WHEN BRITS COULD NOT CARRY ON: A DIARY
Never could I have imagined I would be standing on The Mall in London, dry- eyed among a million Britons in floods of tears. Brits! You know — the ones who keep calm and always carry on. It wasn’t my first clue that the British reputation for being stiff in the upper lip had crumbled after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on Aug. 31, 1997. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Elton John warbling a hastily rewritten Candle in the Wind in Westminster Abbey? No way it could happen in the hallowed space where a mighty choir is meant to sing Handel’s Coronation Anthems.
The ninth Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother Charles, in his eulogy hurling imprecations at the media and some seething smacks at the royal family — even as his godmother the queen listened from a few feet away? Unthinkable.
Then the roar erupted the instant he was through: multitudes, weeping, applauding, cheering. The roar thundered on the public speakers, whipped down The Mall and around Horse Guards Parade, along Whitehall and into the abbey. Then, incredibly, I could hear the rumble of applause in the abbey from what sounded like most of the 1,900 guests.
Diana’s death undid the British. At least temporarily, they let loose all their sorrow and shock, their guilt and rage and regret. They mourned, loudly and unashamedly. Their beautiful princess, just 36, was gone. The most famous woman in the world — a superstar whose tribulations dominated daily headlines for 16 years — was snuffed
out in a commonplace tragedy: a car crash.
The whole world mourned: An estimated 2.5 billion people watched her semi- royal funeral — a “unique funeral for a unique person,” the palace called it at the time, proving that the royals, at least, remained the undisputed masters of the transcendent ceremonial flourish.
When the British awoke on Sunday, Aug. 31, to the horrifying news that Diana had died in a hospital about 4 a. m. Paris time, the national nervous breakdown began. By Sunday evening, her body was flown back to Britain, accompanied by her stunned ex- husband, Prince Charles, and her two older sisters, who traveled to Paris on the royal jet to collect her.
There was rising hysteria in the streets and in the press. Neverbefore- seen public fury at the royal family and the queen — the beloved queen! — about what was initially interpreted as royal indifference. Demands that the monarch’s royal standard over Buckingham Palace be lowered in respect, despite the rules of protocol. Demands that there be a public and royal funeral, even though since her 1996 divorce, Diana was no longer royal and both the Spencers and the royal family sought privacy. Demands that the family, especially her sons, Prince William, 15, and Prince Harry, 12, grieve with their people.
“Show us you care!” screamed one tabloid headline. “Where is our queen? Where is her flag?” shouted another.
Carpets of flowers grew outside Diana’s home at Kensington Palace — so many that Britain had to import more from the Continent. People queued for up to eight hours to sign the condolence books at St. James’s Palace where her body lay.
It was a daily whirlwind of developments, most notably the queen capitulating to advice from Prince Charles and others to return to London, delivering an unprecedented live tribute speech to the nation, and bowing her head when the coffin passed her. London shut down on the day of the funeral, Sept. 6. All flights over the city were rerouted.
An estimated 1 million people lined the 3.5- mile funeral route in an eerie silence broken occasionally by keening sobs and the clip- clop of the horses drawing the gun carriage with her coffin draped with a royal flag. The envelope on top marked “Mummy” was heartbreaking, as was the march of her sons, her ex- husband, her former father- in- law, Prince Philip, and her brother behind the gun carriage.
Prince Harry and Prince William now say the march was traumatic for them, that no child should be forced or encouraged to participate in such a ritual. But at the time, many saw it as a royal tradition and a dignified gesture, providing visual reassurance for a worried nation that Diana’s sons were coping with the tragedy.
For her final journey home to her family’s 500- year- old Althorp House for burial, mourners lined the route and threw flowers on her hearse — so many that the driver had to stop to remove them. She was buried in private ( only eight family members were there) on a small island in the middle of an ornamental lake. She remains there to this day, the Lady of the Lake, safe at last from prying eyes and cameras.
Welsh Guards carry Diana’s casket, topped with the royal standard, out of Westminster Abbey after her funeral.
Walking behind the casket, from left, were Prince Philip, the queen’s husband; Diana’s elder son, Prince William; Charles, Earl Spencer, the princess’ brother; her younger son, Prince Harry; and Prince Charles, her ex- husband.