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September 06, 1997

  • The Cortege
  • Last night about 10 pm carrying in my backpack a blanket, a sweater, a book by Henri Nouwen and a couple of tapes for my personal stereo, I left my flat to spend the night waiting for the Cortege.

    I’m not quite sure why I did this, and even now I don’t think I can fully articulate my mixed feelings and motivations. I think I felt that I wanted to be a part of history, to not just watch something on TV which was happening in the city I live in; to be a part of the palpable sense of sadness which has pervaded life in London for the past week; and maybe even just to feel like I had done something.

    At around 11 pm, I got off the bus at Charing Cross and walked through Admiralty Arch into the Mall a short time later. The sheer magnitude of the crowd was staggering. I had not been to visit either Buckingham Palace or Kensington Palace during the week and even the news pictures do not prepare you for the amount of people there. Hundreds, even thousands, were literally camped out beside security barriers erected as the Mall inexorably connected to Buckingham Palace. They had brought campstoves, sleeping bags, even tents and outdoor tables and chairs. A smattering of ambient music played from tape players. People had set up shrines reminescent of those seen Buddhist temples. Hundreds surrounded me as I walked up the Mall. Somewhere near was St James’ Palace, where the Books of Condolence had been temporarily stopped till Sunday; I didn’t look for it.

    The roundabout where the Queen Victoria memorial stands just in front of Buckingham Palace was flooded with people. The Palace was as I had seen it on the news. There were flowers and tributes lining the gate. The flag was flying, though not half-mast. I realised it was the first time I had been to the palace when the Queen was in residence.

    I continued just a short while up Constitution Hill when I found an empty spot along a security barrier. I sat down beside it and claimed it as my own. Buckingham Palace was still fully visible, only a few steps away. Also only a few steps away were the caravans where the TV news crews gathered, an enclave of steel and satellite dishes. Sitting beside me were a couple from Farnborough, who were really friendly and offered me some beer.

    “So you’re crazy too huh?” the woman from Farnborough asked.
    “I suppose so.” I replied
    “Why are you here?” I was asked
    “I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to be a part of things in some small way.”
    “You’re crazy in other words. Us too.”

    If I was crazy, I was not alone. In close proximity were a mother and her two teenage daughters. They seemed every bit the tight-knit family, Girl Guides all. They cooked a steak on a camp stove and offered me some. They were friendly and convivial. So was the traveller from California next to them, an ex-Kindergarten teacher who gave new meaning to the word ‘chipper’ and perhaps because of her travels through Europe seemed to be able to sleep on asphalt with no apparent difficulty. Near them was “Tent Man” a grizzled man in his sixties who had erected a dome tent and was apparently photographed by the Evening Standard earlier. He occasionally came out cast a wary eye on proceedings before disappearing back inside.

    All of us ate junk food and drank small bottles of pilsner and brandy from a hip flask, we chatted amiably amongst ourselves, mostly about where we were from and our jobs and stuff. The subject of the Princess of Wales rarely seemed to arise; perhaps we were conserving energy. Police constables occasionally stopped by, and were surprisingly friendly. All in all, it resembled a block party more than anything. Except for one thing. All of them, like me, spontaneously decided to come here at, relatively speaking, the last minute. All of them, like me, had been swept along by the emotion whipped up by news reports and public mourning (which probably symbiotically fed each other, I suspect) to the point where spectating from home wasn’t good enough.

    Eventually I somehow wrapped myself in a blanket and slept for an hour or so and was woken by my mobile ringing. My friend Leanne from Canada, who knew I was here, called. According to the clock on Big Ben, visible from where I was, it was 3 am. I got up, walked around and talked to Leanne, trying to describe the surroundings.

    It was at this point that, thanks to the Police relaxing the barriers around the gate in the wee small hours, I finally got a good look at the floral tributes surrounding the palace. Seeing them on the news hardly prepares one for the experience of actually standing next to them. The palace gate was decorated in flowers, cuddly toys, cards poems, photos, notes and candles. From the entrances, flowers piled upon flowers became like a buffer of plastic and plant life which extended almost two metres from the gate. Reading the tributes was incredible. Many of them were from children. So many of the ones from older people were written to her as though she would read them: “Dear Diana”, they read, “Dear Diana, we miss you”.

    Such an outpouring of love for someone they never knew and someone most had never even met. So many people I met this week said “I’m not really into the Royal Family, but…” or “I’m something of a republican but…” I engaged, a little, in demystifying it after I walked away from it. Perhaps we merely projected all we want out of our lives onto this woman—compassion, dedication to one’s self and one’s children and others—and we were grieving an aspect of ourselves. Perhaps we need Royalty, need superstructures of myth and soap opera to surround our lives. Perhaps we’re mourning the loss of someone who was a permanent fixture in our personal landscapes. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… In the end, no amount of demystication or rationalisation can ever take away the fact that for the thousands, millions, of people who have visited any of the Royal residences in London this week, their sense of loss is real. You can try to explain it away, but it is still there nonetheless.

