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21 September 2022

Notes on a mourning nation

On the streets of London after the Queen’s death, our writer found grief, apathy – and a startling sense of community.

By Matthew Engel

Just after dawn on Friday 9 September, the day after the death before, I set out to fulfil my own obligations drawn up for this eventuality and took the train from my Herefordshire home to London.

The early morning silence prevailed until a gaggle of teenage girls got on and plonked themselves across the aisle. They talked for a while about teachers and make-up. And then they got stuck in to the subject.

“I was just making my chocolate when I heard the Queen had died.”

“Oh my God,” said one of her companions. “I was literally on the train and then she died.”

“There was one bit that really made me cry. It showed her shaking hands with loads of people and she was getting older and older.”

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“The Horrible Histories song is out of date now,” said another. “It’s so sad. There was this double rainbow over Buckingham Palace or Big Ben or something.”

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“I heard Prince Philip and the Queen were cousins.” “No they weren’t… Hey Siri, were Prince Philip and the Queen related?” But the signal had gone and Siri refused to answer. They forgot about it and moved on, finally. But I felt I had already glimpsed a truth.

How were the British responding to an event unprecedented in the lifetime of seven-eighths of them? The end of a fixed point of their lives, a transformation of the context in which they lived. This moment was to provide the finish of a long-standing project of mine, to chronicle the life of Elizabeth II’s Britain, an entity that died with her.

Through the prism of the traditional TV channels, if not the hundreds of alternatives now available, the country was in deep mourning. And so it might have been around the temporarily sacred sites that would flit in and out of the headlines over the next ten days – from Balmoral to, most improbably, Southwark Park. Everywhere else life more or less carried on. Shallow mourning.

[See also: The Queue wasn’t just about grief, but our deep need to be part of something bigger]

That first Friday, central London bore some superficial signs of grief. At midday, the church bells tolled; at 1pm the guns reverberated from Hyde Park and the Tower. In Piccadilly Circus the huge adverts were replaced by a picture of the Queen five storeys high.

A few traditionally minded shops – the bookseller Hatchards, Selfridges and Liberty – closed for the day. Fortnum & Mason stopped its ornate clock. A few, a very few, blacked out their windows. And a dress shop in Knightsbridge made its own gesture by moving a selection of black outfits into the window, including a fetching, slightly low-cut number priced at £695. But far more shops were blacked out simply because their businesses had died.

The dozier foreign tourists who, with the slumping pound, dominate the West End streets more than ever, might not even have noticed anything was up. Unless Buckingham Palace was also on the day’s itinerary.

Alongside the wall of the Palace gardens, the British were following the script and began to queue. By lunchtime the line stretched back towards Hyde Park Corner, though it still moved briskly. These were the flower people.

Young men who might only ever have carried flowers as hopeful lovers or to apologise to Mum held their bouquets without any hint of embarrassment. “Why have you come?” I asked an office worker from Dulwich. south London. “I dunno. I just thought I’d give her a send-off.” Most of them, at this stage, had not come far but some, only 18 hours after the announcement, had made it from middle England. “It was my duty,” said a man from Peterborough. “She was everyone’s grandmother.”

Everyone I met beside the wall lived in Britain. But what struck me was the large number of those who had acquired Britishness rather than had it thrust upon them. One Chinese woman from Essex had brought flowers from her own garden. Another Chinese couple, Benny and Amelia, had moved from the mainland to Hong Kong and then, when Chinese rule there got nastier, to Kew. “The British are not just one people,” said Benny. “What they share is a belief in democracy.” Their gratitude was practical, not just sentimental.

[See also: The Queue wasn’t just about grief, but our deep need to be part of something bigger]

As the crowd swelled, the gaps in the railings in which to thrust the tributes were vanishing, the pace slowed, and finding somewhere – anywhere – to drop the flowers and move on became a major preoccupation, as if those offering bouquets were time-pressed delivery drivers.

Meanwhile, the tourists clung to the end of the Mall, hanging back as if sensing this was not their show. They huddled round the Victoria Memorial, the more daring clambering on to ledges to get a clearer view.

The flowers were now being dropped beneath Victoria’s disdainful glare. Others were incongruously placed below the bare bum of her neighbour, the near-naked Progress statue. This was very different from the sombre formality that greeted George VI’s death in 1952, when the crowd that gathered at the Palace did so wearing black. Tourists were rarities then, and it was February.

