Essay: A year has passed since the people's princess was taken from them. Britain ponders the mourning, the anger, the media event. What did it all mean?


August 26, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Foreign Staff Michele Nevard of The Sun's London bureau contributed to this article.

LONDON - The visitors all want to know: What was it like here after Princess Diana died?

You tell them of the stifled sobs and the stunned crowds, the cards and the candles, and the day that mourners nearly turned into a mob, venting anger at a monarchy suddenly fragile and distant.

But finally, you steer a clearer course, leading visitors by the hand, walking 50 yards or so down a gentle slope from the gilded gates that frame a grand entry at Kensington Palace. You turn around, look at the palace gates, and say, "The flowers came out to here.

"And the pile was three feet deep."

For Britain, memories of a nation's grief are now mixed with cool-headed analysis, as the first anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, approaches.

The original flowers of mourning and notes of remembrance have long since been cleared from the palace gates that look on to an extraordinary park, Kensington Gardens. The lawns that were turned to dirt from the grieving crowds have been replanted. The country has sought to move on.

Yet in many ways, Diana seems eerily alive.

Her wedding dress cloaks a tailor's dummy at Althorp, her ancestral home. Her face is on stamps. Her eyes stare from magazine covers and newspapers. And her name is evoked for a string of causes and by a range of people promoting her memory with a simple phrase, "Diana, would have wanted this ..."

"She hasn't been allowed to die," says royal historian Hugo Vickers.

Diana's death in a car accident Aug. 31, 1997, in Paris traumatized Britain. She was killed with her companion, Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul. She died in the early-morning hours as a slumbering nation awoke to a nightmare.

When Britons turned on their radios and television sets that Sunday morning and heard the familiar strains of "God Save the Queen," they instinctively knew there had been a death in the royal family.

To hear that it was Diana, 36, ex-wife of Prince Charles, mother of Princes William and Harry, perhaps the most photographed woman on the planet, was like getting a punch in the stomach.

Most never met Diana. What they knew of her was filtered through tabloid newspapers, glossy magazines and television interviews.

And yet they grieved, for a princess and for themselves.

"What Diana left us with is a profound sense of our own untidy, embarrassing, contradictory, capricious humanity -- a sense that is our weaknesses that make us precious, not our strength," pundit A.A. Gill wrote last September in the Sunday Times of London.

"Why did we all go to Kensington Gardens?" he added. "Perhaps because it wasn't what was expected of us."

Now comes the revisionism.

'Grief fascism'

Diana's death created an academic niche, as professors, commentators and writers dissected her life and times point by point, with papers prepared on such subjects as Diana as feminist icon and Diana and the nation.

Others focused on Britain's public outpouring of grief. People not noted for wearing their emotions on their sleeves, wept openly. In retrospect, some have grown embarrassed by the public reaction, calling it hysteria. Others have sought to point out that not everyone was swept up by the emotion of Diana's death.

"The Princess's People," a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary that will be aired in Britain on the anniversary of the funeral, Sept. 6, depicts a nation divided by grief. Twelve crews assembled 60 hours of film, showing people as they were: weeping, indifferent, even hostile as the funeral played out on the streets, in Westminster Abbey, and finally, on the television sets of the nation.

"I really felt grief fascism," says Colin Luke, the documentary's director. "This film has made me very suspicious of easy generalizations that the press leap at, in particular, the one that the nation was united in grief. It was a remarkable national event experienced by lots of people."

But did Diana's death change anything, or was it merely global soap opera?

The question is still being answered. She didn't hold political office. And she didn't have a job as such. Yet just as the clothes she wore somehow mattered, so did the speeches she gave and the causes she espoused.

In some respects, her death served as a milestone, because it coincided with the reign of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is seeking to fundamentally change the way the country is governed. In Blair's Britain, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will gain local governments. Power will be dispersed from Parliament in London. The monarchy will remain intact, a symbol used to unite an increasingly disparate Great Britain.

It was Diana, the royal rebel, who threatened the monarchy most, who publicly aired her doubts about her ex-husband.

"Before her death, I thought she was destroying the monarchy," says Harold Brooks-Baker, who oversees Burke's Peerage. "In her death, she seems to have saved the monarchy."

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