Rachel Beale | In the Queue LRB September 15, 2022

I joined the queue at the Globe Theater just after a cold, cloudy sunrise. ITV breakfast news interviewed a couple from Tyneside who had taken the day off and spent the previous night on their son’s floor in East London to get an early start. As we progressed along the south bank of the Thames, they were a magnet for other television crews, polishing their anecdotes for Italian and German broadcasters.

Kuan bought me a coffee at Pret a Manger in the Southbank Centre. She turned out to be a veteran of in-state lineups. She was on vacation in Thailand when King Bhumibol died in 2016 and waited seven hours in thick humidity, anxiously checking her watch to be sure she would catch her flight home. The mourning period there had lasted 100 days, she said, and it was common for people to visit the Grand Palace to view the coffin several times.

The official youtube queue tracker shows the length of the line (in miles and hours), the nearest landmark and a what3words address for where to reach the end of it. I watched the video several times while going to London and never saw less than three thousand viewers. With all the people watching other people queuing, Channel 4 could have done a special episode of Glasses box.

The atmosphere on the banks of the Thames oscillated between amusement park and festival of exceptional politeness: bright pink bracelets, packed lunches, nervous calibration of the water intakes and visits from portaloo. Most people were dressed for an average day on the town – jeans, trainers, light backpacks – but every few yards the line was punctuated with bows of men and women in sleek black, sometimes tweed, sometimes medals. Matt du Kent, a royal engineer according to his blazer, was using his day off to pay his respects. He claimed to have gained his chest “being old”, but later he gave me the summary: Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan.

A rainbow of high visibility vests guided us along the road. Orange was security (Serco, of course, and a few other usual suspects); blue were volunteers, some from the civil service. “I’m from the Cabinet Office,” the young man said as he led us through the wristband collection. “I literally only joined on Monday?”

The media had set up a temporary camp on the edge of Lambeth Bridge, with the river and Parliament in the background. Rogue offshoots gathered cross-sections of the public along the Covid Memorial Wall to get their reactions to the queue (or maybe the Queen’s death – it was a little hard to tell).

On the north bank, the line wound in a tight zigzag through the Victoria Tower Gardens. Official government advice advises against bringing children, but I saw at least one breastfed baby having his diaper changed at the end of a turn in the queue. At this point the vests were mostly yellow: more security, and a Faith Team, some with dog collars and fish pins, “just checking in to see how everyone is doing?” A vicar from East Grinstead told me it was a multi-denominational initiative, although most of them appeared to be Christians.

Also in yellow, scouts were picking up litter, collecting all food and drink still sealed to take to local food banks (none are allowed in Westminster Hall) and reminding us at regular intervals to “stay hydrated!” Alfie was stationed at the last stop before the security tents. He had been one of the very last to complete the Queen’s Scout Award (they will now be King’s Scouts) and was surprisingly cheerful for someone who faced several days of service after two hours of sleep. He’d at least slept in a bed – other scouts were in dorms and upstairs – and had a confiscated bottle of Prosecco to hope for at the end of his shift. Scouts will not be able to walk through Westminster Hall in return for their service, although a select few may be allowed to view the burial in Windsor.

Louise, from Transport for London’s legal team, will be a ‘travel ambassador’ at the Millennium Pier during Monday’s funeral. When I said everything seemed incredibly well organized, she pointed out that TfL, along with everyone else, had been tweaking and refining this plan for years.

Above the threshold of Westminster Hall, the chatter between neighbors suddenly gave way to silence. The guard of the catafalque was changed when I reached the top of the steps; the ushers were pushing visitors further towards a better view. The floor was strewn with beige fluff from new carpets, scuffed from thousands of feet. People nodded or gave awkward half-curtsies as they passed the coffin – such a huge box for such an average-sized woman.

About Eleanor Blackburn

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