Nobody shouted where to go.
We came, intent on following;
The mats and metalled pens
the only guides we need.
One path we tread
through twists and turns,
a nation slowly on the move,
from Edmonton and Pontefract,
Cheam, Didcot, Exeter and Bow.
We come to keep the night watch
Of the one we loved.
‘God help me to make good my vow,
and God bless all of you
who are willing to share in it.’
You kept your vow, Ma’am.
Tonight we must keep ours.
Those words came to me as we wound our way through the first snake of the queue in Southwark Park that would lead to the Queen’s lying in state. I joined the queue just after 10pm on Friday 16 September, together with our daughter and son-in-law. This was a cultural moment, the passing of an epoch, and we had to share in it. Somehow, the need to process it here is a therapy, as so often in grief. Someone precious has been taken from us, the embodiment of the kingdom. At the same time, our constitution is on display and functioning. A nation is revealed.
In the middle of Southwark Park is a bandstand, and the avenues of metal barriers funnelled us down a set of zigzags that snaked round the edge of the crowd. Heavy plastic matting marked the paths. Large flood lights shone at intervals, casting shadows. Soon we were the crowd, following dog-legged avenues that led us back to the bandstand, shifting a few yards with each turn. Everybody chatted easily, united by a sense of purpose and determined to keep each other’s spirits up. A sweet Ghanaian couple from North London, a book salesman from OUP who was born in Bangladesh. A lady from Halifax discussed the Piece Square back home and introduced her Japanese daughter-in-law. Many nations bringing their heritage to enrich one nation. Onwards we snaked, like a production line that is suddenly in motion and then stock still. For the fifteenth time we neared the band stand – would we ever escape it, standing empty and silent? Perhaps it should have been belting out ‘Colonel Bogey’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but at midnight we wouldn’t want to stir the neighbours. Ten thousand people in a park, moving when ready, quietly chatting, patiently waiting. We know what to do.
On the final turn, we approached the gate. Police held the traffic and we moved along Cathay Street. Were people asleep in their beds unaware of the silent footfall beneath their balconies? Beneath the fletton bricks of Paradise Street we received our purple wrist bands marked ‘LISQ’. Then the brakes were off and the moving tide of humanity swept along Bermondsey Beach and past a merry gang of fireman in Bermondsey Wall, halting among the former warehouses of Butler’s Wharf. Whoever picked this route was a genius, leading us through London’s vanished docks, down streets and past courts bearing the names of our Victorian trading past. If anywhere shouted ‘change’ it was here, yet the dockers steel walkways above our heads had been preserved, and cinnamon warehouses repurposed as restaurants for the rich.
In my childhood, Tower Bridge was synonymous with Thames Television and universally grey. Now it is refurbished, and its towers lit in purple in the dark, an alkaline litmus test of Britishness that bleeds into the water. If in any way Britain is your home, it stirs the soul. HMS Belfast, the navy cruiser that served on D-Day, has her superstructure lit in purple. She was launched by Mrs Chamberlain when the Queen was only ten, and must wonder how it is she has outlived her Queen.
A team of volunteers guide us through another snake beside the Bridge Theatre and while I wait, I chat to two of them, both Civil Servants. Imagine the email memo that summoned them. Legislative affairs directors and finance clerks don their light blue vests and feel the power of directing willing human traffic. Why were we held in our metal pens at the end of the snake while the path cleared ahead of us? Simply so that when we were released, we could pick up speed and stretch our calves and quads. A mind that studied crowd control had shaped this route. Deep vein thrombosis would be discouraged.
