The last day of August, a Sunday, eight in the morning. Like many people in Britain, I was asleep. The bedside radio came on. A solemn voice, a plain sentence or two, the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’ played at its most mournful pitch. (There are two versions of the British national anthem kept at every radio station: solemn and triumphant.)
‘Did you hear that?’ said my partner, who was waking beside me.
I had. The BBC had done a fine job on our slumbering reflexes. The news was more than merely important or shocking – a plane crash, an IRA bomb. Its delivery evoked feelings more awkward than sadness and surprise. The national memory was being awoken; the story that the nation tells about itself. And because the national memory has become increasingly blurred and contested, it was interesting to discover the old version still alive in oneself, to realise how much of it one knew and felt bound up with. Reflexively, I thought of the pre-war prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his tight little speech on the radio on another Sunday morning – in September 1939 – which disclosed that Britain was at war with Germany: ‘I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at Number Ten Downing Street.’ It was ridiculous to think of this. It happened six years before I was born; and Britain, on 31 August 1997, was not at war with Germany, with anyone (though for a day or two the enemy was identified as freelance photographers, helpfully known by a foreign word, the paparazzi). But the happenings that come into the category of supreme national moments have a grammar of their own, literally so. The BBC announcer usually said, ‘You’re listening to BBC Radio 4,’ but that morning he said, ‘This is the BBC,’ and with that small reversion from modern, market-minded informality to old-fashioned authority so the death of the Princess of Wales became linked to Mr Chamberlain, air raids on the Ruhr (six of our aircraft are missing), the conquest of Everest, the Falklands War.
Or at least it did in my half-awake mind, not that I noticed the reason at the time. My partner said: ‘I feel so sorry for those poor boys.’
We went downstairs and watched television. Eventually the prime minister, Tony Blair, came on and spoke for the first time of ‘the People’s Princess’. Some journalists later wrote that the phrase had been invented for the occasion by Blair’s press secretary (which may well be true, his press secretary having previously worked in tabloid newspapers), but at the time it seemed to fall quite naturally in his statement, in which emotion seemed to battle with articulacy. I write ‘seemed’ but that does not mean I doubted his sincerity; it was just that, having followed his election campaign, I knew how well he could deploy sincerity in his well-considered outbreaks of spontaneity.
We had lunch. My partner explained to our five-year-old daughter that the princess had died. Our daughter asked: ‘Is that the woman you said was awful?’ We wondered where we should take the children in the afternoon. The television had pictures of people outside Buckingham Palace, some of them crying. We remembered that the pond in St James’s Park had ducks, and that this part of London – central, royal, institutional London – can be enjoyed by the people who live in London as well as by the tourists who have claimed it and made it their own. Also, we were curious – who were these people who had gone to the palace? – but I do not think coldly inquisitive. We were perhaps just a little sad.
We drove. The traffic was thick. The Mall had been closed to all but pedestrians. We parked the car near the monument to the Duke of York and walked down the steps and into the Mall. Whenever I drive down this avenue – always in a car or a taxi; nothing so vulgar as a bus route pollutes it – I am always surprised to see Buckingham Palace, the memorial to Queen Victoria, Horse Guards Parade, the minor palaces and mansions, the statues of explorers, the friezes of army regiments, the sentry boxes, the immobile sentries in scarlet uniforms and black bearskin hats. My surprise is that I live in the same city, so close to this fabled history which in my childhood looked so grand and far away and could only be represented in my home with model soldiers. And yet (another surprise when one investigates it) the setting is not so very historical. There are people still alive who can remember this imperial cityscape under construction. My own father, had he lived in London at that time, could have watched as a boy as masons chiselled the Portland stone of the new facade to Buckingham Palace (finished in 1913), or the bronze statue to Captain Cook (1914) was unveiled, or Admiralty Arch (1910) had its keystones put in place. He could have been there on the day in 1911 when King George V stood beside the new Queen Victoria Memorial and tapped its designer on the shoulder with a sword, transforming him into a knight: Sir Thomas Brock. And then this small boy, my father, could have turned and walked down the new Mall, with its plane trees, flagpoles and galleon-topped lamp posts, which was widened to make a processional route and pushed through to Trafalgar Square in the same year.
This, then, is a twentieth-century stage, post-Victorian, the whole planned as a tribute to the dead queen; as traditional and historic as the machine gun or an early Mercedes.
