Mourners file into Westminster Hall on 17 September 2022 to pay their respects to the Queen as she lies in state . Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer
In an extraordinary 10 days, hundreds of thousands of us have queued for hours to see the Queen lying in state, and millions more are grief-stricken. What is it about the nation that it is so viscerally affected by Elizabeth’s death?
The press box for the Queen’s lying-in-state is an unobtrusive wooden construction, painted to blend seamlessly with Westminster Hall’s ancient walls. But though it stands at a discreet distance from the catafalque on which her coffin rests – unless you’re in possession of a long lens, it’s difficult to pick out the imperial state crown, the orb and the sceptre – it also affords a unique vantage point, one akin to being backstage at a theatre.
Here, we can watch both the audience, by which I mean the public, filing quietly past and the performers, in the form of the guard that keeps vigil around the clock. Look to the right, and we can also see the door through which this guard comes and goes when it changes, something that happens every 20 minutes.
At the moment it’s open, and in the room beyond, a grey-haired Yeoman guard – a beefeater – is hopping about, clad in only a pair of red britches, his braces and a T–shirt. Something about the way he moves suggests to me that his feet are stockinged, which makes me feel tenderly for him.
Journalists don’t have to queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state, but the slots available are hard to come by, which is why I am here at 11 o’clock at night. I thought I might mind this, but I find that I don’t. Somehow the late hour only adds to the atmosphere, at once electrifying and ineffably peaceful. How to explain it? How to put it into words?
At home, it’s easy to be cynical: the crowds, the queue, the queasy sense of performance. But here in the hush, all that fades. The shocking thing, to me at least, isn’t the fact that the sovereign is lying here in a box, awaiting burial. It is that it has taken her death to stop people – or at any rate, these people – from staring at their screens. Mobile phones are forbidden. Visitors must look with their eyes rather than with their raised forearms, and looking with the eyes encourages thought. Feelings rush in, emotions to which I’m no more immune than anyone else.
What are they all thinking about? They are of every possible colour and creed, age and class. Some struggle to walk, leaning heavily on sticks and crutches; others look, for all that they’ve waited hours to get to this point, as if they’re just breezing by on their way home from the office. Some carry Louis Vuitton, and some plastic M&S. Some wear dark suits and heels, and some tracksuits and trainers.
The queue speaks of our most inchoate impulses, almost-instincts that in the faithless 21st century have few outlets
It’s hard to predict who will appear moved (few people look up at us; in their preoccupation, we’re invisible to them). Of the man in a black overcoat, bowler hat and medals, and the one in a Sex Pistols T–shirt, it’s the Johnny Rotten fan who looks as if he’s about to cry, his face puckered like a boy’s. No one talks. They don’t even whisper. A stray cough, in the vast space below the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe, is as loud as gunfire.
After half an hour, we file back out. Again, that backstage feeling: bottles of water on ledges, half-drunk by parched Palace of Westminster doorkeepers; a policeman carefully pulling on white gloves. Activity is intense in this ceremonial beehive, the responsibility borne by dozens of volunteers as well as officials. Billy, the young man who guided me here at the appointed hour, works in communications for select committees. But holding my hand tonight has nothing to do with his job. “It’s great to be part of it,” he tells me. What time will he get to bed? “I’ll finish at 7am,” he says with perfect enthusiasm.
I feel as I did earlier in the week watching the various ceremonies and parades. The ruthless organisation, the exquisite precision, the numinous beauty. How are these things possible in a country where no train seems ever to be on time? Where there is so much that is broken and ugly and neglected?
The roads close to the Palace of Westminster are closed to traffic and, back outside, I wander for a while. It’s approaching midnight. Without cars, there is a festival spirit, people milling, strangers talking. I find the queue. It’s moving at surprising speed, those in it waving their wristbands at the stewards like they’re showing off a new bit of bling: a shake of the hand by now so practised it’s almost queenly. The mood is smiling and gracious. It marches on beef-flavoured crisps.
Walking over Westminster Bridge, I fall into conversation with a strolling policeman, his forearms bare in the unseasonable warmth of this September night. He’s from Humberside. When did he arrive? “Sunday. We had two hours’ notice. I’m in a hotel in Hammersmith.” Is he enjoying his historic secondment? He smiles. “I am, yes.” He looks up at Big Ben, its tower magnificent against the navy sky and clouds whose silky fluffiness makes me think, appropriately in the circumstances, of Traveller’s Joy (the weed more commonly known as Old Man’s Beard). “I mean, you don’t get that in Hull, do you?”
