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08 September 1997

The lonely crowd

Peter Ray mingled with the mourners in the Mall

'The harvest is over, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.'

These words from the book of Jeremiah came to mind as I walked through Green Park in the sunny September morning on the day they buried Saint Diana. I have never experienced the peculiar tranquillity of that early morning before and I may never again. Thousands of people walked and waited like me and all of us were quiet; we were in the centre of London but there was almost no traffic noise. We were there to witness an important international spectacle and we waited for it expectant, calm, polite.

The crowd was predominantly West End. The monarchy's traditional East End following was there but they were more than matched by the 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: some Union and St George's flags but not many. The symbols for this occasion were the floral tributes and many people brought flowers to add to the thousands already outside the palaces. Also noticeably absent was black clothing. I suppose that the very casual dress adopted by most people is testimony to the princess's celebrated informality. But it also suggested to me a profound uncertainty. At the funerals of people we know and love we still generally wear black. Why were so few of us in black? Some people wore black ribbons or armbands, though only a small minority.

But probably the most important and surprising absentees given the media coverage I had witnessed during the previous week 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, or just not grieving or mourning very much. The mood was strangely familiar, something like a crowd at a festival or a fairground where all the acts or rides have been taken away. Like the determined funsters we are, only trying not to have fun. Apparently benign, relaxed and curious but also blank, uncertain and unfocused.

Sombre and dignified it was not. I do not mean that we were raucous or consciously disrespectful. I mean that whatever we were, we never quite made it to sombre or dignified. To be sombre or dignified you need precisely the element of formality which was missing. This was driven home to me standing outside St James' palace just before the princes lined up for the procession. As we waited, a woman played a radio quite loudly. It was tuned to the commentary on the cortege passing through Hyde Park. Initially 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 radio commentator on a state occasion added precisely the sombre and dignified mood that we could not quite manage unaided. Even the calm broke down completely in my section of the crowd when the princes appeared. Japanese tourists climbed on to fences and giggled as they fell off; a Geordie dosser, Special Brew in hand, gave his mates a running commentary in tones that were anything but sombre, and almost loud enough for their royal highnesses themselves to have listened to; cameras were everywhere raised above heads. The hubbub increased as people scrambled to keep up with the cortege, a child whined that she couldn't see, a tourist talked excitedly on his mobile describing the scene to the folks back home.

As the bulk of the crowd turned away once the short procession had passed, unsure what to do next, a journalist loudly dictated his copy of the events they had just witnessed into his mobile. He trotted out the 'sombre' and 'dignified' cliches 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 reported from there. People stopped short to look at him with distaste for a moment before moving on. He had reminded us momentarily of what we knew anyway - that the real funeral of Princess Diana, the sombre and dignified one, was taking place in the media and we were just the extras, the raw material from which it was being edited together.

The crowd began to break up, some remaining at the barriers for the coffin's return journey, a few making to leave, most just slowly walking up and down the Mall's wide and sunny pavements. I joined the many people now taking in the huge floral tribute by the walls of St James. A gay couple stood silently holding hands - one burning incense, the other reading from a book of pagan writings. A few people hugged each other or sat in rather self-conscious contemplation, some read newspapers, most just walked and looked.

Even if, like me, you are nauseated by the obsessive mawkish tenderness of contemporary public ritual you would have to have the proverbial heart of stone not to be moved by these tributes when you first see them in the raw. There is a reality here that the media cannot see, or does not yet want to see. But it takes a while to work out what it is, what these tributes symbolise so powerfully.

As a public ritual they are just not British. The rows and rows of flowers, the photographic image of the martyr repeated everywhere, the candles and the incense all carry with them a whiff of the Ganges, of a New Age image of the East. There is something in common with the Orthodox and the Catholic but these are decisively not Protestant memorials. That is why it was so weird to see the head of the Church of England inspecting them as if she were on a visit overseas and why she looked so weird while doing it. Perhaps in part they mourn the failed national traditions that they replaced at this occasion of state.

The sentimental personal messages I found hard to read. They turned my stomach. These are American in origin and contain some of 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 massed along the palace wall told an important truth about our Americanised society. The peculiar sadness and melancholy power of these tributes derives from the element that decisively marks them out from the Eastern rituals of our imagination - the cellophane wrapping. Almost nobody removes their flowers from the wrapping. There is something very striking about these tributes still labelled by Sainsbury and Tescos and all the rest. To remove the wrapping would be to lose the personal character of your tribute by dissipating it in the mass. And yet are we not supposed to be coming together here? Seen from a distance all together (as in the aerial photographs in the press) these tributes amount to a sea of cellophane. Melancholy certainly, but blank, symbolising what exactly?

On the surface these tributes represent a nation united in grief, but in their physical form they seem to symbolise our separateness, a separateness that in some way Diana was martyred to. The thousands who like to believe that they knew Diana personally, when they could not have done, only give voice to the reality in which they are not sure what it means to know each other. The tributes symbolised the crowds who laid them and looked at them, lonely crowds in which people's efforts to ritualise their togetherness in grief only thinly disguise the real absence of communal feeling. But it was this lack of community that was more difficult to see at the 'real' funeral of Diana, patron saint of the New Britain, the funeral I watched on video later.

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