Sarah Freeman: Diana's death began an age of public emotion

I HAVE two abiding memories of Princess Diana's death. The first was hearing news of the car crash. Or rather seeing it.


During the fag end of August 1997, the sun was setting on my final days as a student in Edinburgh and it was sometime in the early hours of the morning that we stumbled back into our flat and switched on the TV.

There was no rolling news back then – only Ceefax – which, in a few bold, simple words told the world that Diana had been involved in a car crash in Paris. The updates followed in quick, grim succession.

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More shocking still though was the news footage a few days later of that carpet of flowers outside Kensington Palace and the grieving strangers, draped in red, white and blue, who had created it.

Without a flicker of embarrassment, one man confessed that he had cried for a mother-of-two who he had never met, and with whom he had absolutely nothing in common, more than he had his own recently deceased parents.

He bore the red, swollen eyes of genuine grief. So, too, did a thousand others. And when the then prime minister Tony Blair delivered his ‘People’s Princess’ tribute, the deal was sealed.

In the days that followed, those of us who weren’t woefully beating our chests and damning the Queen and the rest of the Royals for their buttoned-up refusal to cry in front of the cameras, were shamed into silence.

While it was impossible not to feel sorry for William and Harry, Diana wasn’t our mother, she wasn’t our sister or our friend and we weren’t going to mourn her as such. That was our truth, but it was one which dare not speak its name.

So, during this collective dabbing of eyes, we nodded politely, shifted uncomfortably in our seats and tried to change the subject. But there was no other subject. There was only Diana. On September 6, businesses closed as a mark of respect, flags were lowered and 30m people in Britain sat down to watch her funeral. They were joined by a worldwide audience of 2.56bn.

Not all were part of the teary, inconsolable mob. Even to dyed-in-the-wool republicans, there was something morbidly mesmerising about her final journey from the capital, along a deserted motorway, to her final resting place at her childhood home of Althorp. But to even those disinterested eyes it was apparent that something had changed.

In the documentary Diana: The Day That Britain Cried, which will be screened on ITV next week, one of the lead pallbearers remembers stepping out into London he barely recognised.

“I thought it was going to be quiet,” he says. “Sober and quite English.” It was anything but.

Some have since claimed the very public show of grief which followed Diana’s death did in fact have a precedent. They have pointed to the thousands who lined the streets to pay their final respects to Winston Churchill. Well, perhaps, but back then the cortege passed in silence.

Who is to say whether that silence was dignified or not, but the atmosphere which enveloped the lone gun carriage of Diana couldn’t have been more different. As a Mexican wave of applause followed the funeral party, unknown voices shouted ‘Diana we love you’, while others lobbed flowers into the path of the cortege, hoping that if they hit the target it meant they loved her even more.

For them, Diana’s death acted as a lightning rod for every unspoken emotion, every regret, every tear not previously shed. The genie was out of the bottle and, in the years that have followed, it has proved impossible to get it back in.

At least back then the mass emotional indulgence was confined and contained in the books of condolences some queued for hours to write in. Now no such patience is required.

Just scroll through any Facebook page or any Twitter account and the insatiable, growing trend to emote in public is laid starkly bare.

And it’s not just grief. Today it’s no longer enough to vent anger, frustration or even deep joy and utter happiness with those who love and know you best. These days, feelings need a much bigger audience if they are to acquire validation.

It’s worse for those in the public eye. Much worse. Now when someone who has had even the remotest brush with fame breathes their last, everyone from the PM to the Pope is obliged to express their condolences. Silence has become a byword for disrespect.

Take the recent case of Charlie Gard. As his parents and doctors clashed over treatment, every heartbreaking detail was greedily grasped by those who desperately wanted to be part of the story and part of the drama.

They called themselves Charlie’s Army, but it was never very clear what war they were fighting. Amid of a flurry of heart-shaped emoticons they posted their love for Charlie, but they also poured out bilious hate in equal measure for medics they didn’t know and whose professional judgement they hadn’t read. And once again those who dared to suggest an alternative, more moderate view were hounded into the sidelines.

In his book Modern Britain, the writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr said Diana’s death had led to a “more compassionate, more informal, more image-conscious Britain”. Maybe, but while Britain’s stiff upper lip was found wanting, it has been replaced by something even less attractive.

So as the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death approaches, I, for one, will be adopting radio silence. It doesn’t mean I have a heart of stone, It just means that my feelings aren’t for public consumption.

Sarah Freeman is features editor of The Yorkshire Post