Queuing Fourteen Hours to See the Queen's Coffin
I just queued for 14 hours to go and see the queen’s coffin and it was one of the most bizarre intense ritual experiences. I’m not a royalist – probably the opposite – but this was a real life historical event and I wanted to see it. So, I went down to Southwark Park and joined what LCD signs said was going to be a "14+ hour wait to see the lying in state.” I think it's funny that in tribute to this national icon, we were performing a famous habit/neurosis of the British people: queuing - but on an epic scale - for five miles - for fourteen hours!! A cynical part of me said that getting the plebs to queue for miles was a way to create a visible monument of devotion to the monarchy. I thought the phrase 'the lying in state' was interesting too, the subject - Queen Elizabeth, removed from the sentence as if the event some-how went beyond the individual.
I didn’t see anyone in the queue that looked like my kind of people. No alternative gays with bleached hair dressing like they’re younger than they are. A lot of older people and some union jack flags: one guy whose entire suit, shirt – everything was a union jack flag, and he was still holding a union jack flag on top of that. A year ago, after Brexit took away my ability to easily live in mainland Europe – I would’ve been livid.
During the three or four hours that I spent wandering around cattle grids in Southwark Park I made friends with a group of people, a couple from Hong Kong, a girl who’d come here from China to study art, a guy who met the queen in the 90s, a mum who sews theater costumes, a couple who lent me a coat, and a retired teacher of blind people. They became my gang as the queue wound from the docklands into central London. The sun set over tower bridge and a cold night set in. Drunk Londoners walked past and said, "Is that the queue?" As if the queue in itself was famous, not just 'a queue,' we had created the definitive queue of Britain.
At midnight we reached the last series of cattle grids in Westminster. I’d entered a not entirely lucid trance state where some of my British neurosis about queuing had been cured. I was no-longer gritting my teeth at people skipping forward to find their friends, and hopping in and out underneath the barriers to use the porta-loos. There were police holding huge AK47 type guns and then a security check where more police in bullet proof jackets threw away people’s moisturisers, chocolate bars, and key-ring torches. Then suddenly we went from being half-crazed worn-out plebs filling bin bags with packets of crisps to entering the eerie silence of Westminster Hall.
I’d seen the set-up on the 24/7 online streaming. But to see it in-the-flesh was bizarre and uncanny. A red stage at the center of the room with these figures that represent British authority standing around it symmetrically, still as waxworks. The metropolitan police, then the Buckingham palace guards, and then Beefeaters, like an eerie live art collage of historical and modern public figures. Then the queen in her coffin with the crown glittering on top, small and solid and uncased as well as the orb and scepter.
It was this intense theatrical ritual - occult – almost camp. But unlike any ritual I’d experienced before, because it was simultaneously a stage set and completely real. Those were the real orb and scepter made for Charles II, and the real crown covered in diamonds and historical jewels. And the real dead body of the lady that had been queen of this country for seventy years, who was on the money, the stamps, and on TV every Christmas. The costumed figures were also real policemen, and soldiers – juxtaposed into this ritual religious setting. It was like the inner sanctum of the idea of England. The thing that’s on our passports and birth certificates.
Political-Scientist Benedict Anderson talks about nationalism and patriotism having similarities to religious belief. Something beyond ourselves that gives some people meaning. An identity that unites people across this piece of land, that supposedly goes beyond queuing and talking about the weather. But you can see that national identity doesn’t exist when you see how divided people’s ideologies are. Some people see Britishness as not letting 'foreigners' in, while others claim British identity is about multiculturalism. 48.1% saw us as being a part of the EU, and 51.9% didn’t. My experience of being in that hall was was a bit like seeing; this cult is real and I’m a part of it! And I’ve been a part of it since I was born. This cult that makes me more prosperous than a lot of people in the world, that was built on the British Empire’s exploitation.
I was overwhelmed by emotion in a way that I didn’t expect, looking at this moment of death paused and suspended in time. The whole time inside the hall was about two minutes, I looked back at the coffin a few times and then got ushered out by a guy in a tuxedo with a mournful expression and slicked back hair. When I got outside, one of the other people in my group said that it gave her a feeling of something bigger and beyond herself. I wonder if that was the idea of the nation and its history, or the impermanence at the core of our existence – or maybe this strange combination of the two. That's what I felt. It made me think how one day Britain like other nations will become history.