This time almost no one wore a black tie except the face-to-camera TV men, and indeed hardly anyone had a tie at all. It reminded me of the throng that gathered for William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I walked the streets that day, too, chatting and listening. They were mostly young, neither devoted royalists, one sensed, nor republicans. They scented history and wanted to be stakeholders. They might have turned out just the same if they had been given a holiday to mark the monarchy being overthrown.

Being there fulfils a yearning that has grown ever greater as more and more life is lived vicariously in front of screens. In 1946, the year before Elizabeth married Philip, Carson McCullers published a beautiful bittersweet novel called The Member of the Wedding about a troubled little girl desperate to have a part in something. Now, many Britons wanted to be members of the funeral.

By the next day, the first Saturday, with all the football postponed, orderliness had vanished. Green Park station was jammed, and then closed, because of the huge numbers of flower-carriers. Near the Palace, there was an impenetrable wall of humans and roadblocks.

St James’s Park was now full of impromptu shrines underneath the plane trees. However, well below road level and far from the clogged entry points, there is a dip just by Victoria’s statue but out of her line of sight, where a semicircular fountain with a serpent-mouthed spout dispenses water. There being no normal traffic, it would – but for the helicopters overhead – have been rustically peaceful.

Mourning Her Majesty: spectators watch the Queen’s funeral in London’s Hyde Park. Photo by Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There was no sign that officialdom was aware of this place, which held a couple of hundred bunches of unofficial roses, gladioli, freesias and whatever other flowers that might still have been unsold. There was more besides: the odd balloon, soft toys and letters addressed either to the late Queen or the new King. One woman had written at length about how she had glimpsed her on Derby day 2006. Here was the first sign of the Paddington Bear sub-cult, with children offering their drawings, their own Paddingtons and one full jar of Golden Shred marmalade. Many of those who stumbled on this spot stayed to take in its improbable aura of calm.

In rational terms, this seems absurd. Give the marmalade to a food bank, for heaven’s sake. Let the kids keep their toys. There was certainly something medieval about this phenomenon, a remnant of the notion that the royal touch could cure scrofula. But beside that surprisingly serene fountain one felt something mystical – that the flower-bringers were meeting a profound human and spiritual need. And that there may be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of those who scorn that.

That morning I had chosen a random London district and wandered round the very mixed streets of Acton, 25 minutes by Tube from Green Park, birthplace of Adam Faith, the Who and Waitrose (though they all left). Here too there was minimal evidence that Britain had suddenly passed a turning point of historic dimensions and global fascination.

I tried to eavesdrop and heard no one talking about the momentous news, still less than 36 hours old. Normal Londonish preoccupations held sway. Few flowers can have gone east from here: the only specialist florist was a casualty of Covid, and Morrisons was still well stocked.

The only sign that anything had happened was on an estate agents’ door saying it would close an hour early as a mark of respect. It was the least they could do: unimpressive two-room flats in Acton are now being advertised at almost £700,000. This surpasses the rate of general price inflation more than twentyfold. In 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen, flats round here could be had for about £1,000. The agents should be lobbying for her to be canonised as the patron saint of their profession.

Yet monarchism was not dead. Getting a bit lost, I asked a woman with an Alsatian the way to the station. Then I asked her whether royalty was on her mind. Was it ever! Sandra O’Neill took out her phone and showed me her pride-and-joy photo. Aware that King Charles had landed at Northolt before travelling to the Palace, she went out to the A40 and saluted as he passed. “And he waved back! It was so lovely!”

[See also: Why we should celebrate British sentimentality]

So which was the real Britain? Far from London, in the pubs of Hereford, one of England’s most traditional and stable cities, on the night she died, I heard no one talking about the Queen; TV sets tuned to continuous Huw Edwards went unwatched; conversations were about daily doings and football. Maybe there was not much to be said among family and friends, unless you were going to argue. A YouGov poll did report that 44 per cent of its sample said they “cried or welled up” in response to the Queen’s death. Yet even in Herefordshire the queue that formed to see the lying-in-state provoked dark humour and disbelief. One night a young man yelled at the pub telly: “If that queue gets any longer they’ll be able to see Charles there as well.” One countrywoman told me the phenomenon constituted “mass hysteria”.

