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A nation that queues

September 16, 2022

There’s an abundance of words being spoken in the media about the queue that ends at the Queen’s coffin. That it’s five miles long. That it’s seven miles long. That it will take nine hours, eleven hours. That it sums up Britain, the nation that queues.

The Guardian has an expert professor who studies crowds. He says there are many reasons why people have put themselves through the ordeal of waiting in line to see a coffin guarded by six resplendently-uniformed soldiers and four Yeomen of the Guard.

He’s obviously right. For some, the long wait is a gesture of respect, of grief. For others it’s a spectacle. Far better than the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to take part in an event of mass participation that allows you to be closer to royalty – and an embodiment of history – than you ever have been or ever will be. An “I was there” event to tell your grandchildren about.

I can understand that. When I was 14, my school organised a bus trip to London so that we could walk past Winston Churchill during his lying-in-state. As we filed past the coffin, richly decorated with Order of the Garter regalia, I was well aware of the significance of the event. Well aware of being ten feet or so from the body of a man who according to the narrative of the time, had saved our country. This was no empty pageant. It was an occasion that demanded deep contemplation, not only about Churchill but about the history he helped to write.

It still resonates. A few days ago I was in a village square in France having coffee with friends. We were talking about the Queen’s lying-in-state. I mentioned that I’d been to Churchill’s. An elderly acquaintance chirped up that she’d been there too. She was the only person I’ve ever met who shared that experience. How different we looked then: she in her twenties and me in my teens.

Did my participation cement my lifetime love of history, or was it the other way around: that it was a sense of history in the making that led me to volunteer for the bus? I don’t remember.

Anyway, though there are many events in my childhood that I’ve forgotten, Churchill’s funeral rites were deeply imprinted in my memory.

I suspect that it will be the same for the people in this queue, though the pervasive coverage of the people walking past the Queen, not least the live feed on the BBC, will probably leave as strong a memory as mine. In fact, it’s quite possible that in fifty years’ time many who were not actually there will believe they were. Just as so many people of my age were at Wembley when England won the World Cup.

I shall not be there this time. Nine hours on my feet would be more than my ancient knees could stand. Which puts me to shame somewhat, considering the amount of people you can see on the live feed walking past on crutches.

The live feed is fascinating. Silence, apart from the odd baby (did that mother really stand in line for nine hours with a toddler in her arms?). The soldiers, eyes down, faces invisible anyway beneath the bearskins. How is anyone able to stand so still for so long? The ushers, in tails, knee stockings and white ties, quietly busybodying people into separate lines as they enter Westminster Hall.

The Hall itself, with its roof dating from the 12th Century, under which Charles I and Sir Thomas More were tried and sentenced to death. Where many monarchs, and Churchill of course, had lain in state before. The coffin, draped with the royal standard and laden with the crown, the orb and the sceptre. Interesting that those priceless objects, normally protected under reinforced glass cabinets in the Tower of London, are almost within touching distance of the crowds, protected by men with swords, staffs and pikes. Presumably the serious security is hidden away from view.

And the people. One guy shuffling past with his hands in his pockets. Stopping, taking his hands out, bowing. Most making some gesture towards the coffin: a salute, a namaste, a sign of the cross. But mostly bowing, some perhaps for the first time in their lives.

When I first watched the feed, I was struck by the ethnic make-up of those walking past. Far less black and brown people than the country’s ethnic make-up might lead you to expect. But a few hours later, many more. It would be tempting but misleading to draw conclusions about the mainly white composition of the queue. So no speculation. Just observation.

I also wonder how many of the crowd are tourists, with no direct connection to the country or its head of state. There to witness a unique event that they will tell their friends and loved ones about. But no photos or selfies to prove they were there.

This is no outpouring of unconstrained grief, Diana-style. A more decorous occasion you could hardly hope to witness. It’s as if the visitors have left whatever rage, joy or misery that afflicts them in their normal lives outside Westminster Hall. Nothing on display but perhaps a sense of awe at being part of something much bigger than all of us as individuals. Perhaps the actual funeral will be the moment when the emotional dam bursts, quietly, in pubs or at home, in front of the TV.

For me, as a dedicated people-watcher, the live feed is endlessly fascinating. Who are these people? Some dressed for a day out and some dressed in black. Some with medals, some with babies. Some with almost embarrassed expressions, perhaps aware that they’re on camera. Many with rucksacks, but many without. How could they queue for hours without any means of sustenance?

It’s not for me to ponder gravely on the significance of the event – to talk about the nation coming together in grief, or the beginning of a new chapter in our history. Plenty of people are paid to do that, and their words are spread across the media like treacle. In the murky waters of the social media you’ll find enough contrarians using the Queen’s death to make political points, about freedom of speech, our constitution, people holding hands (or not), or the snappiness of a mourning son, our new King.

Of course I’m interested in most of that stuff, just as I’m interested in watching Donald Trump slowly roasting on a legal spit, and Vladimir Putin explaining away the incompetence of his army, but not today.

Today is about The Queue. For we shall surely not see its like again, and certainly not in my lifetime.

From → History, Social, UK

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