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United in grief

BBC's Clarence Mitchell
It was the first time, and quite possibly the last time that I have seen people cry in a newsroom. Normally, such hard-bitten, journalistic places, long weathered by the daily diet of grief, mayhem and deadlines, don't witness such overt emotions.

But, having come into work within minutes of being paged in the early hours of that Sunday morning, I found the sight of one or two women weeping at 4am as the news from Paris was confirmed, portent. It was an omen of the imminent floodtide that would shortly engulf cities around the world, as people woke to learn what we already knew.

And so, in those initial hours, outside both Kensington and Buckingham Palace as the late-returning nightclubbers, early risers and the plain shocked began to lay the first flowers, we began the mechanics of our trade.

The usual questions, "Why are you doing this?"," What do you feel?", "What did Diana mean to you?" elicited answers that painted a picture that was, initially at least, unexpected.

This wasn't, as some editors back in the newsroom assumed, the core of fervent Royalists often seen at Royal events, the dedicated few who'll turn out whatever the occasion to mark their devotion, their loyalty. The people we were finding on the streets of London were different. They were ordinary citizens, of all ages and backgrounds, experiencing an as yet ill-defined, but collective, sense of loss. For many, it was as if someone they knew well had left suddenly without saying goodbye.

As the days passed, we realised people were travelling from all over Britain to come to the Royal Palaces. Some came much further. People from New Zealand, Japan, and Hawaii, all said they travelled to London because of the accident.

The reaction was a measure of the Princess's global celebrity. For many, she was a creation of television. Now it was that medium that was telling people of her passing. TV undoubtedly helped create the unifying sense of grief that brought many onto the streets. "We saw it on television, we just wanted to be here," was often said.

Even from those who professed no love of the British Royal Family, there was a sense that something had changed: "She was one of the best ones, why did she have to go?" was one unanswered question left hanging with the flowers building into a sea across the Royal Palaces.

The early reports of paparazzi involvement in Paris affected the mood. For the first few hours, being a cameraman outside Buckingham Palace was potentially dangerous. Some were roughed up simply for being there so soon.

But within hours, the focus had shifted. Hostility towards the media evaporated. The tabloid press's questions over the Queen's alleged lack of public feeling were reflected on the streets, usually by those who'd just read the latest leader pages themselves. We also found those who felt the Royal Family had behaved entirely properly, protecting Diana's sons from the onslaught, ahead of the funeral under the eyes of the world.

It was a momentous week, a unique kaleidoscope of images and emotions that assaulted the senses - but the television pictures could not, and did not, convey the sense of being there, among the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who took to the streets.

Much of this outpouring didn't conform to the national stereotype, the stiff upper lip. It may not have been "British" but those who were there couldn't have cared less. The parents and children, the office workers, the teenagers, the tourists combined to create an exceptional response to an exceptional event.

Among the abiding memories: The overpowering smell of the fields of fresh flowers, particularly in the early morning outside St James's Palace as the Princess lay inside for private mourning. The poignancy of children delivering bouquets and hand-written cards for their "Princess Di". The quiet patience of the deep queues stretching down the Mall as people waited for eight or nine hours to sign the Books of Condolence at St James's. The mass of twinkling nightlights lacing the flowers as evening fell, the explosive sea of flashlights, like some blanket of ground-borne starlight, as the hearse carrying the coffin left St James's for Kensington Palace the night before the funeral, and the woman who broke down, screaming "Diana, Diana," as the gun carriage carrying her coffin left for Westminster Abbey.

At one point, as the coffin passed through Kensington, some young men in a hotel doorway were talking loudly, almost jovially, when another man turned on them angrily: "Why don't you just shut up...don't you realise this is a funeral?" A murmur of agreement went up from the surrounding crowd.

For each person there, this was as intimate an event as a private family occasion - a chance to say farewell in the sunshine of a late summer's day to a woman who meant more to many than perhaps they realised themselves.