As we round the back of Southwark Cathedral we pause, and the tower looms above us. Beyond it the Shard is ever present. A line of people five deep stand almost silent, thoughtful, uncomplaining, wrapped against the cold. Then, as we draw level with Shakespeare’s Globe, the line halts. A halt becomes a stasis. Not for the first time, I ring my brother who is three hours ahead. They have reached the London Eye, but nothing is moving. Westminster Hall is closed for cleaning at 2am, and a funeral rehearsal is also stopping anything from moving. Outside the Globe, wreaths of rosemary are hung ‘for remembrance’. We all begin to freeze as the wind blows off the river. Then we see a tea stand hard at work, and a new queue forms. Four ladies at the front spend twenty minutes getting their order right, and it is the only time that the harmony of the night is disturbed. A young man called Jack* waits with me, and a more irate lady in a very woolly red hat. I am shivering in my suit. As more and more are wrapped in blankets, we resemble something more pathetic, we poor, we huddled masses. If the Globe were offering us Waiting for Godot it would seem almost appropriate. Yet the operation of the tea stand is the only complaint. We know where we are heading, and we are glad to do so.
Finally, the queue is moving, and behind us there is a hint of dawn, which is greeted with muffled joy. St Paul’s stands regally over the water, emblem of all that survived the blitz. Dawn disturbs the pigeons from their perches near Tate Modern and they sweep above our heads. By now we are counting bridges (where did they find Roberto Calvi?), spotting landmarks, pondering how eyesores stand side by side with regency splendour, a queue of buildings lining the north bank as haphazard as ourselves, brought together in no particular order by history.
We pass the lurid concrete forest of pillars, covered in graffiti, that prop up the Queen Elizabeth Hall (A crime it bears her name! Blow up the pillars! Tear it down now! What were they thinking?! ‘We (she?) gave the architect a knighthood so that no one would say that!’). Under Waterloo Bridge and there, glistening and gleaming in the morning light is the Mother of Parliaments. The early enthusiasm of Southwark Park, and the cold of the night, are replaced with a growing sense of sombre destiny.
After the dark of the night, the Elizabeth Tower rising above Westminster bridge shines in all its newly gilded splendour. Everyone reaches for their phones as we turn left to descend to the embankment, with the impulse to take the perfect photo. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please avoid taking photos while walking down the stairs, to avoid accidents.’ We laugh to hide our embarrassment. Imagine having to say that every three minutes all day long.
We pass the covid memorial wall and admire Parliament’s venetian reflections in the Thames. The weather is perfection. At last we are crossing Lambeth bridge, and we enter the final snake. A TV camera sits on a high mast, and as we walk the forty or so laps of the famous snake, slowly we edge nearer. The security check tent is ringed by armed police, then we are through. Tired, with aching back, and building emotions, the sense of the journey falls away and suddenly we have arrived.
Standing at the top of the steps I sigh at the grandeur of the hall. A VIP group slips in from St Stephens Hall. As we descend the steps and wait our turn, I pray, giving thanks for Her Majesty, her faith and service, and praying for the nation’s spiritual renewal. Then everything is a silent assault on the senses. The crimson, navy and gold of the royal standard. The yeoman warders and the guards stock still as Madame Tussauds. The Parliamentary messengers marshalling us with silent dignity and gestures. The height of the coffin. Here is our Queen in regal splendour, her reign completed, her service discharged. Beneath the mediaeval beams the candles flicker. We three turn together and bow.
As we leave, the older man ahead of us turns and walks backwards to the exit, transfixed by the sight. A row of journalists look down from their perch, intrigued. We reach the doorway, turn to look back, and Meg dissolves in floods of tears. We hug and I lose it as well.
In a republic, power changes hands in the charged hype of an election. The people pluck someone from relative obscurity, and we start to discover who they are. An inauguration is a strange combination of celebration and exasperation. In a constitutional monarchy, the crown changes hands in grief – the grief of a family and the grief of a nation. Any sense of rejoicing is absent. It marks the end of life as well as the end of service, and a new monarch receives the crown under God, not as the successful candidate, but as a servant called to be faithful. It has been a privilege to mark that passing in such as public way.
*Jack was filmed by Channel 4 news as we reached the end of the queue, along with a girl called Zoe. They had met in the queue just a few places behind us, and become firm friends, finding they had lots in common. They had agreed to meet again in London on the Monday for the funeral. See what you make of the video – was this #LoveInTheQueue? The making of a Richard Curtis movie? I would love to know.