Remembering Diana: What happened when millions of stiff upper lips trembled with grief

Remembering Diana: What happened when millions of stiff upper lips trembled with griefEntertainment

A look at what has happened to the rest of the major figures present on that day and in Diana’s life at the time of her death. Buzz60

Never did I imagine I’d 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 in the wake of the Aug. 31, 1997, death of Diana, Princess of Wales. 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 around me the instant he was through. Mouth agape, I looked at the multitudes standing near me, 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.  

I had to remain detached but I couldn’t believe it; I think the people around me couldn’t believe their own feelings. I thought, not for the first or last time: Who are these people showing all this public emotion — and what did they do with the reserved British I thought I knew?

Diana’s death undid them. 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 their daily headlines for 17 years — was snuffed out in the most commonplace of sudden deaths: a car crash in a traffic tunnel in Paris.

The whole world mourned: An estimated 2.5 billion peoplewatched 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 woke up 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.

I arrived in London around 10 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 1, on a red-eye from Washington-Dulles with other American journalists headed to cover the Big Story getting bigger by the minute. For the next nine days, our team of five hastily-assembled USA TODAY reporters scrambled to cover the aftermath of her death and her funeral — without laptops or smartphones, without even reliable mobile phones or service. Many USA TODAY editors didn’t even have email addresses at that time.

Plus, it was Labor Day weekend in the USA, so many staffers were off (including two of the three reporters stationed in our London bureau). I couldn’t get more than $200 in cash out of the ATM.  By the time I got to our somewhat decrepit London office in Leicester Square, the outlines of an unprecedented crisis were already visible.

There was rising hysteria in the streets and in the press. Never-before-seen public fury at the royal family and the queen  — the beloved queen! — about what initially appeared to be their indifference. Demands that the monarch’s royal standard rise over Buckingham Palace in respect, despite the rules of protocol. Demands there be a public and royal funeral, even though since her 1996 divorce, Diana was no longer royal and both her Spencer family and the royal family sought privacy. Demands that the family, especially her young sons, Prince William,15, and Prince Harry, 12, return to London from their Balmoral holiday palace in Scotland and 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 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; four books eventually grew to more than 40.

USA TODAY’s man in London at the time, Marco Della Cava, and I went down to St. James’s to interview people standing in a line snaking down The Mall. Most were in shock, many were teary but they were all patient. We filled up our notebooks with quotes, then dictated by cell phone to USA TODAY.

It was a daily whirlwind of head-snapping developments: Freshman Prime Minister Tony Blair memorably eulogizing “the people’s princess,” emerging from the tragedy with his reputation burnished and his political strength enhanced. The queen capitulating to advice from Prince Charles and Blair 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, Sept. 6, all flights over the city rerouted.

An estimated one 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 the princes — 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, I think most people, including myself, 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. And in a BBC interview, Harry said it was difficult but in hindsight, they’re glad they did it.

“Looking back on it now, I’m very glad I was part of it,” he said.

For her final journey home to her family’s 500-year-old Althorp House for burial, crowds of mourners lined the route (about 75 miles north of London) and threw flowers on her hearse — so many the driver had to stop before getting on the M-1 motorway to remove them from the windshield. She was buried in private (only eight  close family were there) on a small island in the middle of an ornamental lake on the estate. She remains there to this day, the Lady of the Lake, safe at last from prying eyes and cameras.

I went up there the day after the funeral, to see how Great Brington, a quintessential English hamlet near the estate, was coping with the crowds of pilgrims milling about in the village and outside the gates of the estate. With some relief, I sensed classic British self-control was returning, when I talked to a woman named Vera Wintle, who drove 45 minutes from Leicester to Althorp.  

“I had to come here to feel close to her, to know that she’s resting in a lovely place,” Wintle said. “Now I can go home and have a cup of tea and know that she’s been laid to rest and is at home.”         

 

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