Curious tales from a queue we weren’t in
I knew we were too late to see the Queen lying in state, but I needed to see that queue. Alex and I walked the whole thing, from front to back – people watching and chatting to strangers and catching snippets of conversations. It was a very special thing to behold, that queue, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my days.
I’ve never known London so quiet and calm. It took me a while to realise it was the absence of traffic noise: no revving engines or honking horns or bitter diesel taste to the air. The crowds were hushed, and walked slowly. There was no pushing, not even on packed out Parliament Square. Everyone seemed a bit dopey to be honest. Like nectar-drunk bees in summer.
On the South Bank, we passed an anti-monarchy protestor on a bike with a megaphone. He was demanding to know why people were standing in such a queue. They just stared back at him, like Dad’s ewes at lambing time – totally nonplussed (sheep are a tough crowd. Sometimes I’d dance in front of their pens as a child – hoping to spark some flicker of interest – but they’d just stare back, idly chewing their cud, before turning away to sniff their lamb’s bum).
It was just like that, watching people in the queue stare back at the man with the megaphone. They weren’t annoyed or offended or particularly interested. They’d watch him for a minute or so before turning back to their conversations and smartphones.
Upping the ante, the man started ranting about the tooth fairy dying:
“Would you people queue up then? Well, would you?! I would like to know why you, sir, are in this queue?”
A bemused man looked up from his phone:
“I don’t need to justify why I’m in this queue.”
A policeman sidled up to the megaphone man, had a quiet word and he was off on his bike. He pedalled a bit further up the line before reaching into his pannier bag, whipping out his megaphone and resuming his position. He received the same blank expressions.
I’m not saying people in the queue were sheep. They were just content in their purpose, happy to be there and in no rush whatsoever. Nothing could rile them. They were fulfilled in their mission, and at peace with the world.
Shortly after megaphone man had given up and left, a tall, burly fireman strode up the line in uniform. He appeared ready to give orders about where to stand, or how to prevent a fire. Instead, he pulled out a red cloth bag, knelt down in front of the queue and offered chocolate to children who had been standing for hours. It got me – this giant of a man with his London Fire Service bag of sweets, kneeling to the queue as if it were the Queen herself. A soldier spotted me crying and smiled. I wasn’t even embarrassed.
Further on we met two young women from Greenwich who’d been eating a “picky tea” in front on the telly at home, and saw on the evening news that the queue was “only” eight hours long. “Because that’s completely normal now right?!” one laughed, throwing her arms in the air in mock hysteria. “We lost our minds and jumped in a taxi!”
We kept going – determined now to walk the full length of the queue. It was drinking up time, pubs closing, and getting late. The queue suddenly ended. “Is this it?” I asked a woman in a face mask. “Are you the last one?”
“No, there are more at Tower Bridge.”
We pushed on, past a long gap, and found a crowd gathered around a cluster of high-vis jackets.
“We’ve run out of wristbands!” a young steward announced. “There’s no more. We had to find two for that elderly couple, but that’s it.”
He pointed. The envious crowd turned to catch a glimpse of a man and woman wisely scuttling off into the darkness with their lucky haul (I never saw them again).
A tiny Scottish lady with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes looked up at the steward: “But we’ve come all the way from Scotland. Is there nothing we can do? Is there some way…?”
“I’m sorry. The queue is closed. There are 30,000 people back there who won’t get in either.”
He gestured into the night towards where I can only assume snaking queues were still waiting, and hoping.
I tried to comfort her. “Don’t be too disappointed – at least you’re here, and experiencing the atmosphere.” I rubbed her arm and her bottom lip quivered.
The steward, a young man in his 20s, was working his sixth consecutive day and said he had been on duty for 14 hours.
“When do you clock off?”
I frowned at the working time maths. “Oh, we do go home, and we get to sleep in the van.”
“I love it,” he beamed. “I have never done anything like this; nothing at all like this. We thought people would get crazy and angry with the queuing but they’ve been so nice. I’ve met all sorts of different people from all over the world. Lovely people. We were expecting 500,000 but 1.2 million have been through here!”
Meanwhile, the bereft Scottish woman was staring ahead, teary eyes turning to steel. “I’m joining it anyway.”
Off she marched, in pursuit of the disappearing queue.
“She won’t get in,” said the steward, shaking his head.
We made our way back to the hotel – midnight now, feet aching – and caught up with the queue, slowly meandering towards Westminster.
A so-called ‘Blue Line’ of three stewards in blue vests marked the cut-off spot: those with wristbands walked in front and those without brought up the rear. The Blue Line looked a little stressed by their responsibility – separating the lucky from the unlucky; knowing dreams ended with them.
I got chatting to Steve from Catford. He was third from the back. Steve had also heard the queue was shorter on the news: “I’d had two pints by then so I just jumped on a bus and did it.”
We powered on past, keen to get to bed now. A disappointed wristband-less woman walked alongside us. She’d queued for 13 hours on Saturday, had seen the Queen lying in state, loved the feeling and wanted to do it all over again on Sunday.
“Oh I’d queue again if I could,” she said. “It’s a shame, but I suppose I can get some sleep now before my toddler wakes up at 5am.”
We peeled away from the queue, made it to our hotel and collapsed into bed at 1am. Should we have queued? In some ways I wish we had. I do feel I missed out. But in not seeing our Queen lying in state, I did get to experience something else.
Wristband or no wristband, you could feel something in that queue – a warmth; a unity we were obviously craving.
“This is freaking me out,” said a woman by the Oxo Tower, “London is never this friendly.”
I’m sure the Queen had a hand in it (practically, I mean). She would have known the plan for her passing, and I believe she hoped for all this. Whether she could have ever imagined the scale of it, we’ll never know.
I have no wristband; no memory of Westminster Hall; no story of bowing my head at the Queen’s coffin. All I take home from the queue is the spirit of it. But somehow, quite wonderfully, that is enough.