    I called my mom and dad collect and talked to them a little about what was going on around me—the gates, the people and the line-up for free tea and doughnuts which now took a solar year to get through. My father seemed to approve of my reasons for coming: ‘We all need to be Forrest Gump sometimes’, he said.

    I wrapped myself up in my blanket again and shivered myself awake around 6 am. The sun had risen, the tea and doughnut stand had closed. Already crowd control—wearing fluorescent coats and clearly hired from at least six or so private security companies—were deployed and people were beginning to arrive. By 7.30 we were pretty much forced to stand as more people started to arrive. Constitution Hill probably didn’t have as thick a crowd as around Kensington or Buckingham Palaces, and those comparisons probably pale against the one along Whitehall into Westminster Abbey. Police would patrol on horseback. One such patrol left a large deposit of manure and a street cleaner came by and took care of it. For a while, the bleeping and whirring of street cleaners were all that we heard along the road.

    At 9.08 the Gun Carriage bearing the coffin left Kensington Palace. As the carriage was horse drawn, it would take almost an hour before they were even within view from Marble Arch. The news reports talked of how quiet the crowds were, but before the Cortege arrived, people were chatty. The mother and daughters were talking with an American and his wife who had apparently witnessed the Kennedy funeral nearly 34 years ago. People were listening to the radio to find out where the Cortege had got to. One father had a precocious six year old on her shoulders and she was grinning at being the centre of attention. I soberly thought to myself that she wouldn’t be for much longer.

    And then we could see at the very end of the long stretch of tree-lined road police on horseback and figures in red. And I took a deep breath. Some people were whispering about using cameras and someone in the crowd told them to shut up. And then everyone was silent, just as the media reported.

    The gun carriage was green. That is my recollection of my first impression. The second was that the coffin, draped in the Royal standard, was so normal-sized—I had expected it to be bigger somehow. Two of the horses carrying the gun carriage were nuzzling each other while walking for some reason.

    I did not cry, nor did I really expect to (I might have, had I seen that one of the wreaths simply said ‘mummy’. I’m not heartless) but my chest tightened as I watched the coffin pass. It’s position on the gun carriage placed it much higher than you’d expect and it almost gave the illusion of gliding unaided. I watched as the gun carriage turned into Buckingham Palace to the applause of people as—unseen to myself—the Queen came out to greet it, and watched as it the yellow and red covered box disappeared from view entirely. As all this happened, the one phrase which kept coming in my mind was simply “The Queen is dead, the Queen is dead”, which was odd since Diana was a Princess.

    The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

    Most people, including my ‘neighbours’ from Farnborough left at this point, spilling out into Hyde Park to watch the funeral on video. I stayed with the mother and daughters and listened to the funeral as it was piped in on speakers. Before that, I went for a walk along the road and saw at the Palace, the flag twisted around the mast in the still air halfway down.

    There really is little I can say about the Funeral. Elton John seemed to strike the most obvious chord in the crowds with his reworking of “Candle In the Wind” although I felt the original “never knowing who to turn to when the rain set in” was equally appropriate of Diana as the mixed metaphor “never fading in the sunset when the rain set in “. Earl Spencer’s tribute was maybe a little too vehement in parts—but then I think he had a right to be blunt and it was probably good that he was. I was struck that, in contrast to the near canonisation by Elton John, his tribute was honest about Diana’s problems and the complexities and contradictions that made her so appealing so many. I was moved by the chant at the end of the funeral said as the guardsman bore her body out of the Abbey: Life: a shadow and a dream. / Weeping at the grave creates the song: / Alleluia. Come enjoy rewards and crowns / I have prepared for you

    A single leaf fell on the road at the very moment the chant ended and the minute of silence began.

    That silence stretched out far beyond the minute. Unlike the first pass of the Cortege, the people were not prodded into silence and they stayed silent. Ten minutes later, the hearse drove past slowly as Diana was borne out of the city. Our stretch of road did not throw flowers in its path as it passed by and I waved to the hearse and said ‘Goodbye’. Then there was silence again. People stood there, not sure if any other cars were to pass but also, it seemed, because they were genuinely unsure what to do. Then the police opened up the barriers and allowed people onto the road.

    And then it was all over.

    I fought my way through the crowds back towards the mall. I read some of the tributes placed around the Queen Victoria memorial. One was written by an adolescent about Diana and Dodi being together in heaven in true love. Another was a picture by a six year old. I walked along the Mall opposite St James’s Park and saw even more: “Dear Diana…” they read, “Dear Diana…”

     


    6 September 1997


    © 1997 Graeme Burk

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