Saturday, September 06, 1997

The Mourning Tour

Through sheer coincidence, I wound up in London during its most dramatic week since the V2 bombings.  And while I was originally slated to fly out Saturday morning, when the route of Diana's funeral procession was changed to go right past my hotel window, both on the way to the church and then again on the way out of London, I took it as a sign that I should stay for the event.

During my free time, I wandered to all of the important sights that were part of the drama:  Kennsington, Buckingham and St. James Palaces, Westminster Abbey, Harrod's, as well as the entire route of the cortege.  I saw the Queen, as well as the procession.  Truth be told, going in, I was prepared to be skeptical, even cynical.  But it wasn't that easy.  And so while there have been millions of words written and spoken about every aspect of that historic week, following are some random  notes that struck me as I watched and listened to events around me.

BUSINESSES TO BE IN:  Every fifth person seemed to be carrying flowers to leave somewhere along the route.  And if you owned a portable toilet in England, and hadn't rented it to the city for Saturday, you weren't even trying.  

GRIEVING IN THEIR OWN WAY:  Most stores had a picture of Diana and flowers with a simple message in their windows.  However, Armani, in the fashion district on New Bond Street, not only had the inevitable photo, but all of the mannequins had been dressed in black mourning clothes.

PEOPLE'S TRIBUTE:  In addition to all of the cards and letters attached to the thousands of floral displays, crowds were drawn to an artist named Julian Beever, who drew an eight foot, extremely lifelike portrait of the Princess on the sidewalk.

YOU'RE NOT IN NEW YORK:  Despite the millions of people in town for the funeral, and indeed, in the week leading up to it, there was a not a single souvenir for sale, save special editions of the newspapers.

SHE TOUCHED EVERYONE:  Walking down Oxford Street, the main shopping street in the city, I passed a group of skinheads, variously sporting 3 earrings in one ear,  7 in the other, a nose ring here, a pierced lip there, combat boots, black jeans, ripped tee shirts, etc.  They were using a video camera to record footage of themselves in front of the Diana portraits in the store widows.

DON'T FORGET OUR LOSS  Near St. James Palace, where people were lined up to sign the various books of condolences, Harrod's set up a refreshment station for free coffee, soda and cakes.

EVERYTHING MUST BE PERFECT: Traffic lights were removed anywhere on the parade route that they might obscure sight lines for the 90 plus television cameras that the BBC used .

ADVANCE GUARD:  The crowds were so dense at most places that people in the crowd couldn't see when something important was coming.  So they all learned to use the hundreds of photographers positioned at the highest points as telltales.  If the photogs started to look through their lenses, everybody knew to go to tiptoes and pay attention.

THE MONARCHY PRESERVED:  After paying her respects to the coffin at St. James, Queen Elizabeth and her husband started to walk among the people to thank them for coming.  As she started to walk toward her car, a wave of applause started to roll through the crowd.  An old lady standing near me starting yelling at those around, "Don't clap her!  Don't clap her!  She should have been here 4 days ago!"  But the crowd shouted her down.  One man put it neatly: "Don't clap her yourself.  God Save the Queen!"

WHERE SHE STOOD:   A cabby explained to me why the Brits liked Diana. "We're here"  He holds his hand low.  "The royals think they're up here."  He holds his hand high.  "They pushed Diana out, and now she's a lot closer to us."

WHO CAME WHEN:  On the night before the procession, I walked a good piece of the route.  Camped out at the barriers was an overwhelmingly young crowd... average age about 23.  It was a happening, like a rock concert.  But in the morning, older people and families appeared, raising the average age to over 35.

EACH IN HIS OWN WAY:  In one of the many subway tunnels that pedestrians use to cross under busy streets, a musician was sitting playing a guitar with his case open for people to toss in coins.  He had a sign up:  "100% of donations will be given to one of Diana's favorite charities."  And we all believed him.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF SECURITY:  The crowd was very orderly, and the key person required no protection of the usual kind.  So the security folks assumed other tasks.  At Hyde Park corner, they handed out free packages of tissues.  And at Buckingham Palace, where a detail stood on a high ledge to prevent people from climbing on top, the onlookers queued up to hand their cameras up, so that the police could take better photos for them from their vantage point.

CROWD PLEASERS:  In Hyde Park, the crowd of thousands following service on two giant screens offered polite applause for Elton John.  But the bigger hand went to Diana's brother, when he said that she needed no royal title to have majesty, and again when he said he was most proud of being able to keep photographers away from her when she visited.  When he finished, they gave him a standing ovation.

KEEPING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Leddie,  a self described "5 year old English gurl," sat down next to me after the funeral at a cafe with her family where I was having lunch.  She told me "how sad it was about the pretty Princess" in one breath, and went on about her "Telly Tubbies" dolls in the next.

And those are just some of the sights, sounds and feelings I encountered.  My driver to the airport put it best:  "When a King dies, we say 'The King is dead.  Long live the King.'  The flag never goes to half staff.  That's because while one is gone, we have a new one immediately.  But Diana.... well....  for better or worse, she was the only Princess the People have ever had."


Marc Wollin of Bedford helped swell the total crowd in London to two million and one.  He's glad he stayed.  His column appears weekly in The Record Review.