We did not go to the palace directly. We crossed the Mall and went into the park. How would I describe the situation here? I would say it was normal. The afternoon was fine. Tourists strolled around the lake, young people with backpacks scattered bread for the ducks. For a time, our children stood on the bridge and threw pebbles into the water. A pair of handsome swans and some cygnets slid by. Then, as we lay on the grass, I noticed a little black girl in a bed of roses. She had scissors in her right hand and a small bundle of rose blooms in her left. She was snipping more blooms cleanly and quietly.
I went across to her.
‘You know you shouldn’t be doing that, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I know.’ Her scissors went on snipping.
A quandary for the civic-minded. She might have a father, or several tough brothers, out of sight behind a tree. I summoned some courage.
‘Well, don’t do it then.’
She skipped off up the slope to the Mall, where she ran alongside the people who were walking towards the palace and looked up into their faces and offered her flowers. As nobody took them, money may have been involved. She was too far away to hear.
We saw her again among the crowd – then still small – which had gathered in front of the palace railings. She was with a woman, probably her mother, who looked like a Somali. The roses had gone; they must have been on the pile, but the crowd was too thick in front of the flowers to see. The Somali woman stood reverently, I thought, near a mounted policeman who was guiding the flower-bringers to a route which ran along the front of the railings to the place where their flowers could be left. People were arriving with bunches every couple of minutes. The people without flowers looked at these people with flowers. They were the spectacle; there was nothing much else to see. The palace yard was empty apart from the sentries, who occasionally stamped and banged their rifles down and picked them up again, and the palace as usual presented its blank, mysterious face to the world. If the Queen and her family had been at home, it would have looked the same – she does not come to the windows and wave, toodle-oo – but in any case the Queen and her family were on their Scottish holidays in Balmoral.
Further off, behind the Victoria Memorial, hot-dog and ice-cream sellers and television crews had parked their vans. On the memorial itself, men in T-shirts had begun to set up scaffolding for television cameras, their steel tubes rattling on the marble, of which the memorial contains 2,300 tons. We climbed the steps towards Queen Victoria, who is seated, but measures thirteen feet high, and is surrounded by allegorical figures. Above her, winged Victory with Courage and Constancy at Victory’s feet. Beside her, Trust facing south, Justice north and Charity west. The queen herself faces east, away from the palace and down the Mall towards her city, her empire, her people.
I had never been here before. It was fascinating; how unlikely it was that one small woman in one small country could represent so much universal principle, at least in the eyes of Sir Thomas Brock. People leaned in the sun on the memorial’s balconies and, though I overheard one or two quiet conversations about the dead princess, their behaviour suggested attitudes like our own. They licked ice cream. They were perhaps a little sad, but mainly they seemed curious. Later on television we would all be described as mourners. Meanwhile, pole by pole, the television platforms rose up towards Charity and the two marble children she clutched at her knee.
We walked back down the Mall. I noticed that many people going the other way and carrying flowers were black or brown, Africans and African Caribbeans, Asians. I remembered how sixteen years before I had been a reporter at the princess’s wedding and how, walking the processional route between the palace and St Paul’s, I had seen very few black faces in the crowds. I now remembered writing that, and also a remark about the national anthem being a rotten tune, which had been circled on the galley proofs by the paper’s editor with a line drawn to his note in the margin: No, a jolly good tune in my opinion!
It seemed long ago; the post-war height of the monarchy’s popularity, when newspapers thought royalty could do no wrong and there was a frenzy of good wishes in the streets. We drove home through a city which had changed since then, and (I thought, that day) in some ways for the better.
Later that night the telephone rang. It was a friend who edits a weekly magazine. Could I write 2,500 words on Diana by the next evening?
‘But I don’t know anything about her,’ I said. ‘What could I write about?’
‘You know – Diana the Icon,’ he said.
‘The Icon? How do you mean?’
‘You know – the clothes, the busted marriage, bulimia, landmines, Aids, all those things. What she meant to us all.’
No, I said, I didn’t really think I could.
‘Look at it another way,’ he said, ‘it’s worth the price of a new kitchen.’
A new kitchen! Even cheap ones, I thought, came in at about £6,000. And perhaps my friend was thinking bigger than that, somewhere up in the Smallbone range.
A kitchen for 2,500 words. In such small ways does an event become a phenomenon.