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Mourning sickness

Blair's Britain AD - After Diana
Beware the rampant id
The lonely crowd
A tyrannical new religion
The new protocol
Tragic lives

The lonely crowd

Peter Ray

'The real funeral, the sombre and dignified one, was taking place on television and we just provided the rushes from which it was edited together'

We were in the centre of London but there was almost no traffic noise; we talked and smiled, even laughed, but we did it quietly, waiting politely to witness a historic spectacle. The monarchy's traditional East End following was there but they were easily matched by the West End rainbow coalition of twenty and thirtysomethings, students, professionals and tourists. There were rather more gay men than in a normal West End crowd, rather fewer blacks and Asians.

Noticeable by their absence were patriotic symbols. The symbols for this occasion were not Union flags but floral tributes. Also noticeably absent was black clothing. The crowd's casual dress was reported as testimony to Diana's celebrated informality. But it also suggested to me a profound uncertainty about exactly why we were there. After all, at the funerals of people we know and love we still generally wear black.

But perhaps the most surprising absentees were tears. Few people cried, even after the cortege had passed. Perhaps they were all cried out at the end of a traumatic week but I doubt it. Most present were just not grieving or mourning in the conventional sense. The mood was something like a crowd at a festival or a fairground where all the acts or rides have been taken away. Apparently benign and relaxed but also blank and unfocused.

Nobody was raucous or consciously disrespectful, but sombre and dignified it was not. To be sombre or dignified you need precisely the element of formality which was missing. This was driven home to me outside St James' Palace just before the princes lined up for the procession. A woman had her radio on loudly, tuned to the commentary on the cortege passing through Hyde Park. The thought of being at a cricket match came to mind and I wondered why the radio was not upsetting people, but then I realised that the intoning of the BBC commentator added the sombre and dignified mood that we could not quite manage unaided.

After the short procession passed, a journalist loudly dictating copy into his mobile trotted out the 'sombre' and 'dignified' clichés we had all become familiar with, but did not really describe what we had experienced just seconds before. He might as well have stayed in bed and dictated his copy from there. He had reminded us that the real funeral of Princess Diana, the sombre and dignified one, was taking place on television and we just provided the rushes from which it was edited together.

I joined the many people now taking in the huge floral tribute by the walls of St James'. It took a while to work out what these tributes symbolised so powerfully. As a public ritual they are just not British. The rows and rows of flowers, the photographs of the martyr repeated everywhere, the candles and the incense, all carried with them a whiff of the Ganges - a New Age image of the East. That is why it was so weird to see the head of the C of E inspecting them like she was on a visit overseas, and why she looked so weird while doing it. Perhaps these things mourned the failed national tradition that they replaced at this national occasion.

The sentimental personal messages reflected the falsehoods of the showbiz personality cults: the disturbing and bizarre sense of intimacy with the glamorous - who by definition are unavailable - and, in Diana's case, the camp inversion of values which revels in the romantic frustration and personal tragedy of a latter-day Judy Garland.

But the personal character of the tributes also told an important truth about our Americanised society. Almost nobody removed their flowers from the cellophane wrapping. To do so would be to lose the personal character of your tribute by dissipating it in the mass of flowers. On the surface these tributes represented a nation united in grief, yet they also seemed to symbolise the separateness of the crowds who laid them and looked at them; lonely crowds in which people's efforts to express their togetherness through ritualised grief only thinly disguised the real absence of communal feeling. The messages which showed many people convincing themselves that they knew Diana personally, are a frightening indication of how estranged they must feel from the people who really do live alongside them. This loneliness was more difficult to see at the real funeral of Diana, patron saint of the New Britain, the TV event I watched on video later.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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