love. Who once said, at a charity dinner, her voice trembling with self-reflexiveness, that the worst affliction in the world was the absence or denial of love. She married a prince who never loved her, was betrayed by her later lovers, marginalised by the Palace and driven into isolation; and there she started to fight back, driven solely by the hope that the people would love her.

But of course, that's a nonsensical subject. Only a madwoman would imagine that anyone copuld win the unforced affection of fifty million people. It's a ridiculous hybrid of vanity and hope. Diana, we told ourselves, was sadly deluded by too many hospital visits where everyone was nice to her and the press went "Ahhh..." when she cradled a poorly child, and from these localised, stage-managed displays of approval she concluded, by extrapolation, that everyone thought well of her. How we guffawed during the Panorama interview when she was asked about her future prospects and said she wanted to be the queen of people's hearts. In your dreams, we said, you poor sap, thinking millions of indifferent, monarchy-fatigued Britons cared a jot about you. Only last week we were complaining about her again, running around the Med with a skirt-chasing playboy, criticising the previous government, letting the side down...

But she was right.

It's the most amazing thing. She was right all along. The British public actually loved her. That's the other side of this uniquely puzzling contract. Just as she didn't know "the people" beyond meeting a few thousand of them in schools, hospitals and submarines, and could not possibly infer any affection from the generality of the nation, so "the people" have spent the week protesting their love for a woman they've never met, would never have met, whose private behaviour, time and time again, elicited only their disapproval.

What has erupted beside the walls of St James's Palace is a kind of mass outbreak of fundamentalism. Just as orthodox Moslems believe in a god that's closer to them than their father, mother or children - a god that's effectively inside them, a fundamental part of the way they think and talk and operate - we've now taken Diana inside ourselves. She's now in every family, in every home, in every tiny community where old decencies are preserved. Everyone of those artlessly natural messages ("Although we can't be with you, we are thinking of you always"; "Excuse the handwriting...") expressed it: Diana isn't being seen as a royal any more, nor even strictly as a Princess, she's become one of Us.

She has become the glue that binds us. People in the streets this week, marvelling at how there's only one subject to think or talk about, one topic of news anyone cared to read, one feeling in the air, one conversation to have, also marvelled that it should be she who pulled us all into a sudden, seamless whole, a nation of emotion. Not a war, not a World Cup, not a disease, not a political movement, not a religion - just the gorgeous clothes-horse with the slightly skewed nose and the terrible taste in men, who embarrassed the royal family and talked about bulimia and adultery on television. The woman whom we ticked off sometimes for failures of taste ("Will Carling?" we shuddered. "How could you? And as for James Gilbey..."), and laughed at for her affectations of saintliness (like the "Halo" T-shirt she wore during the land-mines protest walk, which seemed, for a moment, to have always been part of her wardrobe) turns out to be the great unifying force of the British nation.

And we realised that, of course, she'd always been there. She was the soundtrack to our lives for 16 years, the amniotic whoosh of reassurance in our ears, the kitchen radio that never gets switched off. She was always up to something, schmoozing someone, off somewhere, pulling strokes, meeting folks. It was all high drama. One minute she was the Establishment Girlfriend and the Holy Mother, then the Loose Cannon, the Destabilising Rebel, the Eurotrash Sexpot. She was a long continuing story, of which you sometimes lost the plot but never grew tired. You thought it was a story that would go on all through your life; and then suddenly it stopped. Outside Buckingham Palace, someone has adapted W. H. Auden's celebrated funeral poem to read:

"She was our noon, our midnight, our talk, our song.

We thought that she would last forever; we were wrong".

There's a significant guilt factor, of course, in the public's adulation, a nagging sense that we didn't treat her right while she was alive, that we somehow failed her, as we all unthinkingly neglect those we love because we are too busy with our lives. "Forgive us," reads one message in the Mall. "We all share guilt. May we treat Wills and Harry better." The guilt that some of us feel has been turned into anger this week and directed at the Royal family in a series of petulant requirements - how the Queen should be with the crowd inthe Mall or addressing the country on television or flying a flag at half-mast. All three the Queen is now doing, but the memory remains of the nation demanding that it be looked after - demanding that a royal mother come and soothe and comfort the population, now that the person best equipped for the role has gone.

