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Royal Family Bares Its Pain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cameras in Westminster Abbey had been forbidden to show the faces of the silent royal family, weeping or impassive. But it scarcely mattered.

By the time the princess of Wales’ coffin reached its catafalque in the ancient nave:

Three generations of royal men had walked solemnly behind a coffin, as royal princes have done for a century, and--in the brief shade and presumed privacy of the Horse Guards’ passage--a camera-caught moment had shown a father, Prince Charles, leaning solicitously toward his small son, Harry, and a grandfather, Prince Philip, putting his hand comfortingly on the back of his grandson, William.

Inside the abbey, out of scrutiny of the cameras but not of mourners, it was Elton John’s reworked song that finally pushed Diana’s sons to tears. The haggard prince of Wales looked as though he had not slept or eaten in days, as he reportedly has not. And Reuters news service hastily told its members not to use a story “which contains unverifiable material regarding queen wiping tears from her eyes.”

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No one really needed alleged queenly tears when there, in front of Buckingham Palace, Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, when that woman bowed to the passing coffin of her onetime daughter-in-law.

Like the tolling tongue of the abbey’s tenor bell, public feelings toward the royal family have swung wide and wild over the course of the week since Diana’s death.

“Where is our queen?” demanded the tabloid headlines. “Your people are suffering . . . speak to us, ma’am.”

“For a true queen,” was the unsubtle dig contained in many messages accompanying the bundled flowers left for Diana; people sobbed themselves sick at the spontaneous shrines. Royal biographer Tom Corby commented that such a mania seemed “un-British, almost Latin” in its passion and hyperbole.

So venomous was criticism over the last week that the royals were unfeeling to stay in Scotland and in virtual silence that Prime Minister Tony Blair and some churchmen felt constrained to ask people to, in effect, lighten up.

The change in the tide of sentiment was palpable, most notable when the fleshly gray-haired embodiment of a thousand years of sovereignty showed up Friday for a “walkabout” at the gates of Buckingham Palace, talking to the crowd with tears in her eyes as her husband obligingly ferried bouquets to the waist-high piles already at the palace gates.

The aggrieved British public has returned, for the moment at least, to the reassuring durability of its first family, which managed to snatch a truce from the jaws of defeat with a delicate and improvised balance of precedent broken and precedent observed, from the queen speaking live with a New Age glossary about “feelings” and “emotions,” to the unfailing repertory panoply of what historian and royal biographer Harold Nicolson once called “the chink and glitter of scarlet and gold.”

Unprecedented that the Union Jack should fly at half-staff over Buckingham Palace on Saturday, but it did, for the first time. Unprecedented that the royal men wore business suits and not tailcoats for what amounted to a royal funeral. And the queen broadcast her turning-point speech from the Buckingham Palace balcony, for the first time, with milling crowds and the Victoria monument in the background.

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But the precedent of aplomb and reserve, the same qualities that had infuriated people 48 hours earlier, had now become laudable again.

“People were so angry yesterday, and today it’s, ‘How wonderful Charles is'--all just by being publicly dignified,” observed Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine.

Such conduct, believes BBC radio host Rhod Sharpe, virtually guaranteed that “the royal family renewed itself and the monarchy for at least another 20 years.”

Even before Saturday’s show of stoic unity, the queen’s speech “turned the tide, definitely,” said Judy Wade. “The fact she did it proves she’s a real trouper, a real pro. And the funeral proves that they can get their act together when they put their minds to it.”

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Once royal advisors came to realize how big the juggernaut of feeling was, the Pomp Machine swung--belatedly--into gear. “They were worried the queen was going to get stoned in the streets Saturday,” Wade said.

The seat-of-the-pants feeling of some elements of the week’s events--understandable for a royal culture that had planned Winston Churchill’s funeral for 10 years--left people unsure of what precedents were being shattered and what remained intact.

Take the public confusion around the Royal Standard. People wondered why the Buckingham Palace flagpole was bare. The standard only flies where the sovereign is and is never at half-staff because, although a king or queen may die, there is always a successor, so the monarch is never dead.

King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, supposedly saw the Royal Standard at half-staff after his mother’s death and chewed out a lackey because “the queen is dead, but the king lives.”

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So there was a brief flurry among press and spectators late Friday when the queen returned and the Royal Standard ascended the flagpole at the hands of the official who carries the title Flagman of Buckingham Palace--and stopped halfway. The commentators wondered: Was it at half-staff? A concession at last? No. It was simply stuck.

Down on the streets Saturday, among the subjects, there was forgiveness.

Hours on the bus to London had not left Charlene Stead feeling so uneasy as had the absence of the royal family. Then the queen came back, shook hands, gave a speech, and now Stead had a good spot to watch the cortege go by.

“I feel much better now,” she said, in the shaped vowels of her native West Yorkshire. “We can understand they’re a family like everyone else, but they were so far away, weren’t they?

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“Everybody behaves badly under some circumstances. We all forgive ‘em in the end.”


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