At moments of great significance one often remembers where one was when first hearing about what had happened. In my lifetime two such events were the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States of America. To that list people of my parents’ generation would add the assassination of President Kennedy. What those three moments in history all share is that they were completely unexpected; part of what made them significant was not just the awfulness of what had happened but the shock which accompanied it.
I learned of the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II from a notification on my phone whilst at a work event in London. News of the death of a ninety-six year old lady whom I had seen getting frailer as the years took their toll could hardly be described as unexpected and yet it was shocking nonetheless. The day had finally arrived which so many of us had convinced ourselves, even against all reason, would never come.
As I made my way from Canary Wharf to Green Park that soaking wet evening the sun was setting in the sky and I knew an epoch had drawn to a close. Just as we measure years before and after Christ, The Queen’s death will stand as a punctuation mark in my life. Yes, there is already a new King and his own succession is secure; life will go on of course but for those of us who have lived through the second Elizabethan age there will simply be before and after the day The Queen died; she was a constant, always there, and now she is gone.
I arrived at the gates of Buckingham Palace at about 8pm. It was busy but not yet crowded, being just ninety minutes after the news broke. People were already laying flowers and lighting candles; the atmosphere was quiet but from time to time the stillness was broken by a rendition of the national anthem, with words not yet adjusted to reflect the new reality. There was nothing to see that first night but there was a sense of togetherness which is by no means the default setting in the great metropolis.
The following day I headed off on my commute to my office in the City; everything was as it usually would be, except in the tube carriage there was silence. People were lost deep in their own thoughts. As I emerged from Bank station I read a message from a colleague saying that two thousand tickets to a service of prayer and thanksgiving would be handed out on a first-come first-served basis from a stand just a few hundred yards up the road from where I was at that moment; what a stroke of luck. I joined the queue and duly received my wristband; I was about number five hundred or so.
We were told to arrive early so with more than an hour to spare and with airport-style security checks having been successfully navigated I took my place in the south transept of London’s mother church, Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s cathedral.
Sitting there, my eyes would usually have been drawn to the majestic mosaics which adorn the arches and were added in the nineteenth century at the request of another long-serving Queen, Victoria (she apparently regarded the cathedral as a rather drab place to worship prior to their installation). This time, however, it was the higgledy-piggledy nature of the building congregation which caught my eye. A city banker in a pin-striped suit next to a road worker in high-vis; a delicate old lady next to a soldier in military uniform; a family, clearly on holiday, in shorts and tee-shirts next to a clergyman in his black cassock.
It seemed as if all of London was there; all of modern Britain too perhaps. Young and old, rich and poor, fat and thin, black and white, Christian and not – they all came. The service itself seemed to flash by in an instant and as we stood to sing God Save the King, its first official public rendition for more than seven decades, suddenly the sense of what the country had lost washed over me.
A few day’s later, The Queen’s coffin having been returned to London, I was determined to try and visit the lying-in-state despite the warnings of thirty-hour queues. On Wednesday afternoon I wandered southwards from the north bank of the river Thames across Millennium Bridge. I could see the queue had not yet reached Blackfriars’ Bridge and I thought this would be my best opportunity so joined the back of the line.
The atmosphere in the queue was one of warmth and friendliness. There was a sense that, being British, this was the queue we had been in training for all of our lives. One of the ladies I was queuing next to told us about her visit to the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state twenty years previous, another how she could just about remember being brought as a young girl to see Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
As the queue wound its way along the south bank of the Thames we eventually drew level with the Palace of Westminster behind which the sun was now setting, creating a beautiful silhouette; Barry and Pugin’s neo-gothic work of genius sat boldly atop the slate grey river against the bright blue evening sky.
As we talked to each other it was clear that many of us were remembering family members who could not be there with us, either because of infirmity or because they had already departed this life. On the final approach to Westminster Hall the chattering hushed and the mood became more solemn yet never sombre.
I moved inside. Standing at the top of the stone staircase the sense of being in a building which has stood witness to more than nine centuries of our island story was palpable. Slowly, silently, I filed in line past the catafalque bearing Her Late Majesty’s coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and bearing the Imperial State Crown, Orb and Sceptre. After pausing for just a few seconds to pay my respects, I headed out towards the great north door. Before leaving I took one last look back; goodbye ma’am, and thank you.