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An Eerie Hush of Sorrow

girls with bouquets for Diana/AP
Two girls hold bouquets of flowers as they wait to sign a book of condolences for Diana in London. (AP Photo)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wed., September 3, 1997; Page A01

LONDON, Sept. 2—The first thing you notice is the silence. The center of London, with all its monuments and its boulevards and its palaces, is as quiet as a church.

The death of Princess Diana was such a profound shock for Britain that many people, including officials, did not know quite how to react. On Sunday and Monday, crowds of people pouring toward the royal palaces to express their condolences had to fight their way through the city's normal choking traffic. The result was gridlock for motorists and an obstacle course for pedestrians trying to lay bouquets of flowers.

Today, as Britain settled into a routine of mourning, authorities closed off the streets around Buckingham Palace and St. James's Palace to traffic, roughly the area between Hyde Park Corner and Trafalgar Square. The effect was to create a city within a city -- to create, within this huge metropolis bustling about its workday, a smaller London that moved to a slow, stately, elegiac pace.

flowers at Kensington Palace/AFP
British police officers survey the sea of flowers in front of Kensington Palace. (AFP)
At the traffic circle in front of Buckingham Palace, a place usually filled with the sound of black taxicabs honking their horns at tourists who looked left instead of right while stepping off the curb, a policeman cocked his ear and marveled: "Listen to that. It's so quiet. I've never heard it like this. Never."

Britons have surprised even themselves with their great outpouring of emotion following Diana's death. The national stereotype calls for accepting tragedy with a stiff upper lip, but Britain is obviously shocked and obviously unashamed to show its feelings. Television anchormen become choked up on the air. Callers to talk shows read poetry they have written in Diana's honor. People talk of little else than her death and her upcoming funeral.

One place to measure the depth of those feelings today was central London. As they have done the past two days, thousands came to place flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace, the residence of Queen Elizabeth II. They came in silence; the perpetually large crowd in front of the palace, hundreds of people at any given time, makes no noise. People whisper when they speak or do not speak at all.

There are now thousands of bouquets stretching the length of the ornate palace fence, flowers along with teddy bears, handwritten notes, paintings and sketches of Diana. The messages are full of unabashed sentiment. "The one and only Lady Diana. The one jewel in the crown," reads one note, attached to a bunch of irises, slowly wilting in the uncommonly bright sunshine.

Walking down the Mall today from Buckingham Palace toward Trafalgar Square was like being sent back in time. With no traffic noise, and no shouting or laughing from tourists, the only sound was the crunching of gravel underfoot. A few mounted policemen rode past, and then a dozen of the Queen's Guard riding tall in scarlet coats, and then another mounted group in ceremonial green capes -- the clip-clop of horses, sounds that echoed along the Mall 200 years ago.

Stretching several blocks was a line of people waiting to sign a book of condolence at St. James's Palace, where Diana's body is lying until her funeral Saturday. Polite policemen informed them they would have to wait several hours, but no one seemed deterred. Some people tried to explain why they were willing to spend so much time standing in line in Diana's memory. "It's just her, really, everything she meant and stood for," one man said. Many others declined to try, and some made clear they blamed the press at least in part for the princess's death.

The line, thousands long, was as quiet and devout as the line of parishioners in a church heading to the altar to take Communion.

A couple of miles away, on the other side of Hyde Park, lies another oasis of quiet amid the cacophonous city -- Kensington Palace, where Diana lived. Commentators have suggested that in the end Kensington Palace will effectively become Diana's shrine, the way Graceland is Elvis Presley's. Today, adjacent Kensington Gardens were full of the usual lunchtime strollers, frisbee throwers and rollerbladers. But as you walked toward the palace, the moment you crossed an imaginary line the noise ended.

In front of the Kensington Palace gates was a large, silent crowd, thousands strong -- a crowd disproportionately full of young people, black and brown people, women, a crowd that said New Britain rather than Old. Diana had a special appeal for people who felt left out of traditional British society, and they have come to say goodbye. "I wouldn't do this for any of that other royal lot, not in a hundred years," said a fashionably dressed young black woman who gave her name as Tandy.

Kensington Palace is also the site of the biggest memorial floral display -- tens of thousands of bouquets, with more added every minute.

The final quiet place in central London today was the sidewalk in front of Harrods department store -- the store owned by Mohamed Fayed, whose son Dodi died with Diana in the automobile crash in Paris early Sunday. Harrods is in a narrow, bustling, noisy part of west London, an area full of people at any time of the day or night, busy people hurrying about their business.

Yet today, when people passed the tables where condolence books for Dodi Fayed were available for signing, they fell silent. They walked past without speaking. Some stopped and joined the line.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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