The Princes' final farewell - Sept 1st 1997

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The Princes' final farewell - Sept 1st 1997

Postby bjr » Thu Jan 17, 2008 2:20 am ... 367813.ece

A sound like a distant shower of rain penetrated the walls of Westminster Abbey shortly before noon yesterday. It rolled towards us. Then it was inside the church. It rolled up the nave, like a great wave.

It was people clapping, first the crowds outside and then the 2,000 inside. People don't clap at funerals; and they don't clap because people outside are clapping. But yesterday they did. It was dense, serious applause and it marked the moment at which the meaning of what was happening on this incredible day was made plain.

It was the end of Earl Spencer's tribute to his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, that had raised the emotional tension to this breaking point.

He had launched another savage attack on the press, saying Diana had been the "most hunted person of the modern age". What brought gasps from the nave of the abbey, however, was the fact that he had also flung down a challenge to the royal family over the upbringing of William and Harry, pledging to Diana that "we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned".

His voice stumbled and broke as he finished; and then the masses listening outside, who had been claiming their own place in this very public realm, broke into the abbey. The people wanted to make their feelings felt. It wasn't enough to be one of the millions on the streets of London. It certainly wasn't enough to be one of the 1 billion watching on television. They wanted to be in the abbey and the applause was their way of getting in.

The Queen sat immobile as the sound of clapping reached her. Her young granddaughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, joined in with the congregation. But the adults in the royal family froze as Spencer's words sank in. Had he hijacked the funeral?

Of course, I had expected this service to be emotional. It came at the end of a week of wonders in which some force of popular magic, some ancient religious impulse, had broken through royal reticence and protocol and demanded a voice. But I had not expected the sheer pressure and intensity of the occasion.

Yet, at seven in the morning when the privileged few journalists had started queuing to make sure of the best places in the north transept, it had felt like a party. The crowd pressing against the barriers in Par liament Square had been jolly, good-natured. They applauded and cheered two lorryloads of workmen who had feverishly been chopping down traffic lights to open up the approach to the abbey. They clapped the Westminster council workman who, fag dangling from his lips, had hoovered up the mess left by the men. And they watched the celebrities joining our queue to enter the north transept. Ralph Lauren, Lord Gowrie, the Emanuels, designers of Diana's wedding dress, and Esther Rantzen who performed her own quasi-regal walkabout.

But, as the tenor bell sounded at 9.08 to signal the departure of the cortege from Kensington Palace, the atmosphere darkened. A silence started to spread. We all lowered our voices and the occasional ringing of a mobile phone started to sound like a gross intrusion.

At 9.30, they let us in. The first shock was that it was warmer inside than out - a reversal of the usual experience of walking into great churches. I looked up and realised that the air had been heated by the racks of television lights suspended above the arches of the sanctuary and choir. The lights glared almost blasphemously. But who could complain? We were there only as surrogates for the billions in the world outside.

After finding our places we waited for the nearby, significant seats to fill - the royal family facing the Spencers, and those seats just marked Mr al-Fayed, Mrs al-Fayed. It was strange seeing these big players in the week's news represented by plain printed signs among the massive clutter of colonial monuments.

A key element in the layout of the service became clear. Just as television audiences were not shown the faces of the bereaved families, so we, in the press seats, were placed at an angle that prevented us looking directly into their faces. Plainly the political issue of the week - whether to show a trembling lower lip or the stiff upper one - was being evaded. But, at least, we did not have the sweepihg shots of architecture in which television indulged. For us it was all stillness and concentration.

Gradually guests started arriving, a hybrid bunch representing the cross-cultural force of Diana's personality - Queen Noor of Jordan, Richard Branson, Luciano Pavarotti, George Michael and Elton John. At 10, the organ started playing and the atmosphere intensified. Celebrity spotting gave way to a more concentrated mood. The abbey seemed to be filling to bursting. Attendants had to bring in stacks of plastic chairs. Michael Barrymore and Conrad Black, the newspaper tycoon - one of many strange matches - found themselves squashed deep into the aisle behind the choir.

The visiting clergy filled their seats in the sanctuary, among them George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. For the next half hour his rather odd role was to lean forward repeatedly to look down the length of the church and then stand up as a signal to us all when the royals or Spencer family came in. The Spencers provoked perhaps the most awe as they settled into their seats amid a sea of black hats and largely grey heads.

