The Queen Mum Queuers
How was it for you?
The British have always been respected for their queuing skills.
The BBC reported with approval how those lining the route of the Queen Mother’s funeral cortège tossed flowers ‘gently’ at the passing hearse, in an atmosphere that was relaxed but respectful, sad but calm.
In the world-according-to-the-BBC, Britons from all walks of life were united in paying our respects for two minutes at 11.30. The evening news on 9 April showed a cake factory where the icing and conveyer belts had halted, the women in their plastic caps with heads bowed; Birmingham New Street Station where everybody had frozen on the spot, looking as if they were playing a mass game of musical statues; young navy recruits lined up, their chests out.
The view from Costa Coffee on Farringdon Road, London, was little different. A harried Italian waitress called for silence at 11.30; but most people carried on chatting, or looking at their watches as people hurried past outside. But in Westminster, where the reporters were, people had finally got into the swing of SNE (shared national experience). The Queen was apparently so ‘moved’ by the numbers who wanted to pay their respects that she made an unplanned address: ‘I thank you for the support you are giving me and my family as we come to terms with her death.’
Why did the queuers think they were there? One woman from Berkshire had come because here four-year-old daughter, Katy, had wanted to. She was ‘learning about death’ at the time, and going past the coffin would help her with that; Katy also ‘likes watching the Queen Mother on TV’. The woman herself said that she wasn’t a devout Royalist, but that she ‘liked seeing them’.
A young couple from South Korea, both 25, didn’t have enough English to tell me why they came. They nodded furiously when I asked if they liked the Queen Mum, and said they had been in the UK for a few months. The rest of their reasons remained a mystery.
There were some proud Royalists on the Embankment. One man said that ‘being from India, part of the British Empire, I am proud to be here’ (although he admitted that his children thought his pro-Royalist views were ‘way out’). A couple in their 60s said that they were ‘brought up to serve Queen and Country’. ‘I hope they reign over us as long as I am alive’, said one.
Certain phrases seem to have become standardised over the past few days, repeated again and again. The Queen Mother is now deemed to have a ‘warm glow’ (or, by other accounts, a ‘warm aura’). People were queuing to ‘pay their respects’ and ‘be part of a historic moment’, or a ‘piece of history’. The death of the Queen Mother has become an ‘end of an era’.
You can tell when phrases have become standardised, because children repeat them. Robert, an embarrassed 12-year-old, mumbled that he wanted to come because it was a ‘sort of thing in history’, that you could ‘say you had been to’. A 12-year-old girl from Weybridge said that it would be a ‘great thing to tell your kids’.
The overriding impression given to me by the riverside queue was of people are going through the motions. There is a sense in which everybody wanted to be part of something important, more than knowing why this was important. After all, it is difficult to see how either the death of an 101-year-old member of the anachronistic Royal Family is ‘historic’ or marks ‘the end of an era’; or how queuing for six hours helps you to be part of it.
But then, we have shared experiences so infrequently these days that we tend to get carried away around large groups of people (as I found out when I went to my first football match a few weeks ago). One middle-aged man who turned up for the funeral because he was ‘curious’ and had time to kill before a business meeting, phoned his partner to say ‘I’m rather proud’.
When the gates of the Westminster gardens were opened, there was a less-than-dignified scramble as everybody fought to examine the wreaths. But that didn’t make the news either.
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