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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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HomeNewsThe lying-in-state queue: British conservatism at its best

The lying-in-state queue: British conservatism at its best

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AT SOME time in his life, nearly every Englishman will have wanted to be David Beckham: captaining the national football team, possessing good looks and a pop-star wife (well, you’d want at least two out of the three). Now, finally, I have something in common with the maestro, for we both took our places in the unfeasibly long queue to pay our respects to the Queen lying in state. No MPs’ passes or using ‘celebrity’ status to take a short cut for me and Becks – out with the masses making our 21st century pilgrimage.

The government website was showing the queue at over three miles by 6.30am on Friday, down ‘only’ one mile overnight. By the time my brother-in-law and I stepped out of Bermondsey station and followed the stream of people to Southwark Park to join the queue (or was it just the pre-queue?), we were in a stream of people four and a half miles long, most of it three or four souls deep. It was probably longer as it almost certainly didn’t take account of the various queueing ‘zigzags’, most notably in Victoria Tower Gardens but also at Tower Bridge and perhaps longest at the start in Southwark Park. We arrived in the first of the four queueing zigzags at the park and spent two hours walking back and forth, like a slow-motion Benny Hill chase sequence. Exiting the park two hours later, three of the four queue zigzags were in operation, and one could enjoy the merest moment of schadenfreude, knowing however long we were waiting it would be worse for those behind.

We walked/strode/stopped along the Thames Path south of the river, itself an excellent tour of the history of London: the Clink, the remains of the palace of Bishops of Winchester, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Residents who watched us were friendly or occasionally entrepreneurial, setting up a makeshift refreshment stall. At Tower Bridge – the start of what seemed the official queue – wristbands were handed out, supposedly to ensure one could keep one’s place in the queue, but the band’s numbers were so small that this was largely pointless. In any case re-joining was effortless without them as British queueing etiquette was being observed, with the unspoken understanding that anyone could nip off for food, drink or to use one of the numerous portaloos placed on the route, and not lose their place.

There has been some comment on the composition of the queue but I suspect Jon Snow would have found even more white people than on a pro-Brexit march. There were black and brown faces to be seen, (along with a number of Japanese tourists) but this was a gathering of Middle England rather than modern London; largely middle-aged or older and probably slightly more female than male, but without an obvious social class bias.  Service medals had been polished and were worn proudly.

Everyone was friendly. We chatted with the people in front and behind us in the queue, with the private security staff lining the route and with the police. The weather as perfect as one could have for a 14-hour queue; not too hot to make one wilt but not so cold after dark that one wished one had brought extra layers of clothing.

There was little evidence of queue jumping. We discussed how we would severely tut and stare like Paddington Bear at anyone jumping the line. As darkness fell on the approach to Lambeth Bridge, a young man skulked up next to us, trying to avoid the attention of private security staff asking people to show their wristbands, probably because he had joined the queue long after Tower Bridge and didn’t have one. He disappeared at a wristband checkpoint on the other side of Lambeth Bridge.  

The jolly chatter stopped at the airport-style security just outside Westminster Hall. One ceased to look at one’s neighbour, the only focus being the Queen’s coffin, draped in the Royal Standard atop a head-high catafalque on a stepped dais. The closer one approached the coffin, the more like waxworks appeared the ceremonial guards, less lifelike than anything in Madame Tussauds.

The police officers standing guard, however, were as alert as crocodiles. After bowing and making the sign of the cross to the coffin and taking two steps, I heard a thud behind me and the policewoman in front of me sprinted forward. Expecting to see a fainted visitor, I turned and saw a man being thrown to the ground by a police officer after he had managed to touch the Royal Standard draping the coffin. As other officers ran in to pin him down, then lift and quickly carry him out, other officials calmly bade us to carry on walking, which is what we did (as you can see here), and then all was as if nothing had happened.

This incident didn’t alter a glorious day. The police showed that – when their lords and masters permit it – they can deal promptly with miscreants whilst treating fellow citizens courteously. And they could this, because the ordinary, decent public cheerfully enduring to show their respect for their monarch, exercised the restraint upon themselves that gives the authorities relatively little to do. The lying-in-state operation was a success because it was an exercise in understated British conservatism.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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