Comfort of strangers

Related Topics
Again and again this week people - almost always women - have told me the same story. It is about how they felt themselves compelled to go down to Kensington Palace. Some laid flowers, one or two signed the book of condolence. They knelt down for a moment, or just stood there and had their moment of silence, talked a little with strangers doing the same thing - and then went home to their children, their pets and their husbands.

But these were not avid Royalists, hysterics, or even Mills & Boon sentimentalists, looking desperately for emotional contact. Some of them I count as being among the most rational and level-headed people I know. So what force co-opted them into the National Grief?

Listening to their tales I was reminded of the characters from Spielberg's Close Encounters, who are drawn to the strangely shaped, isolated mountain in the American desert. The original lonely impulse to travel there surprises each one of them, they do not really understand the significance of the place, and they certainly do not know - most of them - that this is the chosen rendezvous for an encounter that is both historic and magical. But as they come closer, and discover others making the same inexplicable pilgrimage, they are comforted. They enjoy a contact, a common experience that they hardly knew they needed; a solidarity grows up among folk who hardly used to speak to their next-door neighbours. "It was really lovely to see everyone all together and all feeling the same," said a woman who had attended a special service in Canterbury Cathedral on Thursday night. Today millions will take part in the final stages of the collective action - and it is virtually impossible not to feel moved by it.

It is enormously tempting to describe this as some kind of mass pathology. Media shrinks can explain some of it in terms of the stages of the grieving process, or of hysteria. "I'd say, clinically, it's all a bit odd," was the reaction of Oliver James on Wednesday's Newsnight, before he was slapped down by the presenter for having said precisely what he was invited on the programme to say. And certainly the "sightings" of Diana's face in a portrait of Charles II haven't helped.

But I really don't think it is necessary to reach for our Freud when trying to understand what is going on here. We are not witnessing any frenzies; there is no flagellation, no persecution of the Jews, no rending of clothing or attacks on minorities. Rather, there is an enormous desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, which links our quotidian experiences and emotions to those of others. It is - in a sense - the obverse of road rage, that anti-civil phenomenon born of paranoia and isolation. It is the excuse for smiling at perfect strangers, for crossing the boundaries of silence and suspicion that govern much of our lives.

It isn't new. In a minor way it happened very recently, when even those who care very little for football suddenly sported the cross of St George and knew the words to "Three Lions on a Shirt". Those who were alive for VE Day - when men and women fell into each other's arms all over Britain - can testify to other great moments of collective identification. We need to do it. Competition, continuous striving one against the other, or group against group, never was the whole story of humanity - particularly not for women.

That's why my usually monosyllabic African mini-cab driver told me - in a sudden burst of eloquence last night - that he would be standing on the route of the cortege, his young son's hand held tight, so that he too would be "a part of history". He, like millions of his fellow citizens, many of whom will never have met or spoken to a man such as he, will be together today, exercising power in the most unaggressive manner. You don't have to buy the hype to see that there is much here that is good.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas