Get us in your inbox

Search
The Queue
Photograph: Jess Hand

I went to see the Queen lying in state and eight hours later I still don’t know why

A frontline dispatch from the queue that has captured the nation’s heart

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun
Advertising

It’s 5.30am on the Thursday before the Queen’s funeral, and I’m snaking along the sort of soul-sapping switchback queue you might see at Luton if every Ryanair passenger decided to take their summer trip at the exact same hour on the exact same day. A chirpy volunteer with a big plastic bag is taking banned snacks and drinks off queuers and redistributing them to the shivering crowd to gobble quickly before they enter Westminster Hall. Let no one throw peanuts at a Beefeater.

‘Oooh, suddenly I’m everyone’s friend,’ smiles the volunteer on snack-handout duty. ‘There’s a big bag of Haribo here. Anyone? Oh, it’s already open.’ Someone grabs it anyway and starts shoving wobbly sugar bits down their throat.

On the grass here in Victoria Tower Gardens, there’s a woman sitting alone with her head in her hands, face sloping, eyes staring as if she’s just staggered out of Shangri-La at Glastonbury. The line of stinking Portaloos adds to the festival vibe. So do the fluorescent wristbands we’re all wearing. Another Queuer asks if she’s okay. She is, she’s just knackered. Her legs have given way and she’s having a breather.

The Queue
Photograph: Jess Hand

In front of me in the queue are two jolly adult Scouts, a couple, complete with neckties and woggles. They seem to know half of the volunteers along the route, many of them fellow grown-up Scouts. ‘We must catch up.’ ‘Let’s see each other soon.’ The Queue is quickly becoming the air-kissing highlight of London’s Scouting social season.

I don’t really know why I’m here and I’ve had a long time to think about it. I’m seven-and-a-half hours into The Queue now, and I’m slightly delirious.

Four hours of happy podcast-listening have given way to a few more hours of feeling trapped, a bit cold and wondering why I started this in the first place. Between 2am and 3am, The Queue ground to a complete halt on the Albert Embankment, next to the National Covid Memorial Wall, a sea of thousands of hand-drawn hearts. We could see people going nowhere on Lambeth Bridge for a long time. That’s when the realisation kicked in: this is going to take all night. A bit of me is embarrassed. Would I even tell my friends about this shameless act of deference? Shall I just cut my losses and go home? I don’t.

I don’t really know why I’m here and I’ve had a long time to think about it

In 30 minutes, I’ll walk into the spookily silent Westminster Hall just as dawn is breaking outside and inside the guard is changing around the Queen’s flag-draped, crown-and-orb-and-sceptre-topped coffin – the ultimate royal sundae. This guard-changing happens every 20 minutes, but it feels like I’ve stumbled on an arcane ritual. I won’t lie: it’s all a staggering sight, like time has stopped and rewound a few centuries. If one of the points of royalty is to instil awe in the masses, this display is hitting all the right marks. The huge, intricate fourteenth-century roof of Westminster Hall alone is a marvel. The whole experience has a mysterious power.

Maybe I was just tired. Eight hours earlier I had joined The Queue

I had wandered down to the Southbank. I wasn’t intending to join The Queue, just to gawp, although it was in the back of my mind that I might. I first spied the line from Waterloo Bridge. I wandered along it in the opposite direction to its slow flow, thinking no way would I do this. I’d just take the bus home. Looking at the faces of those queuing encouraged me to join. These weren’t a bunch of crazies. Young, old, white, Black, Brown, men, women, smart, scruffy. This was a mixed crowd. But mainly it was nosiness. Pure curiosity. Here was an experience everyone else was having. I’d have some too, thanks. 

So I joined. Without wearing the right clothes or carrying anything other than my phone. A steward told me she didn’t know how long it would take but suggested ‘maybe three or four hours?’. Okay, so a 1am or 2am finish? I can handle that. When else will I see a lying in state of a monarch who reigned for 70 years? I’ve wasted more time watching crap on Netflix.

I’m not a royalist. If there was a referendum on becoming a republic, I’d vote for it. Just today I’ve been agreeing with mates on WhatsApp that it’s medieval nonsense that the new King won’t pay inheritance tax. I can’t stand the not-so-subtle racism of the conservative media towards Meghan Markle. And let’s not even mention He Who Doesn’t Sweat. The Crown exerts a soft conservative power that runs opposite to a lot of progressive things I care about.

But this week has already revealed to me that I do carry some quiet respect for the late Queen – the duty, the service, the mirror on the twentieth century – and am fascinated by how her death has thrown into relief just how ingrained this institution is in the fabric of our daily lives, especially in this city I love. Even as I queue along the river later, I pass the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall, pass lampposts that carry the royal insignia and walk over plaques in the ground that commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. She’s inescapable. I’m also a history nut, and while I’m not naive enough to believe that history is the story of kings and queens, I can’t entirely escape that boyhood definition, and what it has lodged in me.

This is the Thorpe Park of royal rubbernecking

Eight hours later, I’ve reached the end of The Queue.

It’s the ultimate London immersive experience, the Thorpe Park of royal rubbernecking. As the line starts moving around the coffin again, I realise that everyone is briefly stopping at the catafalque and having their own moment. Some cross themselves. Some bow so low it looks like a yoga move. Others give a little nod, respectfully. I end up choosing the latter but not before a big attack of self-consciousness about the whole thing. I half-stop and half-bow.

I step out into the London dawn and walk up a deserted Whitehall. It’s a weird feeling, crossing the doorstep at 7am having had no sleep and being stone-cold sober. Before I eventually sleep, I find myself on the livestream of the lying in state – a neverending movie that puts Andy Warhol’s bumnumbing ’60s film experiments to shame. Thankfully they didn’t catch me half-bowing. Seeing that might haunt me for ever.

The Queen Lying in State
Dave, looking dazed, bottom left | Photograph: Dave Calhoun

Later in the day, I walk past evening queues for the theatre in the West End and feel a shiver of recognition, like a war veteran jumping at a car backfiring. I’ve got a new respect for those still in The Queue. I still don’t really know why I did it. But I’m glad I did. I think.

Everything you need to know about the Queen lying in state.

Our exhaustive guide to the Queen’s funeral on Monday. 

Popular on Time Out

    More on city identity

      Latest news

        Advertising

        The best things in life are free.

        Get our free newsletter – it’s great.

        Loading animation
        Déjà vu! We already have this email. Try another?

        🙌 Awesome, you're subscribed!

        Thanks for subscribing! Look out for your first newsletter in your inbox soon!