All the cavilling and complaint against the royals is just a symptom of a vast psychic hurt that's in the air, aliong with the image of the suffering princess. The whole Diana frenzy is predicated on two things: she was nice to people and she suffered. The suffering part is crucial. It's noticeable that the first stabs at hagiography on television, full though they are of airbrushed obituary ("At school she shone at sport, especially swimming...") still keep in, among the compassion and the charities, the footage of royal coldness, the princess's loneliness, the sorry chronicle of marital disaffection. It's hardly surprising that she is being commemorated as a martyr, in a way that puts her in touch with the martyr in everyone. During the week, I rang an elderly relative in the west of Ireland, someone you'd imagine would not be especially touched by the tragic news. "I just cried and cried all day when I heard," she said. But why? "Because she cared about people and she had an awful life - like me," came the sorrowing reply. I suspect a good deal of the current wash of sadness occupies the same arena of mirrored empathy. We're suffering like Diana; and we're being compassionate like Diana. We are turning into her, just as she's been subsumed into all of us. And for everyone who's lost a parent of friend before they had a chance to say how much they loved them, Diana is a potent symbol too. "I just wish," reads a card on the gate of the palace where she is lying, "that when you at your darkest moment, you knew how much we all cared for you".

There's never been a moment in this country's history when such a huge, variegated, rainbow coalition of Britons collectively wrung their hearts over the loss of a human being - even Queen Victoria, even Churchill. Call it retrospective guilt or proxy grief, call it self-pity or a groundswell of anti-monarchy radicalism, there's no doubting the intensely personal quality of feeling that has drawn millions to the streets of the metropolis and global billions to theior television sets this morning. It's never happened before, and it probably won't again. It's so strong you can almost feel it as a physical thing, which would be entirely appropriate. For Diana was ther most touchy-feely of women, the most tactile of princesses, an urgent stroker and hugger and reacher-out, both for love and in sympathy. And now in an unprecedented, unrepeatable whirlwind of fundamentalist devotion, the country extends a giant, umpteen-million-fingered hand to caress the traumatised cheek of the former Queen of the World.

guilt. May we treat Wills and Harry better." The guilt that some of us feel has been turned into anger this week and directed at the Royal family in a series of petulant requirements - how the Queen should be with the crowd in the Mall or addressing the country on television or flying a flag at half-mast. All three the Queen is now doing, but the memory remains of the nation demanding that it be looked after - demanding that a royal mother come and soothe and comfort the population, now that the person best equipped for the role has gone.

All the cavilling and complaint against the royals is just a symptom of a vast psychic hurt that's in the air, along with the image of the suffering princess. The whole Diana frenzy is predicated on two things: she was nice to people and she suffered. The suffering part is crucial. It's noticeable that the first stabs at hagiography on television - full though they are of airbrushed obituary ("At school she shone at sport, especially swimming...") - still keep in, among the compassion and the charities, the footage of royal coldness, the princess's loneliness, the sorry chronicle of marital disaffection. It's hardly surprising that she is being commemorated as a martyr, in a way that puts her in touch with the martyr in everyone. During the week, I rang an elderly relative in the west of Ireland, someone you'd imagine would not be especially touched by the tragic news. "I just cried and cried all day when I heard," she said. But why? "Because she cared about people and she had an awful life - like me," came the sorrowing reply. I suspect a good deal of the current wash of sadness occupies the same arena of mirrored empathy. We're suffering like Diana; and we're being compassionate like Diana. We are turning into her, just as she's been subsumed into all of us. And for everyone who's lost a parent of friend before they had a chance to say how much they loved them, Diana is a potent symbol too. "I just wish," reads a card on the gate of the palace where she is lying, "that when you at your darkest moment, you knew how much we all cared for you".

There's never been a moment in this country's history when such a huge, variegated, rainbow coalition of Britons collectively wrung their hearts over the loss of a human being - even Queen Victoria, even Churchill. Call it retrospective guilt or proxy grief, call it self-pity or a groundswell of anti-monarchy radicalism, there's no doubting the intensely personal quality of feeling that has drawn millions to the streets of the metropolis and global billions to their television sets this morning. It's never happened before, and it probably won't again. It's so strong you can almost feel it as a physical thing, which would be entirely appropriate. For Diana was the most touchy-feely of women, the most tactile of princesses, an urgent stroker and hugger and reacher-out, both for love and in sympathy. And now in an unprecedented, unrepeatable whirlwind of fundamentalist devotion, the country extends a giant, umpteen-million-fingered hand to caress the traumatised cheek of the former Queen of the World.

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