Plus, that’s what the British do. People from all over were queuing – the first three ladies were from Sri Lanka, Wales and Ghana – but they were here and, well, when in Rome…
William and Harry walk behind Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin together
Americans of course like to call it a “line”, but that word doesn’t quite encompass the almost sacred nature of the rules that the British developed by waiting patiently behind someone to achieve an objective.
And so it is that the great symbols of Britain – the Queen, the queue – are on vivid display as hundreds of thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects to Elizabeth during the four next days.
Queuing quickly became a thing in its own right.
“I don’t particularly care about the Queen anyway. But the queue? The Queue is a triumph of Britishness. This is amazing,” one social media user wrote in a post that went viral. #QueueForTheQueen was trending on social media.
Another pointed out that waiting line is a beautiful word: “The actual important letter, then four more waiting silently behind it in a line.”
The UK government has launched a ‘queue tracker’ on YouTube, with up-to-date information on the status of the line, which as of midday on Thursday was around four miles long.
This reporter joined the queue around 6 p.m. Wednesday evening, meeting people who planned to stay up all night if necessary to see the Queen’s coffin.
I was quickly educated in queue decorum. Get a bracelet with a number and obey that number. Stay in the queue. Do not push or shove in the queue. Don’t cut the queue. If someone cuts the line, take a deep breath, but don’t say anything out loud. However, it’s okay to give people dirty or scowls.
There was a rumor that someone six lines ahead of us tried to skip the queue, but then someone else pointed out that this was unverified, as if to suggest that the very idea was slightly outrageous.
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People quickly lined up in small families. They may have started out as strangers, but as the hours passed, they knew each other’s life stories. They watched over each other. Strangers who would normally never talk to each other in public situations were suddenly fiercely loyal. If you had to leave to go to the bathroom – there were portable “toilets”, it was a well-planned queue after all – then your family queuing held your place in line. Some went to get tea for each other.
Asked to explain the concept of the UK queue, Robin Wright, 78, launched into an impassioned speech, describing the queue as a “magical moment we all share together”.
Thousands of people around him clapped (politely) when he finished.
The night started off well enough, with the queue moving at a decent pace, offering a false sense of optimism as to how everything would turn out, while taking mourners past city landmarks like the London Eye ferris wheel, then the covid Wall of Hearts memorial marking those lost – a chilling reminder of deaths over the past two years.
But about four or five hours later it started to look gloomy as the mourners reached the home stretch and reached the labyrinthine zig-zag section, reminiscent of a bad day at the airport that heralded a lot more waiting to come.
People huddled together, offered comfort and exchanged stories – many about times they had met the Queen, or seen the Queen, or had a medal pinned on them by the Queen, or had the Queen as their patron. Polls show around a third of Britons have met or seen the Queen during her 70-year reign.
‘The Queen personally put this around my neck, it was a magical moment,’ Queuing philosopher Wright said of her Royal Victorian Order medal for raising millions for charities. “I really want to come and say goodbye to him, with all these people here…I would stay here for 30 hours if I had to.”
“We met through the royal family. We have been married for 31 years,” Hilary Beckley, 61, said. She worked as a chef for Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, and her husband, Gary, worked as a carpenter. “We couldn’t not come.
Joyce Skeete, 74, a retired nurse, lived her adult life in London but was born and raised in Barbados, where she was a net ball star. When she was 14, she was invited to have a meal with the queen, who was visiting one of her kingdoms. “We were lucky enough to eat with her, but we couldn’t really eat,” she said.
“I think for her, it’s worth the queue.”
The Queen is not just head of state of the UK, but of 14 other countries – and head of the Commonwealth, which covers a third of the planet. During her long reign, she made a point of regularly visiting these countries.
For some, the Wednesday night queue lasted just over seven hours. And then it was over. The scene inside Westminster Hall was very different. In the endless world of the queue, it had been chatty and upbeat as we supported each other through the ordeal, but inside the hall, with the coffin, it was quiet, solemn. and finished quickly.
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When mourners entered Westminster Hall, a cavernous historic building with a hammerbeam roof, they were greeted by silence. The queen’s coffin is raised on a platform and draped with a royal standard flag, a crown and an orb. As people walked past the Queen’s coffin, guarded by soldiers wearing bearskin hats, some bowed and curtsied or nodded or whispered “thank you”.
After leaving the venue, Megan Foy, 35, with her husband and 9-month-old daughter, said they ‘only’ waited in line for six hours, reaching the venue around 2am. “We had to go around a bit because of the buggy situation,” she said, referring to her stroller.
“It’s a whole different atmosphere in there, the world around you stops and you’re in the moment,” she said.
Funeral preparations and rehearsals taking place in the early hours of the morning all around Westminster meant that no one was allowed to leave while the soldiers practiced their march.
And so with everyone who had just left the room, we were back in another queue.