Diana 1961-1997: The commentators - Nobody knew where to put the flower s

Yesterday saw the nation casting around for new rituals to replace the old religious mechanisms for coping with grief

There is something about sudden and violent death which elevates a sad event into a mythic one. It may well be that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, will assume that peculiar status accorded to the deaths of John F Kennedy and John Lennon: that everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news.

Certainly Britain seemed to come to a halt yesterday morning. Phone calls were made across the nation. There were tears at breakfast tables. Cars pulled over to the side of the road to listen to news bulletins on radio stations which had substituted sombre classical music for their usual pop. BBC Radio gave over Radios 2,3,4 and 5 to a simultaneous continuous news broadcast. Later in the day major sporting fixtures were cancelled or preceded by a two-minute silence. Politicians suspended campaigning on the Scottish and Welsh devolution votes, and the Prime Minister announced he was cancelling all engagements for today.

In part, it was a ghastly melodrama. There was a horrible aptness about the fast and brutal end to a life which had seemed to be lived like a far-fetched Hollywood movie. She had lived by the media, and now had been killed by it. Surgeons opened the chest of the woman who had spectated at heart surgery and massaged her heart with their hands in a vain and desperate battle to save her. The woman whose fame was built upon her beauty had ended with her finely-honed body crushed - and yet Diana had emerged from the fatal car crash with her face almost unscathed.

But the welter of words which followed showed there was much more to it than that. The BBC radio presenters kept each interview mercifully short (unlike the cable TV people, who painfully milked their subjects to the point of mawkish embarrassment). In such situations, however, most questions appear crass. Yet though the odd tribute seemed perfunctory or formulaic, there was something profoundly personal about most responses. John Major luminously spoke of Diana as "an imperishable icon". Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton were all clearly deeply moved by the death of this young woman.

For Diana was to the nation, it became clear, not a royal figurehead but a real person. "We all felt we had a psychic relationship with her," said the Queen's biographer Ben Pimlot. It was not just the recognisably modern world of baseball caps and leggings into which she had dragged the tweedy royals. Here was a warm woman who hugged people in need, took their hands and looked into their eyes. Though she had been denied comfort herself, she wanted to comfort others. She reached out from her vulnerability to others in pain, and made her vulnerability her strength, said the Archbishop of Canterbury. "She did everything from the heart," said her friend Rosa Monckton, "her heart ruled her head, which is why, I think, she was so often misunderstood."

It is also why she was so readily, and often uncritically, loved - as was shown by the messages which members of the public left on flowers by royal residences. "Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint," said one. "The nation has thrown away a jewel more precious than its whole empire," said another.

But perhaps hyperbole is only a sign that in these situations words are not enough. When the Royal Family arrived in a convoy of black cars at Crathie Church near Balmoral, some commentators spoke of them pulling together and putting on a brave face. That was wrong. What they did was not a duty so much as a refuge. At times of crisis, when emotions are raw and words are empty, there is consolation in ritual and solace in the repetition of the familiar words of the prayer: "We remember all those who, at this time, need to know your presence, all those whose lives are marked by tragedy and grief who need to know more than human comfort and friendship. We pray for our Queen and her family, and for the Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry. May they be aware of your love. May they be sure of your love."

In our secular age, most people have lost their conscious understanding of this. Religion is a thing of the past. But the instinct remains. In part, the formula of media questions and answering tributes is a new such ritual. So is the urge by the public to find a tangible way of expressing their grief by turning up at a royal residence even if nobody is there. They need somewhere to go and any site will do.

So there were carpets of flowers laid at Diana's official residence, Kensington Palace, at the Prince of Wales's home at Highgrove, at Balmoral and at Holyroodhouse, as well as at the Spencer ancestral home, Althorp House in Northamptonshire. And people were not content to go when the flowers had been laid, but silently stood, in their hundreds, staring dumbly for hours on end.

Some eyebrows were raised pedantically over the playing of the national anthem, since Diana was not strictly speaking royal. But that ritual too - over shots of the Union flag fluttering defiantly at half-mast, or over a photograph of the Princess simply captioned with the dates 1961-1997 - spoke more eloquently than did photographs of the black Mercedes with its roof caved in near the Eiffel tower.

Yet there was a terrible ambivalence about it all. The female presenter on GMTV at 8am looked drawn and genuinely tear-stained, yet over the news the station showed fuzzy, snatched long-lens shots of Di and Dodi in a speedboat - the kind of photographs that caused the Princess so much pain in her life.

We should not pass judgement. We all consumed her: Diana craved our love as a self-validation; some of the public gave it, others of us merely showed mocking glee when she was caught by photographers visiting a psychic in a helicopter. Only when something goes wrong does the British public become ashamed of its prurience and a collective feeling of shame ensue.

The ritual continues. After the shock comes the anger. "I would say that I always believed the press would kill her in the end," Charles Spencer told reporters gathered outside his home in South Africa. "But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case ... It would appear that every proprietor and every editor of any publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana's image, has blood on his hands today."

He was not alone. Some photographers were forced to leave Kensington Palace yesterday because of public hostility. At Balmoral, one mourner shouted to reporters: "You as good as killed that poor woman. I hope you are proud of yourselves." And when journalists accompanying Prince Charles arrived at the hospital in Paris where the Princess died, patients and hospital staff jeered and shouted "murderers".

Next will come the row over press and privacy. It will come to nothing. France has among the strongest privacy laws in the world, but Diana was a globalised commodity. It is said that the paparazzo who got the first Dodi and Di pic made pounds 3m from it. The market rules. The politicians know that. But they know that yesterday was not the day to acknowledge it. Bill Clinton accepted as much when questioned on the need for tougher privacy laws. "I think it is better right now if we let a little time pass," he said, "let this event and the people involved be honoured and grieved. Let us respect the moment." On days such as yesterday, that is all anyone can do.

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