Diana, 20 years on: a nation pours out its grief

HOWARD.970901.PHOTO BY ANDREW MEARES.CANBERRA.FAIRFAX… PM JOHN HOWARD signs a condolence book for the late Diana, Princess of Wales at the Governor General’s House Canberra.First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 2, 1997

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More than 800 people gathered in Sydney yesterday for a Mass offering prayers for Princess Diana, while in Canberra her death overshadowed Parliament.

Political leaders paid tribute, and both the House of Representatives and the Senate went into suspension for an hour as a mark of respect.

During the service at St Mary’s Cathedral yesterday some people wept, while others lit candles to mark the lives of those lost in the crash.

In Canberra, the Prime Minister spoke of the “event that has stopped the world”; the Opposition Leader, Mr Beazley, veered close to tears.

A number of senior parliamentarians left Parliament House during the day to sign special condolence books set up at the British High Commission and at Government House.

Mr Beazley, like other MPs, chose to write a short message of condolence in the High Commission’s book: “With great sorrow and deepest sympathy to her family.”

Mr Howard chose to write simply: “John Howard, Prime Minister.”

The Dean of St Mary’s, Father Tony Doherty, who led the 45-minute service in Sydney, said the sense of loss and confusion at the deaths had been felt deeply.

“That sense of loss and confusion has reverberated probably through this whole nation,” he said. “This woman’s life has touched our lives.”

The congregation, which usually number between 30 and 40 for the 1 pm Mass, heard readings by two St Mary’s Cathedral School students before Father Doherty read from the gospel according to Luke.

In his homily, Fr Doherty told the congregation that Diana’s death had “touched unfathomable depths” and “stirred deep waters” for all Australians who had watched her blossom from a shy young girl into a young woman of courage and compassion. In Canberra, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Fischer, spoke in the House of how the world media had reinvented Lady Diana Spencer as a “fairytale princess”.

“It is one of the tragedies of a short life that the media, having created the myth around her, then expected her to live on that myth in the full glare of constant and unremitting publicity,” he said.

However, he said it was “admirable” that Diana had found a way to use the intense media interest to give a huge boost to the charitable causes she supported. Mr Howard, Mr Beazley and Mr Fischer, speaking to a condolence motion before the House of Representatives, all drew attention to Diana’s charitable work.

Mr Howard described her as “a beautiful and stylish woman” who had been patron to a wide variety of causes: those with AIDS and leprosy, the victims of landmines, and charities helping people suffering blindness, deafness, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, lung disease, nervous diseases and meningitis.

“Diana was a person who captured our imagination,” Mr Howard said.

Mr Beazley said although it was not uncommon for members of the British aristocracy to associate themselves with charitable work, the charities she chose were most uncommon.

“HIV/AIDs sufferers went for many years unrecognised and then, when recognised, despised. When she took up their cause, they were still despised. They are not now.

“I think it was probably a surprise to many of us that we missed her. It was a surprise to me when it occurred yesterday.

“All of a sudden you realise that all that service of hers, all those images of her in those circumstances in which she chose to place herself, all came home.”

Scores of people were drawn to the British High Commission, down the hill from Parliament House, throughout the day. Many brought bouquets, and most signed the condolence book. Some of the messages were elaborate, and most expressed sorrow for Diana’s two sons, William and Harry.

The simplest of all messages was from two children. It read: “Sorry.”

One of those who attended the service at St Mary’s, Ms Carol Lane, from St Peters, said she was devastated by the news.

She was especially sad for Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed, who buried his son. “My heart goes out to Mohamed … for that man to lose his most prize possession – his beloved son … for all his wealth he has nothing.”

Ms Joanne Catalano, from Lugarno, said she was neither a republican nor a monarchist but she had felt a closeness to Princess Diana.

“This woman, you just knew her. I feel like someone we knew died,” said Ms Catalano.

Ms Malisa Frazer, 19, said the death of Princess Diana had made her think for the first time about death.

“It’s not so much Diana – it’s just death. It’s never really touched me in this way before.

“I thought she would be someone who would be there forever. She is gone now, and it has shaken me.”

Speaking after the service, Father Doherty said: “Diana has been a figure that has touched this whole globe.

“There have been people on the telephone to me this morning in tears, even a bit surprised and embarrassed, that they were crying – they didn’t know Diana, they weren’t the royal watchers.”

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 2, 1997

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