Born in 1955, I am an Elizabethan and the Queen has been head of state for my whole life. I have attended the various jubilees, appreciating the sense of history, the nostalgia of street parties and the gift of an extra Bank Holiday. So, increasingly bothered about how to observe this latest historic event, I considered some ideas inspired by a bike ride around London.
In my opinion, tributes to the late Queen Elizabeth got off to a shaky start, with thousands of bouquets still wrapped in cellophane shoved into railings around Buckingham Palace. Later, in a frenzied rush for the next best spot to lay a tribute, flowers appeared around nearby trees, lampposts, fountains and on the barriers down the Mall. Add to that a burgeoning number of Paddington Bears along with their mandatory marmalade sandwiches, not to mention letters – often mawkish, but sometimes sweet and written by children. And perhaps it’s better to forget the jarring presence of the odd helium balloon, attached to any railing not guarded by a member of the Met.
Granted, the situation improved with regard to the acres of plastic after many visitors voluntarily helped Royal Parks gardeners to take off the cellophane before laying them back down in Green Park. Could this gesture provide a more meaningful homage to our late Queen? And eventually, the Council did impose a moratorium on marmalade sandwiches – much to the chagrin of the local rodent population.
Given that many families are struggling financially to the point of fearing that they might have to choose between heating and eating this winter, I couldn’t help but think these tributes were misdirected, at a time when charity donations might have been more welcome. But a public manifestation of grief is a powerful and unstoppable force, and given so many people felt compelled to leave their mark and say they were there, I just hoped that the sea of assorted bears might be rescued and given to children who might not have a happy Christmas this year.
Compounding all this were the increasingly soppy comments made by countless solemn broadcasters, assuming on behalf of all their viewers that they too saw this redoubtable old lady as their “grandmother”, or “anchor” – imposing a sense of grief that some did not feel. But what should I do, other than ignore the whole event? Despite my cynicism and desire for a semblance of balance in the reportage, I decided to join The Queue.
Joining the queue
Planned with precision by a friend who calculated that the queue would be at its shortest first thing in the morning, we arrived before dawn at London Bridge, only to be told that the end of the queue was a fifteen-minute walk to the East at Tower Bridge where we would get our wrist bands. Much like many of the queue stories told in the past week, by that time we had already made three new best friends and the day was feeling convivial.
Unbelievably, it then took the best part of two hours to walk back to where we had first started, and despite the company I began to wonder what on earth I was doing here, feeling cold, dehydrated and worried about the toilet situation. This was soon remedied by a round of hot chocolates and the reassuring sight of a bank of festival portaloos! A faster pace to the queue cheered us too, as well as the joy of walking along the South Bank with all its iconic landmarks, set against the city’s skyscrapers across the river: Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market, passing the Globe, Tate Modern and then on to Blackfriars and beyond. The final landmark before Lambeth Bridge was the poignant wall full of hearts – the memorial to those who had died of Covid 19.
In the twelve hours it took to reach Westminster Hall there was plenty of time to wonder why we were all there, in this meandering, organic tourist attraction of its own. This snaking living thing, purposeful in its relative purposelessness.
For myself, I realised that I actually love queuing alongside strangers – something I have been able to exercise in the past few years. Standing in line waiting for Covid vaccinations at the Brighton Centre provided an opportunity for conversations with fellow baby boomers, before we disappeared into the cubicles and out of each other’s lives. Elsewhere, marching for Remain, where millions of us shuffled slowly from Park Lane to Parliament Square – admiring witty banners or conversing sadly about misguided Brexiters.
Brexit, Covid, a Monarch’s death – not things to necessarily celebrate, but certainly moments where people come together, often in a queue, and paradoxically, discover a joyful sense of togetherness in grief.
A fitting tribute
So queuing to see Her Maj was my gift, my cellophane-wrapped bouquet of flowers, and this queue did not disappoint. Not even the final, endless zig-zags in Embankment Gardens, not even having to hurl my non-airport-customs-friendly perfume into a skip, not even standing on the top step of the stairs down into Westminster Hall and wondering how my knees were going to make it down. The hesitation was noticed and an usher offered me his arm and led me down like a princess.
Fantasy perhaps, but the Hall was a stage set, unreal in its perfection, a scene from a fairy tale, but heavy with solemnity. Then out the other side and into Palace Yard where there were volunteers with offers of tissues and a bit of counselling for those who were overcome. As for us, re-united with our new best friends and on some kind of a high, we set up a WhatsApp group and will plan for more queuing together come the coronation!
Ginny Smith finished her article on the queue with poetry and Cavafy was going through my mind: “Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey./ Without her, you would not have set out./ She has nothing left to give you now.”