An act of collective mourning. An embodiment of what it means to be British. A planning oversight. A logistics triumph. A sign that something in our country’s psyche has gone very badly wrong.
In years to come, historians will disagree over what to make of the queue for the public to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth II. Stretching for ten miles across London, from Westminster Hall to a labyrinthine zigzag through Southwark Park, “the Queue” temporarily became a monument in itself. It began forming at dawn on Wednesday 14 September, after the Queen’s body arrived in London, and proceeded to grow, mile by mile, hour by hour. By Thursday 15 it had its own Wikipedia page; and by midday on Friday 16, it was so long it had to be briefly closed, with those wishing to join it effectively forced to queue for a place in the Queue. The government warned that wait times could be in excess of 24 hours when the Queue was reopened in the evening. “Overnight temperatures will be cold.”
The world has two questions. First, what compelled hundreds of thousands of people to spend hours queuing to see the Queen’s coffin? Second, considering preparations for the death of the monarch have been underway for years, couldn’t a better system have been devised than a line requiring those hoping to see the coffin to stand in-person, in a procession moving at 0.5 miles an hour? A ticketing scheme, or a lottery?
Last Thursday night, I visited the Queue to find out. At least, that’s what I told myself – I was a diligent journalist, heading to the site of action (or inaction) to report on this strange occurrence. But that wasn’t entirely true. Earlier in the day I had joked on Twitter that the Queue had become such a phenomenon that even people who had no real interest in seeing the Queen lying in state would join, simply to share in the experience. Something was happening on the south bank of the River Thames – something that maybe wasn’t just about the Queen. And I wanted to see it. I wanted to feel what those who had travelled across the country – or flown across the Atlantic, even – were feeling.
What I discovered – what I think most people who joined it knew deep down – is that the logistical insanities of the Queue were, in fact, its point. Outside the National Theatre I asked a man who’d joined near Bermondsey how long he’d been waiting. His face lit up with pride: “Three hours!” Further up, a beaming steward was ushering people towards St Thomas’ Hospital: “Four hours to go, but you’ve committed now!”
Far from being discouraged, people laughed. This is what they were here for. Not merely for the coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and with the crown placed on top, but for the experience of waiting for it and of being part of something. The sense of belonging, this physical act of service with all the discomfort and inconvenience it entailed – a small personal sacrifice in recognition of the sacrifices the Queen herself made during her 70-year reign.
In one way, the Queue was simply a demonstration of traditional bereavement rites amplified to a national scale. We mourn lost loved ones by attending their wake or sitting shivah, falling back on ritualistic formalities as a way to process our immediate grief. It gives us something to do, something to think about while our subconscious adapts to a world without the person we loved. The majority of the population of the UK have known only one monarch. The Queue gave space and time enough to reflect after the initial shock.
But it was more than that. As I walked along the Queue, I heard it described as a secular pilgrimage. What would Chaucer have made of these 21st-century Westminster Tales? Or JG Ballard, or Douglas Adams, or Richard Curtis? The Queue could inspire virtually any genre: a heart-warming comedy about strangers who find love in the line; a futuristic dystopia in which society reinvents itself to maintain this linear tribute indefinitely.
I daydreamed about the Queue becoming sentient, taking on a life force of its own. Tibetan mystics have the concept of a “tulpa”, an imaginary idea that attains corporeal form through belief. Isn’t this what the Queue was – a physical manifestation not just of grief and respect, but of that deep-seated human desire to be part of something greater than oneself?
The irony is that the Queue did not need to be a queue at all. Those joining it were given wristbands noting their place so they could leave for short periods to use the loo or get refreshments. Theoretically, nothing was stopping people from leaving entirely after getting their wristband and returning hours later to reclaim their place near the front. Yet the overwhelming majority chose not to. They chose to queue, and, in queuing, to participate in an experience that was about far more than what was at the end. All that would have been lost with a more formal ticketing system.
Does this perverse determination say something bleak about the state of our nation? Maybe two years of lockdowns and Zoom funerals have cemented in our minds the importance of being there, in person, wherever “there” is. Maybe our politics is so broken that any unifying force, however manufactured, seems appealing. But perhaps it’s more basic than that. Perhaps it’s simply about marking your place at an event that will be remembered long into the future. We spend our lives standing in line for far more trivial things. But a chance to be part of history? Surely that’s worth queuing for.
[See also: The Queen’s funeral: in pictures]
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke