Was it British?

Gavin Weightman finds historical precedents for Britain’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

From time to time during this century the British public has behaved in a way which has startled those who like to imagine they ‘understand’ the nation in which they live. We expect other nations to indulge in great surges of popular emotion, but not our people who have a world-wide reputation for their reserve and self-control unless they are intoxicated football fans.

The astonishing response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the invention of quite un-British rituals - the sea of flowers, the trees and lamp-posts ringed with candles, the home-made icons and teddy bears, the outpouring of doggerel verse - has defied explanation by any commentators on the nation’s psychology. In terms of vernacular ritual it is closest to the attempts to grieve those killed in a national disaster. The 1980s had more than their share of such horrors and a way of responding to the inexplicable evolved with the Bradford Football Fire, the Kings Cross Fire and, above all, the Hillsborough Football Stadium disaster. An abiding image from Hillsborough is the great mass of red scarves, hats, shirts and other mementoes adorning railings and goalposts and filling Anfield stadium, home of the stricken Liverpool club.

After the bizarre Hungerford shootings in 1987 a wreath was left on the steps of the town hall with a dedication ‘To those who fell’. Our model, if we have one, of how to grieve perhaps evolved from the spontaneous desire to honour the war dead. This is a twentieth-century invention and the Cenotaph that Princess Diana’s coffin passed on its way to and from Westminster Abbey was put there permanently by popular demand. When the idea of some sort of catafalque was suggested there was little official enthusiasm for what Lord Curzon regarded as an idea ‘perhaps more suitable to the Latin temperament’.

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