It is 10.26am when the email appears in my inbox. Would I like to visit the mourners waiting to go see the Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall? The Queue is, at this point, four miles long. The Queue is the top trending topic on Twitter in the UK. Would I like to walk its length then write about it?
I read the email with my phone in one hand. There is a McMuffin in the other. I am sitting on a pavement in the street. It is 10.26am and I am viciously hungover. Would I like to write about the Queue? Well, we do not choose when duty is placed upon us, we must simply rise to the occasion. Still, I go home and have a bath first.
London Bridge, 12.07pm
I exit the train station and ask two police officers where one might find the Queue. The woman helpfully gives me directions. The man says, “If I hear the word queue one more time I’m going to scream. I’m going to have dreams about the queue. Queue. Queue. Quueeeuuuuee.” I thank them and start walking. I worry about him.
Tower Bridge, 12.18pm
It feels oddly fitting that the Queue is starting in Tower Bridge. As a child growing up in France, it was one of the main images I had of Britain in my head; a bit gaudy, too dainty to be entirely serious, but nevertheless quite charming. It is hard not to feel similarly about this endeavour. Halfway between silly and solemn; that’s the country I’ve grown to love.
Now in a bright mood, I walk up to a middle-aged woman at the very beginning of the queue and tell her I’m a journalist. She doesn’t let me finish my sentence. She doesn’t want to talk to me. It isn’t a good start.
A young Mexican woman further down is friendlier. She is here for a few months and wanted to join this “historic” moment. “The Queen wasn’t just the Queen of England, she was the Queen around the world,” she tells me.
Near her are a cheerful group of middle-aged people, none of whom knew each other before joining the Queue. One has made the journey with her brother because she has good memories of watching the Queen’s Christmas speech as a child. The couple they have now befriended travelled from north Wales to pay their respects.
“My grandfather was a Coldstream Guard,” the man explains. “He guarded the Queen when she was a little girl, so there’s a connection there. It’s instilled in me.”
Tate Modern, 1.02pm
Things have taken both a philosophical and an unfortunate turn. I left Tower Bridge then set out to walk along the river, to talk to some more people further along the Queue. Turning a corner, I came across people walking at a brisk pace, and found myself standing alongside the very people I’d already interviewed.
The thought of buying an elaborate wig and fake moustache to see if the unfriendly woman would talk to me this time crosses my mind. I ultimately decided against getting arrested for harassing a mourner.
I start to power-walk along the Queue, which is moving much more quickly than I anticipated it would. I am still very hungover. I begin jogging alongside the mourners and it feels like rats have climbed into my stomach and my throat and are now fighting to get out again.
The whole thing looks unexpectedly elastic; sometimes people are standing and advancing very slowly, stuck to one another like sardines in large groups. Minutes later they’ll be walking briskly in a thin line, one by one or two by two, looking like tourists on a schedule. In a way, that is what quite a few of them are; nearly everyone I talk to has come from elsewhere. There are worse parts of London in which to walk.
I reach the Globe Theatre and the Thames and the Queue has… disappeared. I look around, confused. I see two women walking and asking about the Queue. Can you still be in a queue if there is no queue for you to queue in? What makes a queue a queue? I sit down on some stairs to catch my breath and ponder the very nature of queues. A pigeon shits on my head. I begin to write.
Southbank Centre, 1.41pm
The Queue materialises again after Blackfriars Bridge. I decide to celebrate by stopping and getting a large hot dog from a place called “Daddy Daddy Smokehouse”. It is a mistake. In the time it takes me to finish my lunch, the Queue gets faster again.
I stand up, ready to go talk to some more mourners, and find myself in front of the very same people I saw in Tower Bridge then London Bridge. I consider crying. I power-walk instead.
There is a large screen in front of the BFI Southbank showing archive footage of the Queen. Watching and nattering are Andrea and Marina, two women who did not know each other when they began queuing. “We will never get to see this again,” says the former. “We will never get another monarch that’s been there for 70 years. I’ve known her all my life; she’s on my money, she’s on my passport, on my banknotes, she’s everywhere.
“I thought I needed to come pay my respects. Some of my friends said, ‘Oh it’s too long,’ and I thought: someone can be on the throne for 70 years, literally until her death, and you can’t wait eight hours? That says a lot.”
A young couple behind them are looking at their small child, who is part of the reason why they came here today. They wanted her to know that she had seen the monarch at least once; “so she can look back one day and say, ‘I was dragged to London when I was six weeks old!’”. I worry they have noticed the pigeon shit on my hair. I have not been able to remove it.
Lambeth Palace, 2.19pm
At risk of stating the obvious, there are some very dedicated people here. “I came down for the Queen Mother’s lying in state, I slept on the pavement when Diana died, so I’m here,” a woman tells me. “It was an inevitability.”
Another man has been on the street for more than 24 hours and is yet to sleep; he was at Buckingham Palace all day and all night yesterday, then this morning he went straight to Tower Bridge and began queuing there. He plans to take a short break over the weekend before queuing for the funeral on Sunday night. He is wearing a Union Jack tie and Union Jack sunglasses, which he bought for the occasion.
Two sisters in their twenties decided to come down from Leicestershire to pay their respects. “I’ve been glued to the news and thoroughly depressed all week,” says one. “I mean I’ve not watched for a few days now,” says the other, “I’ve been in Ibiza.” “We all grieve in different ways,” the eldest concludes.
Lambeth Bridge, 2.32pm
I try to flash my press card and walk across Lambeth Bridge, where the Queue heads determinedly towards Westminster Palace, but I am stopped by security. Only mourners from here, I am told. After two and a half hours, I leave the Queue. I should feel free and happy but I don’t. I really thought I’d be able to follow all of it; it’d started to feel like home.
I begin to walk away and wonder if the Queue is, in its own British way, a textbook example of the ways in which people deal with grief. Something big and terrible has happened and you don’t know what to do with yourself, so you throw your whole being into something a bit absurd instead. My head still hurts but my heart is fuller than it was this morning. I never thought I’d say this but, you know what? Long live the Queue.
[See also: The Queue: a brief history of its future]