"An angel amongst fools" -- tribute on flowers on the railings outside Westminster Abbey
"This is a ceremony created by the people, a day when principles of protocol are falling like ninepins" -- John Mortimer, writing in the Evening Standard, Saturday 6 September 1997
Sunday 31 August 1997, in the early hours of the morning, I turned on the BBC World Service News and heard the tragic events as they began to unfold. A car had crashed in a tunnel running alongside the River Seine in Paris. Inside that car was the Princess of Wales, Dodi al-Fahed, the driver Henri Paul and Dodi's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. Dodi and the driver were reported as killed, Princess Diana and the bodyguard seriously injured. There appeared to be a news blackout on the exact condition of the Princess of Wales.
Later in the morning I awoke to simultaneous wall-to-wall news coverage on all radio channels - the Princess of Wales was dead. Even though I had heard the news in the early hours of the morning I was stunned, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The news readers and commentators couldn't hide the emotion in their voices. One week later, I still found it difficult to grasp the reality of the situation. It was only in the following weeks that the reality finally began to sink in.
That morning there was no one about, little traffic, it was as though everyone was too stunned to move. That day, events all across the country were cancelled, including major sporting events. The only major exception was a major Arms Fair being held at Farnborough, the same venue as the Farnborough International Airshow. Invites had been extended to some of the most repressive regimes in the world, vast sums had been outlayed. It was decided to go ahead, business as usual - a fitting tribute from the Defence Industry to a person who will be last remembered for her highly successful campaign against landmines.
As the week unfurled the public response was incredible and one couldn't help but be moved by that response. People poured into London to pay their last respects, laying flowers outside St James's Palace (where the body of Diana lay), Buckingham Palace (home of the Queen) and Kensington Palace (home of Diana). People queued for hours outside St James's Palace to sign books of condolence. The books had to be increased in number until they eventually numbered 43, the maximum that could be accommodated in the available space. And still the people queued.
It was as though the whole country had been gripped by mass hysteria, and yet there was no hysteria. Nor was the phenomena restricted to London, it occurred the world over. In Paris, possibly gripped by a collective guilt, extra books of condolence had to be flown in to the British Embassy to meet the demand. Meanwhile in London the numbers grew. By Friday, the number of floral tributes left outside the three Palaces was estimated at one million. Flowers were having to be shipped into the country so great was the demand.
There was also a great degree of hypocrisy on display. News-agents who displayed posters in their windows expressing their respect and sorrow whilst at the same time their counters were groaning under the weight of tabloid newspapers on sale, newspapers that dripped with the blood of a slain princess.
Who was Diana?
To many she was a woman at ease with children and the elderly, able to bring a little happiness into their lives, but not capable of anything more intellectually demanding.
It is all too easy to criticise someone of privilege, wealth and position for helping the poor and disadvantaged. There is no doubt that Diana was a skilled manipulator, but even if that was all there was to her, she was clearly doing some good.
There is no reason why someone can not be a figure of glamour and be concerned at real issues. Though we all find that concept difficult to accept.
Diana often said that all she wanted to do was bring a little bit of happiness into peoples lives, to be a Queen of Peoples Hearts was all she asked of the people. Politicians of 'realistic' persuasion criticised her for being naive and too simplistic, the 'real' world wasn't like that. And when she became too realistic, as with her campaign against landmines, they criticised her for meddling in politics.
Whether her motives were real or a well managed public relations exercise the people she met were clearly touched by her presence. Her friends said she was hurt by the criticism and the press forever trying to bring her down. The public were moved and deeply touched as evidenced by the reaction to her death.
A spokesman for a disability group probably spoke for many when he said that Diana was the first member of the Royal Family to have got down on her haunches, looked them in the eye and treated them as equals.
Who could not have failed to have been moved by the pictures of her a few weeks before her death with her arms around Elton John comforting him at the at the funeral of Gianni Versace.
Was there anything wrong in wanting to bring a little happiness into people's lives? Maybe as human beings this is the most important gift we can deliver. Who are the people most respected the world over, not those of realism, but Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana - people of humanity. Does this not send a clear message to the politicians of the world? If not then surely the mass public response to the death of Diana sends a very clear signal.
How can the death of one person, no matter how famous have effected so many people, so profoundly? I know not the answer, only that there must have been something there that none of us realised and only began to sense following her death.
The week drew to an end with the Funeral of Diana to be held in Westminster Abbey on Saturday morning. The evening before, the body of Diana was moved to Kensington Palace, to be conveyed to Westminster Abbey on a gun carriage in the morning. On the Friday, Prince Charles and the young Princes Harry and William came out and talked to the crowds outside St James's Palace. All appeared to draw strength and comfort from their mutual grief.
On the morning of Saturday the body of Diana took its last journey from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey. So quiet, the only sound to be heard the clop clop clop of the horses' hooves on the road as they pulled the gun carriage on which lay the body of Diana. An attractive American called Debra, with a very sexy drawl, commented that as she waited outside Queen's Gate for the cortege to pass so quiet was it all around that you could have heard a pin drop.
The service was deeply moving, from a simple poem read by one of Diana's sisters, an eloquent reading by Tony Blair of a passage from the Bible, a new rendering of 'Candle in the Wind' by Elton John, specially rewritten in memory of his friend Diana, to a tribute from the heart by Diana's brother the Earl of Spencer, and finally a piece by John Taverner.
The minutes silence, observed by millions across the country if not the world, I am shamed to say was rudely broken in Farnborough, where there was not a sound but the wind rustling in the trees, by an executive jet flying into Farnborough Airfield, the same airfield that all week had hosted an Arms Fair and in a months time was due to host COPEX where instruments of torture would be on sale to the world's most repressive regimes, honoured guests of the UK government.
Following the funeral, the body of Diana was taken to Althorp Hall, the Spencer family home in Northamptonshire, for a private family ceremony and burial. A few days later, Earl Spencer was to show a woodland glade strewn with flowers in the middle of which was buried Diana. The flowers were some of the many left outside the gates that Earl Spencer had personally rowed across the lake to the island on which Diana was buried.
The tribute by Earl Spencer was reported in the press as bitter. This showed just how out of touch they were with reality as everyone bar the press made the point of agreeing with every word. Even at the private service the media showed how out of touch they were by breaching the air exclusion zone that had been created to give the family the privacy and dignity they deserved. The same media that made Diana's life a misery and finally hounded her to her death.
In the afternoon I wandered the Mall and stood outside Buckingham Palace. I looked at the many floral tributes and messages. Each one was deeply moving. It was as though each author had discovered some inner eloquence. I had never seen so many flowers, the scent kept wafting across. Outside Buckingham Palace I left one solitary flower from my garden, an Evening Primrose which somehow seemed appropriate.
So many people, not just people, they even brought their dogs. Why were they there, why was I there? I was drawn, many people I spoke with said the same. A couple of American girls I met had flown in just for the funeral.
In the evening I made my way to Westminster Abbey then on to Kensington Palace.
Outside Westminster Abbey, more flowers, attached to all the railings, laid on the grass. What I noticed was not just flowers people had left but very eloquent arrangements of flowers sent from all over the world.
Outside Kensington Palace Gardens flowers lined the railings. Noticeable were some flowers from Iraqis, the exact words I regret to say I can not remember, but something along the lines of a ray of humanity had been extinguished that had given them hope. Also were messages praising her work on landmines. Inside the park I could see many candles flickering.
Once inside the park, I found flowers around all the trees. Radiating out from one tree, flowers to the depth of ten to twenty feet. In amongst the flowers candles were burning and flickering in the breeze. The only light, apart from some emergency lighting to one side was the light from the candles. Where candles had blown out people stooped to relight them. I too stooped to relight the candles and helped others to relight candles, it somehow seemed the right thing to do. Flowers were not just around the trees, they were also in the trees. In one tree someone had placed wind chimes which quietly sang in the breeze.
Before one tree someone had placed a diary, open at the week Diana met her death. The entry for Sunday simply said WHY?, scrawled in big bold letters.
Slowly I drifted to one end of the park, where I became aware a large crowd had gathered. Making my way slowly through the crowd I found myself in front of Kensington Palace. There in front of the palace gates was what I can only describe as a sea of flowers, so vast was its extent. It lapped at the palace gates and at my feet. Slowly the sea was growing as more and more people were adding flowers. The people laying flowers were lost in their own thoughts, as was everyone, tears slowly rolling down their faces. The flowers moved in the cool night breeze, the breeze carrying their scent to the crowd. No one who stood before this great sea, a sea that carried nothing other than the scent of the flowers from which it was composed stood unmoved.
I spent an hour or so in the park. After the hustle and bustle of Kensington High Street the park was peaceful and quiet, the only sound a hushed murmur from the many people and a quiet hum from the generators for the lighting. There was a quiet serenity. More than that the place was like a shrine and seemed to radiate what can only be described as a spirituality. People were sad, many had tears in their eyes, but it was not a place of grief. It was a place of meditation in the presence of some very strong overwhelming spirit, so strong it was tangible. Everyone there felt it and was moved by it.
Leaving the park I realised that a fitting memorial to Diana would be for her work to continue. Prince William appears to be his Mother's son. Earl Spencer in his tribute to Diana pledged to his sister that he would see that her work would continue through her sons and that he would see that they would be brought up as she would have wished. We can only hope he succeeds.
Time is too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice,
but for those who love, time is eternity.
-- read by Lady Jane Fellowes at the funeral of Diana
Note Thursday 4 December 1997, UK announced that it was signing the treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines. Tribute was paid to Princess Diana for the part she had played.
Note January 1998, it was announced that Althorp Hall, the Spencer ancestral home, would be open to the public for a few weeks each summer. Admission by pre-booked tickets only.
Note A memorial concert is to be held at Althorp Hall on 27 June 1998.
Note Monday 9 March 1998, the Princess Diana Memorial Trust announced the first tranche of money to be awarded, among the major beneficiaries was to be the victims of landmines.
Note Saturday 25 April 1998, Earl Spencer called for the immediate winding up of the Princess Diana Memorial Fund in light of the damage it was causing to the reputation of his sister.
Note Wednesday 1 July 1998, after months of foot dragging Tony Blair announced at Prime Minister's Question Time that his government would be introducing to Parliament in the following week a Bill to ratify the Landmines Treaty. The day was Diana's birthday, had she lived she would have been 37.
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