When two worlds collide. Pageantry and queueing are two of the country’s favourite rituals. Traditions, almost. Though like many traditions they are not always entirely as they seem. No monarch had lain in state at Westminster Hall before King Edward VII in 1910. Yet to see the Queen there now, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a medieval ceremony. One dating back many centuries.
Same for waiting. Other countries have been doing it for as long as we have with no mass riots. During the cold war, eastern bloc countries often did little else. The UK has no monopoly, no sense of primacy, in making a virtue of standing in lines and – preferably – getting wet. Yet our psyche would have it otherwise. If we have a tradition it’s in our ability to talk about queueing and claiming it for ourselves.
No matter. These are the truths that we tell ourselves. Especially at moments of national significance. Though there is no denying we do pageantry and queueing as well as anyone else. And when these two worlds collide, Britain hits its sweet spot. It becomes, for a few days at least, a gentler, better-tempered place. Where differences can peacefully coexist. Though not for long. It turns out that just as many people were pissed off with the BBC’s wall-to-wall hagiographic coverage of King George VI’s funeral as they are with its programming of the Queen’s.
Come Thursday morning – or D+7, as Buckingham Palace calls it – the royal family had taken a back seat. King Charles had retreated to Highgrove for some me time. Time for personal reflection after a week of activities to honour his mother and cement his accession. William and Kate were off to Sandringham to thank staff. Harry was no doubt just wondering why he was given the same treatment as Prince Andrew and made to wear civvies during the procession to Westminster Hall the day before. It wasn’t as if he was an alleged sex offender. His only crime was to be a bit messed up and fall in love with a B-list American TV star who craved attention. Even Prince Edward was allowed to cosplay a soldier. And he only lasted a few days at marine boot camp in Lympstone. The only theatre of operations he had to endure was Cats.
This was the public’s day. A time for ordinary men and women to come and pay their respects and say their own goodbyes to the Queen. Those who had been prepared to queue for up to seven hours to spend a few moments near her coffin. They must have been up half the night, wrapped up in rugs and sleeping bags. But by the time they made it into the hall they were carrying only the odd totebag and knapsack. Their possessions had somehow dematerialised.
The visitors arrived via the south entrance and almost to a person paused at the top of the steps to take in the grandeur of the 11th-century hall. Not just the Queen’s coffin, draped in the royal standard and with the crown and mace on top, perched on the purple catafalque, but the washed stone walls and hammer-beamed wooden roof. Westminster Hall is by a long way the most awe-inspiring building in Westminster. There was no better place to feel part of history.
From the stairs, people slowly walked down until they were level with the coffin itself. Then they stopped, lost in thought. For both the Queen and what she represented. Not just her qualities of duty and service, but also as the nation’s matriarch. The ultimate mother figure. Someone who had been an unconscious psychological support for so many people. A tabula rasa on whom they could pin their own hopes and fears. And on whom they could project their grief for other losses: family and friends.
Someone whose longevity had suggested a permanence that could never be fulfilled. The Queen’s death was the unwelcome reminder of what was coming to us all sooner or later. Perhaps some people even needed to be there as a reality test. To see with their own eyes that the Queen actually was dead. Because only by acknowledging that could they move on.
Some bowed or curtsied to the coffin. Others merely nodded. A couple of men in uniforms saluted. A few people were in tears. One couple had bought their three children, all of whom looked under five. How they had survived the queue was anyone’s guess. Interspersed were various MPs – Andrea Jenkyns, George Eustice and Alun Cairns – and other workers on the parliamentary estate who had been allowed to jump the queue. They were easy to tell apart, even without their passes. They were the ones who didn’t look knackered from having been queueing for seven hours.
Every 20 minutes the 10-man guard of Beefeaters, Grenadiers and Gentlemen at Arms in ostrich-plume floppy hats would change. From the side of the hall, an officer banged his metal pike twice on the floor and from the north end a new squad emerged to take their place. They would then lower their heads and swords and stand motionless around the catafalque. Like so much of the pageantry on display this last week, it was simultaneously absurd and magnificent. And surprisingly moving. Even to a diehard republican.
Most impressive of all was the stillness. The silence. The only noise in the hall came from the spurs of the Gentlemen of Arms on the stone floors during the changing of the guard. The visitors’ feet were muffled by carpets. Finally, we had a chance to turn inward. To think what we wanted to think without being judged or told how to feel.
After a week of nonsense, I’ve finally had enough of Huw Edwards’ commentary. I think it was “The lights on the Yellow Box Storage Company here on the A40 that the Queen loved and knew so well have been dimmed as a mark of respect” that finally did it for me. Though I could have just made that up. I’ve had enough of being played. Of being manipulated. And it took half an hour in Westminster Hall to feel some kind of peace. But then, I didn’t have to queue for seven hours in search of nirvana.