On September 6, 1997, 2.5 billion people watched Princess Diana’s funeral on TV. One million people turned up to watch her coffin be transported by cortege from St James's Palace to Westminster Abbey. And I was one of the thousands who’d got there the night before.
I was 9 years old. After dinner, my mum, a family friend called Bella, and I boarded the 89 bus from Blackheath to central London. I can still remember that night. On a strip of grass at Hyde Park Corner, between the horse path and South Carriage Drive, we laid down our sleeping bags and I put three holes in a black bin liner because I’d left my cardigan at home. Away from my flammable nightie, my mum lit a candle she’d been saving for a special occasion, and began talking to people about Diana. In the flickering amber light, I fell asleep.
By morning, spectators were streaming into the park, so we got up quickly to keep our vantage point. There was no time for a wee, so we stood, waiting and waiting for the funeral cortege. I remember the majestic horses, the smallness of the coffin and, for a second, turning around to see the undersides of the crowd’s glum chins as they looked at the last they’d ever see of the People’s Princess. It was the second funeral I’d ever been to.
We didn’t see Princes William and Harry, as they only joined the 107-minute procession for its last half hour. I remember feeling let down, upset that I’d come all this way without getting to see them. Both princes have now condemned that solemn mile, Harry saying: “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that under any circumstances” and William, perhaps more aware of his future duties, putting it more diplomatically: “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, that walk.” Admitting the “alien environment” of grieving in the public eye had been among the most difficult moments of his life, William said he had wondered of weeping members of the public: "You didn't even know her, why and how are you so upset?"
But my mum was very happy for me to be there that morning, at the funeral procession of someone we, as William pointed out, didn't know. It’s not like we were one of those royal memorabilia-collecting families, so, 20 years on, I called my mum to find out why we had gone.
“My feet were itchy. There was no way I could be in London and not be there,” Mandy tells me over the phone. “There was such an outpouring, it was a huge phenomenon. If you didn’t go, it was like saying you didn’t want to be part of this massive event.”
But why take me along with her? “I would have taken your sisters,” she replies, “but they thought I was silly.” She took me, quite simply, “Because you were too young to leave at home.”
Some single mums might have stayed in to spare their kid a night beneath the stars but, like Diana, perhaps even inspired by Diana (seven years her junior), my mum didn’t do things the prescribed way. “I valued Diana because she was a lot less formal, she broke protocol, she was more modern. She was also on her own bringing up children, I was on my own bringing up children.”
Tied into this was the emotional affinity my mum had for Diana’s experience of heartbreak: “When you feel like you’re being rejected by a man, that no matter what you do he’s not going to love you, he actually loves somebody else, you feel like you’re not worthy of being loved. For her, it was unspeakably worse than anything I went through, because she was such a public figure.”
Diana’s death itself broke hearts. Though I can’t remember this, my mum says that at the funeral, “Men of all sorts of ages were just blubbing their eyes out, I’ve never seen so many men crying publicly.”
I do remember, however, her speaking to a bearded man: “We spoke about life values and why Diana was important. We agreed that this was a time of change, that because of her presence and involvement the royal family would never be the same again.”
“There were lots of friendly people there,” she says. “People were just talking to people they didn’t know, sharing food, sharing drinks, sharing views. People could not have been nicer to each other.”
She remembers the cortege passing: “There was this eerie silence, and then all you heard was the horse hooves and the wheels of the carriage on the gravel. You could hear those big wheels turning. I cried, probably not as much as some of the people around me, but I think almost everybody was crying, you just knew that people were sobbing.”
After the procession, Bella, Mum and I went for a wee at an old man’s boozer with one women’s toilet, then trundled up to the centre of Hyde Park, where the funeral proper was shown on big screens. I remember, as everyone settled in to watch the event, a camp man’s voice shouting plaintively to someone standing in our view: “We came here to see Diana, not you!” It was the only moody moment of the day. I lay down on my mum’s lap and fell asleep. She woke me up when her legs got cramp, and later told me how “beautiful” the music had been, and how stridently Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, had spoken about “the wickedness of the press.” On the way home, we walked past seas of flowers, candles, and tributes left for Diana outside Buckingham Palace.
In retrospect, I’m pleased I went along. It was nothing like anything I’ve since attended – bar the Women’s March, which, in some ways, was just as quietly mournful. Maybe I wasn’t only paying respect to Diana but to my mum, who didn’t want to feel like she couldn’t go.
After some time obsessing over Andrew Morton’s book and videos of Diana, my mum’s interest in her has somewhat waned. Though she still believes some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Diana’s death (“I think it’s likely that somebody had a hand in getting rid of them”), she insists this comes from a place of respect: “Diana was amazing with all her work in Africa, and she wasn’t discriminatory towards people with HIV when little was known about it. She had a lot of her own issues, but she would visit people who were really ill or suffering and she didn’t worry, she just did it. She was a woman on a mission and because she was so attractive, she had all those lovely clothes and was always so well turned out, she brought glamour to everywhere she went.”
How special, then, that us schlubs, who slept where horses grazed, who wore the funereal black of bin liners for warmth, who'd washed our faces with nothing but tears that morning, had felt so close to this woman and so hurt by her loss.