Comfort of strangers

Share
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea