Come and look: mourning Diana
Posted on 31 August 2012, 0:36
I wrote this piece early in September 1997 for just me to read. Fifteen years on, I think it’s a blog entry from the days before blogs. So here it is now. For the pictures I took of the scenes outside Kensington Palace, see my Flickr gallery, Mourning Diana, 1997.
4 September 1997
Tonight, Roey and I went down to Kensington Palace to see how the crowds are mourning the death of Princess Diana.
The first sign of the extraordinary is the traffic – our car forced to a proper funeral’s speed as we creep past Kensington Gardens in search of a parking space. And then, once we are parked, the crowds. It’s 11 o’clock at night, but the pavements are as busy as the last shopping day before Christmas – with one great difference: these crowds are quiet and subdued, sombre and thoughtful, and they hasten, like us, across the grass beneath the shadowed trees towards the Palace.
We pass a tree which is surrounded by flowers and candles and pictures of the Princess. Some of the bunches of flowers have been cradled between the branches of the tree, while others stand against the trunk. But ahead of us, an incredible scent – the smell of thousands and thousands of late summer flowers – calls us on. As we approach the great railings in front of the Palace, we see people bowing low to light candles, tenderly placing bunches of flowers and notes of love and affection on the ground or between the ironwork. I stop to look at this, but then Roey calls from a few feet away: ‘Come and look…’
What I see next takes my breath away. None of the press pictures had prepared me for this. Roey is standing with hundreds of others at the edge of a crowd barrier which surrounds the Palace gates. At their feet is a sea of flowers, an ocean of petals, sweeping across the grass in front of the Palace, lapping up against the railings, waves and waves of flowers in their wrappers, each with a card, or a piece of paper, or a loved photograph, and on them written tiny notes, or scraps of poetry, or longer tributes… And here and there is a teddy bear, a pink bow around its neck, or a flickering candle, or a child’s coloured drawing, or a balloon clinging to the railings.
And the people just stand there, young and old, parents carrying tiny children, older couples, groups of young people, gazing silently on this sight which they have never ever seen in their lives before. They stand before this great offering and outpouring of love for someone who never knew that this was how they felt, because they never knew it themselves, until now. And as I stand there, trying to understand what my eyes are seeing, I think: if flowers and tears and love could ever bring someone back from the dead, then this is where it would happen.
Beyond the gates are the darkened windows of Kensington Palace, the black trees, the cloudy sky, and a light breeze lifts a few of the flower wrappers.
I lean on the railings, numbed by this display of grief, and a note at my feet catches my eye. ‘Forever our Queen of Hearts’. And it is only the first. We walk around the edge of the vast crowd and find the queue of people standing in line waiting to add their flowers to the great sea of colour and scent, two policemen gently directing them.
And here we find other trees surrounded by flickering candles and with flowers peeping from between their branches, and around them are people tending the candles and laying down the flowers with great devotion and care. We discover park benches covered in lilies and roses and irises. We see playing cards – the Queen of Hearts – pinned to bouquets, the simple word ‘Diana’ written across their top edge. We walk along an ancient brick wall, 100 metres at least, with a seamless carpet of flowers at its feet.
We stop before a shrine assembled on top of roadside waste bin, the icons of Diana beneath a canopy of cellophane, covered with a sprinkling of rain, the prayers on scraps of paper heartfelt, the candles and nightlights winking as religiously as in any church. We see simple words: ‘Diana, we miss you’... And beautiful words: ‘A light has been snatched from this world to shine more brightly in the next’... And words which are extravagant in grief: ‘You should have been Queen of England, but now you are a Queen in Heaven…’
And as we read some of these, we cry. And as we read others, we are amazed. And as we cry, we walk, walking across the peaceful grass in this place of flowers and tears, in this place of stunning emotion, in this place where English grief finds such unexpectedly beautiful expression.