Of all the dubious pursuits the nation enjoys, the car boot sale remains the most mystifying

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Yes, I had a pleasant holiday, before the news broke, much of it spent staring at the North Sea as it crashed and boomed around the freezing but exhilarated children, and traipsing along the shingle dunes as they slithered beneath my feet. Having only the other day stood on Bondi Beach - so obligingly wide, so sun-kiss'd, so deliciously custardly yellow, so free of pebbles and rocks and things that make your feet bleed - I wondered about the odd masochism of the British en fete, the way they take their pleasures so grimly. The yachters, the polo players, the winter footballers, the long-distance cyclists, the pot-holers and bog-snorkellers ... Brits, especially posh ones, are never happier than when they're doing something with grey skies overhead, grey water below, and lots of nasty breezes and bad light somewhere in the middle, as if enjoying their own resilience.

Of all the dubious pursuits the nation enjoys, the car boot sale remains the most mystifying. I have traipsed around maybe a dozen fields, from Hampshire to Harpurhey, listlessly inspecting the remaindered LPs of forgotten pop groups (Blodwyn Pig, Splodgenessabounds), the no-longer-exactly-5,000- piece jigsaws of Renoir prints, the Goblin Teasmades and other redundant labour-saving devices, the 50p-the-lot writings of Augustine Birrell and AG Street, the bendy lamps and chipped decanters and dull etchings of Yoxford High Street in 1870 ...

Never again, I decided some months ago. Then last week, becalmed in a traffic jam of Iraqi proportions on the A12, I discovered a sign announcing "Stately Boot Sale" and, in holiday mood, decided to follow the traffic through the gates. It was just what it promised - a junk shop in a field, where the upper classes, rather than hoi polloi, were flogging their unloved domestic detritus. It was in the grounds of Glemham Hall, and the stallholders were - by invitation only - the owners of local stately homes and country estates.

It was quite a spectacle. Raj-style hammocks swayed in the breeze. Aristocratic types in tweeds sipped sherry at noon, offered each other smokes ("Care for a Havana? Only small ones, I'm afraid") and looked a little mortified at being briefly associated with Trade.

For an hour we drifted round the exhibits, wondering if an antique brass coal scuttle (with original shovel) could possibly be worth pounds 300, no matter what its provenance. A silk-lined travelling vanity case with elasticated inner pockets, once a necessity while voyaging on the Queen Mary, was apparently a snip at pounds 50. Gradually one's expectations of finding a compete set of Sevres dinner plates for a fiver dwindled. So did the level of trade. Elderly rusting claymores lay unclaimed on the groaning trestles. Sweat-stained Ascot binoculars were held to middle-class eyes and discarded as uselessly weak. By the time we left, one thing was clear: upper-class junk is just the same as anybody else's junk. More interesting perhaps, more expensive certainly, but just as un-buyable - even at knock-down prices in a field in Suffolk.

Diana's death is everywhere. People who would normally leave each other with a "cheers" and a wave of fingers now say, "You take care driving home, OK?" Taxi passengers, looking at the horizon advancing towards them, consider their mortality and sniff the air for alcohol fumes. Round every corner there are echoes, allusions, whispers and bathetic chimes of this extraordinary loss. Audiences at Rowan Atkinson's movie Bean, hoping to find something to cheer them up, hear instead Burt Reynolds say, "I know nothing about modern art - I can't tell Picasso from a car crash," and flinch.

More professional worries are being felt by several publications who, failing to foresee the events of August 31, had written disobliging or saucy pieces about the Princess and Dodi Al Fayed. Half a dozen of them appeared, by grisly coincidence, on the morning her death was reported. Diana's face adorned the Sunday Times's "News Review" - not as a tribute but to illustrate a piece on the emptiness of her life by psychiatrist Oliver James. "I'm told she and Dodi are made for each other," wrote the charming Sir Bernard Ingham in the Express on Sunday, "both having more brass than brains."

And now a whole scramble of damage limitation has started. In attempts to spare the country' s feelings, BBC producers have been combing through recordings of plays and stories, excising any mention of the word "princess". And umpteen monthly magazines, running their usual diet of Diana stories, have been rushing to make changes in their forthcoming issues. A friend at Watmough's, the huge Europe-wide printer of glossy magazines from Hello! to the colour supplements, reports a recent cacophony of phone calls from embarrassed editorial departments - most egregiously from GQ magazine, now edited by the wholesome James Brown (formerly of loaded). GQ's new issue features a laddish fantasy about "shagging Di senseless" on the Virgin Island of Necker. How uproarious it must have seemed last week.

As Buckingham Palace finalises arrangements for the biggest funeral since that of Sir Winston Churchill, it is interesting to note how royals of earlier times greeted the prospect. Leafing through Dickens's Collected Journalism, I came across an extraordinary list of funerary requirements, made by the Dowager Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, who died in 1849. "I die in all humility," she wrote, "knowing well that we are all alike before the Throne of God, and I request, therefore, that my mortal remains be conveyed to the grave without any pomp or state.

"I particularly desire not to be laid out in state, and the funeral to take place by daylight; no procession; the coffin to be carried by sailors to the chapel.

"I die in peace, and wish to be carried to the tomb in peace, and free from the vanities and pomp of this world. I request not to be dissected, nor embalmed; and desire to give as little trouble as possible."

Dickens, who abhorred big Victorian funerals, greeted this frugality with enthusiasm. Heaven knows what Diana would have made of it, nor what instructions she would herself have left, had she envisaged leaving any. She would assuredly never in her wildest dreams have come up with anything resembling the Homeric scenes that will mark her passing on Saturday.