The mood of the nation. People talk of taking it, as though it is just a matter of pulling out a thermometer. But it’s not that easy, of course. We’re a country of 67 million souls. We’re right to be suspicious of those corners of the media that insist on a universality of feeling, to mistrust the admonishing commentators who talk authoritatively of “the people”. History teaches us that there is always a gap between what is said, and what it is done and seen. Our ancestors were no easier to read than us, and less homogenous than we might imagine when it came to the matter of public grief.
“This morning I saw what I could, over the heads of the funeral procession of the Queen,” wrote Arnold Bennett in his diary on 2 February 1901 (Victoria died on 22 January). “The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists say, but rather serene and cheerful.” It may be that we are even divided ourselves. I see the window of my local Marie Curie shop, the mannequins all now wearing black dresses and pearls, and it brings a lump to my throat. I read the email from Ryman’s, which robotically outlines the stationer’s respect for the late monarch, and feel intensely irritated.
But ritual is important, and there is no discounting (some) people’s need for it now. The snaking queue, all five miles of it, speaks of our most inchoate impulses, almost-instincts that in the faithless 21st century have fewer and fewer outlets. Past generations knew how to mourn: widows wore weeds, and jewellery made of jet, and locks of the dead one’s hair; men wore black hats and armbands.
They understood that these things were not only a question of form but helpful, too: a sign, for the non-bereaved, of a person’s agonising status, and a purgative for the suffering. Long before I knew the word catharsis, I had an idea of its meaning. When I was very small, my Sunderland grandparents would follow tradition and keep their curtains drawn on the morning of a neighbour’s funeral.
“Think how nice it will be when we open them later,” Granny said to me when I expressed frustration over this. On Monday afternoon, when the Queen’s funeral is finally over, many people in Britain will experience something similar: a release, a feeling of sunlight after darkness.
When I look at the queue, it brings to mind another line. In 1954, when archaeologists began excavating the Roman Temple of Mithras in the City of London, some 400,000 men, women and children rolled up over a two-week period to see what was going on; the crowd was so swollen, the police were required to control it. Why? It seems obvious now that however great their interest in mosaics, these people were unconsciously coming to terms with the horrifying disembowelment of their cities. They had endured the Blitz; they were living in cratered streets.
The Queen’s death follows the pandemic. There cannot be a single person standing in line for her lying-in-state who did not lose, or know someone who lost, a friend, a colleague or a family member to Covid and who may also have had to forego, because of the restrictions, a proper funeral, the comfort of choirs and wakes.
How striking – and how little commented on so far – that the queue’s route passes the national Covid memorial wall, a site born of spontaneous feeling, which is maintained by volunteers and which (so far) has no official status. One day volumes will be written about this: the unspoken relationship between the losses caused by the pandemic and the urge to make a pilgrimage to Westminster Hall.
It’s human nature to try to make sense of the things that make least sense, and death is the greatest of these: the “distinguished thing”, as Henry James had it, and the unfathomable thing. When some talk of their bewildered distaste for the flower-bearing masses outside our royal palaces – all this, for a woman you didn’t know? – their tone, to my ears, is similar to the way those who voted for Brexit are sometimes spoken of. I think this is unwise, but I also think they want for empathy. It’s natural to look at a grieving family and to think of your own losses. It’s natural to worry about what a death like this means (for my part, I’m anxious it draws a firm and final line below the postwar consensus). Above all, it’s natural to be moved by history, music and poetry. By architecture that lifts the eyes to the heavens, and words that scorch and soothe the soul.
Here is art, and what’s wrong with that? Aren’t our galleries cathedrals now? Outside the Palace of Westminster last week, I approached a man whose Mondrian-blue jacket and architectural glasses strongly suggested that he couldn’t possibly be among those who had just emerged from the lying-in-state. But when I asked him, I found out that I was wrong.
A Scottish-born designer called David Jenkins, he had waited – he looked at his watch – precisely seven hours and 55 minutes for his turn. “I did really respect the Queen,” he told me. “But I also thought this would just be the most incredible bit of art. I thought: ‘We queue up to see Damien Hirsts and Monets and Picassos, so why not for this?’”
And had it lived up to his expectations? He looked at me as though I might be in need of a new pair of eyes. “My God, it was beautiful,” he said. “The ancient and the modern. It’s… everything.”
Everything. An imprecise word, and perhaps an erroneous one. But still, I knew exactly what he meant.