Serena Mackesy reflects on the emotional scenes of `addled iconography'
In the end, you can leave it to the children to hit the nail on the head. They swarmed this week all over the head-bowed crowds with their mothers - and the truth is that three-quarters of the mourners, whether it's because they have more adaptable jobs or because they simply minded more, were women. Though often their guardians were dressed for 11-hour queues, the young, most of them, were immaculately turned out in dresses, ribbons and tidy hair, as if going to a party. And though most of the adults were hushed and thoughtful, the children chattered on in their loud, curious tones.

Where the queue for the condolence-books turned the corner at Clarence House, a boy stood as his mother added her contribution to the humbling floral tributes lined up in the dappled sunshine under the trees. (The weather even played its part by turning at the weekend from oppressive, dirty heat to the playful early-autumn crispness that makes one remember how much one loves this country.) "What," asked the little boy, "are they going to do with all the flowers?" And outside the Palace, a small American girl followed her embarrassed mother around asking over and over again: "But Mommy, why does Princess Diana need all these flowers?"

Maybe the cash spent on flowers could have been better donated to the Halo Trust for digging up landmines, but these masses of blooms - single roses, big ribboned florists' baskets, sprays of crysanths still in the ghastly paper that service-station flower stalls provide, more than pounds 30m- worth spread across London by Thursday - were staggeringly moving. The very futility of the gesture, pulling from the ground these things of beauty that could have been a joy for much, much longer, form a powerful reminder of the waste of three lives ripped away in the time it would have taken to change down a gear. Pall Mall and the area around the Palace gates were soaked in an eerie fug of rotting vegetation and cheap-scented candle wax. And, as individuals emerged from the writing room, their faces were wreathed in smiles and covered, at the same time, in waves of tears.

It's been a week of anachronisms. People who have been openly praying in front of the impromptu shrines that have sprung up wherever, it seems, there is a tree, berated the Royals for taking the boys to church on Sunday, as though church is somehow a bad place to be. People with thick wads of newsprint tucked under their arms bayed for the blood of the press. People who never knew the Princess flinging themselves to the ground in paroxysms of grief while those who did - her brother and sisters, former husband, real friends - struggled to keep their backs straight. The residents of Albert Square seeming to be under the impression that the big Parisian event of last week was Caff and Phil's marital breakup: one great soap failing to acknowledge another. My groans of embarrassment when a current affairs programme used "Candle in the Wind" for filler music turning to moans of astonishment at the news that Elton will be singing it at Westminster Abbey today.

And every way you turn, addled iconography: the tokens of remembrance building up against the railings have the feel of the Mater Dolorosa offerings of a Maltese Easter. Photographs of Diana, crucifixes draped about the sides in rosarial offering. A picture of Marilyn Monroe. Another of the Mona Lisa. Tucked beneath a posy of pinks, a baseball cap. Blown-up colour photocopies of That Playing Card, another, with I'm sure no irony intended, of the Tarot Empress. Among the piles of lilies and teddy bears, a Minnie Mouse doll. Saint, artist's model or Disney character? Only time will tell.

And, amidst the iconography, while huge numbers of people attempt to invent the holy figure that our religions have so singularly failed to bring alive for us in the past couple of generations, the real character is already disappearing. Amidst the welter of "one of us" "Queen of Hearts", "genuine gift of healing", "she loved everybody" cliche, the tirelessly run and re-run footage of laughing, leggy, glittery womanhood, there has hardly been a mention of the not-very-bright, manipulative self-pity that paraded itself as often as the "if we hug each other enough we can heal the world" Dianic philosophy. Her panacea of "giving love, for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month" is being returned by the bucketload.

And maybe it's just what the country needs. Maybe, in the manner of her death and the footnote in history that this mass expression of grief will become, she will have contributed a lasting good far greater than any of her sentient photocalls.

Nations, to feel the cohesion of their own uniqueness, need bouts of national sorrowing as much as national celebration, and more than half the population of this country is too young to have experienced the last united weepfest.

We'll gather round our tellies today like we did for the great wedding, and the catharsis, though it comes from another source, will be much the same. A shame, though, that we feed our common emotions on such a blighted life. In her Panorama interview, Diana said that "the British people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels".

Poignant, really, that no-one managed to do the same, individually, for her.