Twenty years ago Britain went mad. Or at least sizeable sections of it did. An exaggeration, literally untrue? Well, in the weeks following her death and funeral the British rates of suicide and self-harming jumped, and for no other apparent reason than the blanket coverage of Diana’s unhappy marriage, reported suicide attempts, self-harm and eating disorders.
Millions of people who had never met Diana, but had seen her pour her heart out in books and TV interviews, mourned publicly, loudly and emotionally in a way that was quite unprecedented: this was mass hysteria on a scale rarely, if ever, witnessed. The Scottish paper the Sunday Mail said in half-declaration, half-incitement: “Her death diminishes us all. It leaves us paralysed and giddy with grief”.
In due course a million people would line the route of her funeral cortège. Some of this I saw myself at the time; I used to drive most mornings to work past the front of Kensington Palace and witnessed the ocean of flowers and tributes building so dramatically, and strangers embracing each other.
Sometimes I’d stop and have a look at the messages and cards, so sweet and touching. I wondered to myself then, and now, whether they might be so uncontrolled and upset about a parent or sibling of their own who’d passed on. Those of us around at the time cannot forget it, and must bear witness of those strange days to those now in their thirties or under who’ll have no memory of it. This was when all the main TV channels devoted themselves to blanket rolling news and obliterated the usual programming; if you’re about 24 years old the chances are your own quoted reaction was “why aren’t Teletubbies on?”.
When George VI died in 1952, or Winston Churchill in 1965 people shed a tear, stood in silence for the minute’s silence, and queued to pay their respects to the catafalque at Westminster Hall. But there was nothing before like the reaction to the death of Diana. Such…