Almost 20 years ago, I saw London’s largest shrine. It was outside Kensington Palace a week after the death of Princess Diana. It was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen in London, an doubtedly historic moment that made me feel completely alienated from the city around me.
Just look at this nonsense.
I am not a royalist and, at first, had little interest in Diana’s death. My main recollection of the immediate aftermath was that London appeared to have sprouted a thousand flagpoles overnight. Taking the bus from Victoria to Maida Vale a day or two after the accident, every building seemed to be flying a Union flag at half mast. Every building except Buckingham Palace of course. I was working for News International and The Sun was furious at the Queen’s lack of respect. So furious, in fact, that they erected a flagpole outside their office just so they could fly the Union flag at half mast for a photo opportunity, a tabloid stunt aimed at shaming the Queen and aligning The Sun with the views of the people, despite their having helped ruined Diana’s life over two decades of intrusion.
A week or so later, it was quietly replaced by a flag bearing the News International logo.
Private Eye‘s hypocrisy-nailing cover seemed more in tune with my thinking, but caused such a furore they had to withdraw copies. I wish I’d kept my issue.
Over the following week, hysteria built across London. I wanted no part of it, and had no intention of visiting Kensington Palace until I was persuaded by an older friend who wisely pointed out this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sort of glad he did.
We met at Hyde Park Corner and began to walk across the park. As we got closer to the palace, a smell began to rise – I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of slowly rotting flowers.
Kensington Palace was a genuinely incredible sight. The park in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, several layers deep and turning to compost in the summer heat. There was no way of getting near the palace gates and lone figures walked among the flowers, stooping to read labels, looking like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. I remember reading one label. It was from a mother who wrote that she had lost a son in the Falklands War. She hadn’t cried then, but she had when Diana died.
There’s too much to unpick here to even know where to start, but one thing that stood out – above the general public insanity and my own utter bewilderment at how people were responding – was the strange, seditious, slightly exciting undercurrent undercurrent to it all.
A shrine is a very public way of responding to private grief, and they are almost always political in some way in the sense that the are the public’s way of drawing attention to somebody who they feel was otherwise neglected by authority. Shrines are often about the way a violent or unpredictable deaths provokes a proletariat response that has rebellious, anti-establishment bent. Shrines are rarely sanctioned, they are impromptu and organic. This shrine felt as close to a revolutionary act as anything that had happened in London since the Poll Tax Riot, and it was far more wideset, an angry reaction to what was perceived as the cold, heartless behaviour of the establishment. It also felt very un-London like, as this city isn’t usually so ostentatious in its response to tragedy or crisis. It unleashed a national trait for emotional drama that has never fully gone away and I’ve still to completely understand. And boy, did it smell.