I suppose that I had more or less taken leave of my senses as I set out for Bermondsey on Saturday afternoon to queue for the Queen's lying-in-state.T
I suppose that I had more or less taken leave of my senses as I set out for Bermondsey on Saturday afternoon to queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state.
The decision was a mixture of bravado, instinct and careful plotting. Hoping to evade various bans and restrictions, I had turned my old waxed jacket into an item of luggage, its huge pockets stuffed with books, in case of boredom, and weighed down with a phone bank and a wriggling mass of wires, because my mobile would certainly go flat on me during the long night.
Before setting off, I wolfed a bacon cheeseburger in the (correct) belief that I would then not feel hungry for hours. Thirst would be a different problem.
Why was I doing this? As a monarchist, I am cool to the point of chilliness, with no special love for the actual Windsor family. I have never owned a Coronation mug.
It is more or less pure reason, combined with the joyful duty of defeating republicans in argument, which causes me to rally to Crown and Sceptre. But I was damned if I was going to miss this and so spend the rest of my life wishing I had been there.
I suppose that I had more or less taken leave of my senses as I set out for Bermondsey on Saturday afternoon to queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state, says PETER HITCHENS
I have been at some odd events — from the Grosvenor Square rally against the Vietnam War in 1968, to several mighty convulsions in the famous and beautiful cities of Eastern Europe, as Communism fell.
But I had envied, for almost 60 years, those who had been in person to see the mighty ceremonies of farewell to Sir Winston Churchill, the funeral of the British Empire and — until now — the greatest such event to take place in my life.
And here I was, with the chance of passing through Westminster Hall and seeing the coffin of the Queen guarded with the last splendours of our ancient, troubled kingdom.
It was not just that I might never see such a thing again while I live. It was that nobody might ever see it again at all, as the pestilent modernisers and reformers prowl round, seeking which remaining parts of our tradition they may devour and destroy.
Goodness, Westminster Hall is perhaps the most astonishing room in England. I have scurried through it many times on workful missions, feeling that I was too insignificant to be allowed in.
I had never yet seen anything happen there that even began to equal or deserve the sheer power of its ancient architecture, or the lingering echoes of our nation’s long and often bloody struggle to be sovereign and free — echoes that are to be found there on quiet days and especially late at night. But the death of a monarch, and the solemn commemoration of it, that might measure up.
Before setting off, I wolfed a bacon cheeseburger in the (correct) belief that I would then not feel hungry for hours
Anyway, there I was in Southwark Park at 2pm, crazily putting myself at the mercy of whatever fiendish mind devised the system of queueing for the lying-in-state.
By great good luck, there was no queue for the queue when I arrived, yet I and hundreds of others were, even so, compelled to take part in a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland lunatics’ quadrille.
It is hard to describe, but we were forced by rows of fences to walk at speed back and forth more than 20 times over a piece of ground we could have crossed in 30 seconds. This is officially known as ‘zig-zagging’ but it is not. Zig-zagging would have been much more sensible, as it would at least have involved some serious forward motion.
As it was, the system, having begun by making us walk even further away from Westminster than we already were, now compelled us to get there as if we were crustaceans, or some other creature which enjoys going sideways.
Every time we appeared to be making good progress, we would be urged into another of these peculiar corrals, trudging up and down past each other, in opposite directions, seeing the same faces over and over again. (Who was the woman with silver stars painted on her face? I must have passed her at least 60 times. But too fast to start a conversation.)
Whether they were trying to waste our time or to exhaust us into weary submission, I have no idea, but at least it helped to bond me with the small group of companion pilgrims with whom I was destined to spend the next 11 hours.
But I had envied, for almost 60 years, those who had been in person to see the mighty ceremonies of farewell to Sir Winston Churchill, the funeral of the British Empire and — until now — the greatest such event to take place in my life
Thank heavens for them, a delightful reminder of how many sensible, funny, knowledgeable, helpful people we have in this country; the sort who somehow never seem to get near the seats of power. The pleasure of their company made the long hours of marching, trudging and simply standing about pass far more quickly than I could have imagined. I hardly found time to read the books I had brought with me.
We laughed a lot, as British people do, at ourselves and each other and at the absurdity of life. We gave each other food, bought coffee and tea for each other, sniggered as we were yet again barked at by some fluorescent patrolman or patrolwoman to ‘keep to the right’, as if it even mattered slightly.
We would all have got there quite easily without any of this bossiness, and much quicker, too. I can say now it is all over that the wristband I was compelled to wear — supposedly the key to getting into the Houses of Parliament — was never once properly examined by any of the ‘security’ staff.
At one point, as we were being force-marched between fences yet again, I said to my companions that I had completely forgotten what I had come there for, and they agreed. Soon afterwards, I wondered if I had in fact died and gone to Hell, which I have always thought was the origin of all bureaucracy, queueing and jobsworthery. Surely a modern Hell is far more likely to involve being in a queue where your destination never gets any closer, than a place of medieval demons and unquenchable fire?
And yet it was a day of great beauty, with the tide at full flood and the Thames looking as lovely as I have seen it in my life, in the heartbreaking light of late September that conjures up memory more than any other sort of weather.
We laughed a lot, as British people do, at ourselves and each other and at the absurdity of life
And every so often we would all pause and consider our object; remember why we had come. Mainly it was because we knew we would not afterwards be able to bear it if we had not done so. Whether it was pilgrimage, demonstration or mourning I am not sure, but it was a privilege to be part of it.
And then at last, at around 12.40 am, all ‘security’ was at an end. There were no more barking officials, just the silent courtesy of Westminster’s own frock-coated guardians, guiding us gently and without a word into the final splendour.
Did I see, or much care about, the crown, the orb and sceptre? Could I follow the elaborate steel ballet of the changing of the guard around the catafalque which I was privileged to see? Not really.
I saw instead the glory of nations and their passing, the majesty of death and its inevitability, the distillation of 1,000 years of kingship, still astonishingly alive in an age that neither understands nor much likes it. And I held my breath, bowed my head, crossed myself and walked out into the peaceful night with one backward glance.
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