The Fayeds had arrived and I saw the startlingly diminutive pop star Bryan Adams shake Mohamed al-Fayed's hand - another strange match. Fayed himself, sitting close to me, looked stern and impressive, a compact figure of grief and, perhaps, anger. His painfully knitted brows were the clearest evidence of what must have been going inside the man.

On the television screen, we saw the cortege approaching around Parliament Square. Everything now changed. I heard a gulp, a snuffle. I looked round and handkerchiefs were out around me. At last this was no longer a party or a celebrity outing, it was a funeral.

The choir, as it led the coffin up the nave, was invisible to us. But its sound fell on us like a fine, silvery mist. Then, as the coffin approached us, we could hear the soft tramp of the pallbearers' feet and, finally, it came into full view and, with an awkward grating noise, was slid into place - at, for that moment, the centre of the world thanks to the television camera projecting from a gantry at the summit of the crossing, 100ft above the chequered floor.

The opening words of Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, were shocking - first because they signalled the start, at last, of the funeral narrative, and second because of the plainness of their contemporary vernacular: "She met individuals and made them feel significant." The pomp and pomposity of the setting was already being undermined by a new, more direct, more emotional culture.

"I vow to thee, my country..." filled the abbey like thunder and then, after Lady Sarah McCorquodale's reading, Lynne Dawson and the BBC Singers gave a piercing performance of the Libera Me from Verdi's Requiem. This was enough for me. It had been a long week. I wasn't sure I could bear to have my emotions assaulted further. Yet with Lady Jane Fellowes's reading, the whole world must have felt the shock. It was the voice of Diana coming from one of her surviving sisters.

Tony Blair was to signal the start of a central passage of quite unbearable intensity. He read from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians - "And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love". His reading was badly overstated, his pauses too plainly theatrical. But it worked and nothing could hold back those words.

At once, Elton John, from a grand piano on a platform just west of the choir, started singing his new version of Candle in the Wind. I had been dreading this. To me it is an over-the-top song, sugary and obvious; and the new words were hopelessly clumsy.

But it worked. He understated the performance, drying out some of the song's syrup. I found myself crying, and the tears were now flowing all around me. One weathered reporter was surreptitiously brushing his cheeks and another was rapidly putting on a pair of unnecessary glasses. As the song finished, we heard clapping from outside.

And then came Earl Spencer. Besides discomfiting the royal family, he lashed all of us in the press seats - we were "at the opposite end of the moral spectrum" to his sister - and he claimed for her a title that seemed to be higher than saint: she was "human". She spoke to the "constituency of the rejected" but she could suffer from a "deep feeling of unworthiness". It was not a well-written speech, but it was brilliantly pitched. He knew, in speaking of Diana, he must speak not to just the abbey, not even to the millions outside in the streets, but rather to the billions who made Diana in life one of the most famous people in the world, and in death the most famous of all.

He was speaking to the globalised, electronically connected culture of which Diana has become the supreme star. This was the new culture that, with that wave of applause, invaded and claimed the abbey.

We could only, from that point onwards, calm down. The archbishop's bidding prayers were again plain and direct, though he followed the globalising lead of Earl Spencer by asking everybody in the world to join in the Lord's prayer "in whatever language we may choose".

Finally, following the Dean's Commendation, the soldiers returned, again filling the cathedral with the strange soft rubbery stamp of their steps. The minute's silence was deep as they departed with Diana's body - you could feel it extending across the world - but interrupted by more snuffles and suppressed sobs in the north transept.

It was all more, far more than I expected. It was an event made by the incredible upsurge of popular feeling in Britain and around the world. Before she died, some may have been hoping that she would grow old, her celebrity would dim and she would be quietly interred in relative obscurity. Even when she died, nobody anticipated the scale of this popular rising.

It was only a week from that mangled Mercedes to the abbey. But it was a week in which a new world asserted itself and made a goddess out of one rejected, hounded, marginalised member of the British royal family. The abbey service was the elevation of Diana to a new kind of heaven. I'll tell my grandchildren I was there. But they won't listen. By then, it will seem so obvious to them: of course Diana changed the world.
To my critics
When I'm in a sober mood, I worry, work and think,
When I'm in a drunken mood, I gamble, play and drink,
But when my moods are over and my time has come to pass,
I hope I'm buried upside down, so the world may kiss my ar*e
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