By the following Saturday – 17 September, two days before the funeral – Piccadilly Circus had gone back to advertising Hugo Boss, Samsung and Tommy Hilfiger. The icons of British retailing, John Lewis and M&S, had black drapery in the windows. Ted Baker on Regent Street went postmodern and cleared the display for a marmalade sandwich and attendant corgi. Otherwise, the shoppers of the world kept calm and carried on. This was a far cry from the sombreness of 1952.

But in the parks it was a different story. The authorities had seized control of the situation and made it far worse, with distant police chiefs issuing ridiculous instructions to befuddled security personnel on the ground. At one stage people in St James’s Park were effectively kettled inside the park because “too many people are trying to get in”.

Most of the flowers had also been kettled into an area of Green Park behind one of the many sets of high fences. Officials belatedly stripped them of their plastic wrapping so they could be composted after being piled into a huge maze, surrounded by outlying floral islands shaped like ancient burial mounds. The intervening grass was trampled and the blooms were dying. Sunflowers had become predominant but, deprived of sun, were in mourning for themselves. The whole mass floral grave was imitating the Queen’s life cycle, but in about 96 hours rather than 96 years.

I escaped eventually to inspect once obscure Southwark Park, where the long queue for Westminster Hall was beginning the last full all-nighter. The aspirant queuers were being corralled into the first of the now notorious zigzag barriers, which entailed walking a mile and a half to cover about 200 yards to the park gate. It was a good place to chat to a few of the supposed hysterics: the crowd was multiracial (but again, everyone I met lived in the UK) and of all ages. There was Sohaib, taking refuge in Britain from Pakistan with his 16-month-old son snug in his pram. Along the way I was handed a purple wristband and failed to resist.

It was just after 7pm – estimated walking time 12 hours for a notional two-hour stroll. I opted out at the first way station, the Angel pub by the riverside at Rotherhithe, to meet my most urgent need: a large gin and tonic. Crucially, it was served in a disposable cup. So, gin in hand, I rejoined the marchers, then chatted a bit more. And eventually a mad idea took shape: shall I just keep going?

As darkness fell over the Thames, London had never looked more beautiful. Tower Bridge, its towers shining purple to match our wristbands, stood out against the red western sky, with St Paul’s framed behind it. But the night grew cold along the riverbank. Dressed only for a warm afternoon with three sherbet lemons for sustenance, I was showered with offers of blankets and accepted a share of a Kiwi couple’s fish and chips.

Far from being hysterical, this was the nicest bunch of people one could meet – and impossible to categorise. As well as Sohaib’s baby son, I met everyone from the talkative 15-year-old Maisie to an 80-year-old warrior, Michael, who had served in Ulster and Aden. Asked why they were there, they offered the bromides normally served up to camera crews. No one would have done this had they not admired the Queen, but she was not their preoccupation. It was the challenge, making a small sacrifice in common with others.

The camaraderie was exceptional: informal groups of queue buddies formed, took numbers, started WhatsApp groups. Perhaps the atmosphere was like this on the Aldermaston CND marches when the Queen’s reign was young. Or a Chaucerian pilgrimage, but less bawdy. Someone suggested the Wimbledon queue, but it was much less rigid than that. I was able to race back to my room from Waterloo Bridge, add some layers, filter back in without cheating and thus survived the night. Your queue buddies would look after your place for a while.

Word was that the last bit was the worst. Barred from crossing Westminster Bridge, we were then forced into the most hellish of the zigzags, marching up and down about 60 times like soldier ants, through security, until we eventually made the promised land and glimpsed the catafalque after almost exactly 12 hours. Was I moved? Actually, I was so knackered I could hardly move at all. I even had a microsleep standing on the stairs of Westminster Hall.

By now the first campers were claiming their space along the Mall for the funeral. No, I did not. I did pay one last visit to the fountain. It was off-limits but I blagged my way through a barrier for a quick look. The original forest of flowers and Paddingtons had all gone now. There were just nine new bouquets. One of the messages for the Queen read “Good night, sleep tight”. Something about that old childhood phrase got to me. And I finally joined the 44 per cent who had welled up.

Matthew Engel’s “The Reign – Part 1: The Way It Was, 1952-1979” will be published by Atlantic Books on 6 October

[See also: Howard Jacobson’s Diary: Mourners in Westminster, sweet treats in Soho, and shedding a tear for the Queen]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke