Earlier today, I was fortunate enough and fit enough to take part in the most exhilarating, uplifting experience available on the planet. It is nearly midnight and I am on my way home.
By the time I finish writing and editing this, the event will have ended and we will have moved on to a new, post-Queue era.
The Queue to see the Queen lying-in-state in Westminster Hall opened on Wednesday the 14th of September and will close on Monday the 19th at 6.30am.
I went to Southwark Park on the last full day of The Queue to see what it looked like, and what it felt like. I did not plan to join it. The Queue had acquired a life of its own, earned its own Wikipedia page, and was rapidly achieving cult status. It became the latest, most dignified embodiment of the celebrated British institution of queuing. The Queue had a strictly limited lifespan, which added to its unique appeal. At one point in the early stages of its existence, The Queue reached its full capacity and was temporarily paused. The queue to join The Queue was formed, and it was promptly called QE2.
When I arrived at the entrance to Southwark Park, several queue stewards in high viz were there, but The Queue itself was yet nowhere to be seen. I passed a sign saying that the queue from that point was minimum 14 hours, but still no queue in sight. I carried on walking, following the long zig-zag lines marked by metal barriers. The zig-zags gave me hope that I was on the right track to find The Queue sometime soon.
Finally, the leisurely queue to join The Queue thickened, and a few moments later wristband waving stewards appeared on the sides.
Should I? Once in a lifetime opportunity. Now or never, the funeral is tomorrow. I got this far, I might as well. But 14 hours? What if it rains later? Also, 14 hours? How do I get home at 4am? After this brief level-headed private discussion, I found myself holding a brown wristband a couple of seconds later.
The pull of The Queue had won. I joined. I was in.
No food, no water, no phone charger, no comfortable shoes, no umbrella, but I was in The Queue, grinning and excited. Kafka would have had a field day with this.
The Queue zig-zagged out of the park and we entered the streets of, where were we exactly, was it Bermondsey? Within minutes, I had got myself a queue buddy, Adelaide. She was an Accidental Queuer too, who entered on the spur of the moment, unsure if she would be able to last the distance. Over the next nine hours I had learned everything there was to learn about Adelaide’s life, including her detailed medical history. We exchanged telephone numbers early on, in case we lost sight of each other at any point. We stuck together all the way, through toilet breaks and security checks.
The Queue snaked around Butler’s Wharf, moved past Tower Bridge, and was making good progress along the Southbank, until we reached the London Eye. Just when I thought we were nearly there, another sign told us that the queue was likely to be another 4-5 hours from there. In any other circumstances, my heart would have sunk, but as it was, I accepted it with calm and composure I am not usually known for. It turned out we were not crossing Westminster Bridge, the one next to Big Ben, and a stone’s throw from Westminster Hall, the location of the Queen’s lying-in-state, but we were heading towards Lambeth Bridge instead, another 800 yards further down the river. From that moment onwards, our wristbands were checked frequently by stewards asking us to raise our hands high up in the air. It felt like we were on an exciting school trip.
The spirit of friendly camaraderie set in from the start. By the time we got to Blackfriars Bridge, the Queue friendship groups had formed. Adelaide and I joined in with a couple of ladies from Coventry, a British man living in New York, a Turkish couple, a group from Los Angeles and an older gentleman from Weymouth, his chest heavily decorated with military medals. We tried asking him about the medals, but he was very dismissive of their provenance; all he said was ‘there might have been a few battles one might have fought in during one’s youth’.
A couple of hours into The Queue I realised I’d better let my unsuspecting family know what I was doing. I posted a photo of my wristband on our family WhatsApp, and asked if there was any chance any of them could bring me a pair of trainers and a phone charger. My husband dismissed my message as a joke, and continued to think that until about 10pm, when I still did not return home from my trip to London. My daughter came to my rescue near London Bridge, and brought with her a few very welcome queuing essentials. She even made me a ham and cheese bagel. My son, who was already somewhere in Central London, joined us shortly past the Oxo Tower. They both stayed with me all the way to the London Eye, and were surprised how much they found themselves enjoying The Queue experience.
Somewhere between the National Theatre and the London Eye, a chatty young woman began walking along the Queue, handing out ginger biscuits to us. She confessed she was suffering from a bad case of The Queue envy, and wanted to make up for not joining in herself by supporting it in any way she could think of. She stayed on with us until the earnest wristband checking stopped her from keeping us company any further. Although she walked with us for a relatively short time, we got chatting in keeping with the true spirit of The Queue. She told us her name was Kate, her surname was ‘like Noah without the ark’, which was Arkless. Obviously. She was also known as Space Kate. I have just looked her up. Fascinating person. Lovely biscuits.
Once we crossed Lambeth Bridge, and entered the final zig-zag around the Buxton Memorial Fountain, better known as the slavery emancipation monument, in the parliamentary gardens, the feeling of being on the last stretch descended. The Queue was nearly done, although it was to be another hour or so before we reached the longed-for security tent. Once our bags were thoroughly checked, twice, the mood in The Queue changed. Everything went very quiet, and a moment later we were on the stairs to Westminster Hall at last. Silent solemnity replaced hours of impromptu socialising.
Walking past the coffin was everything I could have wished for, dignified and profound.
There was nothing else to do after that. As decisively as it had pulled me in hours earlier in Southwark Park, The Queue now pushed me firmly out, into the balmy night air around Parliament Square, just before midnight. As Adelaide and I hugged goodnight, awkwardness creeping back in, we knew we had left The Queue.