Thousands are queueing to view the Queen’s coffin lying in State at Westminster Hall. Continuous TV feeds show people entering the Hall, filing slowly through and then at the coffin the women curtsying, the men bowing their heads, service people saluting, many crossing themselves, others bowing deeply in prayer and some just looking quietly. Sombre faces, a few in tears but all respectful, mostly in their usual everyday clothing after at least 5+ hours of queueing outside, some with medals, uniforms, or the dark suits of Parliamentarians. Best of all, there is no commentary. The camera sometimes picks out an architectural or decorative detail, or a familiar political face, but otherwise the show is as silent as the hall itself. Every 20 minutes, with the banging of a steel rod on the floor, the guard is changed, the only sound their clattering shoes on the flagstones.
All very British. Few nations have a 900-year-old hall as the centre of government, and the collection of mediaeval, Tudor and 19th Century uniforms to recall their military and cultural histories. Few have the same head of government for 70 years. No music, no trumpets, no popcorn. Just a procession of the public, mute. Sovereigns have died before, and will die again, but this is happening now, in the lives of the respectful cortege, and they wish to be on the record as having made their farewells.
I defy any person to witness two changings of the guard while the mourners go by without being touched by their observances. There is no hysteria, no wailing, no throwing of bouquets. It is a nod, no more, of approbation. Blink, and you would miss it. It is like noticing a famous figure in the street, and nodding to show you watched their TV program, or listened to their music, but did not want to interrupt their day.
All governments proceed at two levels: the instrumental and the symbolic. It is necessary to get things done, and that requires instruments, some with sharp edges, most of them with well-oiled cogs wheels and properly kept records. Taxes have to be collected; births, marriages and deaths recorded, and the drains properly flushed. That is an important half of the job. The Symbolic is the other half. A story has to be told, and a story about a special family is a good thing for a nation to dream about, with everyone finding a character they can identify with, and would wish to meet. The Symbolic is about being a unifying presence, a Chorus to the tangled web of the play, a point of calm around which the wheel revolves, and an image behind which a nation can fall in line.
As I write this the queue is so long, with a 14 hour wait, that the starting point 4 miles away has officially been closed for 6 hours to clear the backlog, but mourners have defied the order, and are waiting in line outside the closed gate. So, they have formed a queue so as to join The Queue.
The British are wryly aware that they are too fond of queues, but they are a fundamental cultural habit. Brits revere the Order of Precedence above all other orders or laws. Things must be fair. Your place in the queue is sacrosanct, to be defended by those before and behind you as severely as your house being your castle, and as having a British birth right. You have won the lottery of life, and your place in the queue is the original block chain, signed, sealed and delivered by the jury of your peers.
History is one damn thing after another, but it is punctuated by a metronome, and the most profound metronome is mortality. Halley’s comet has a periodicity of 75 to 79 years so it is possible to see it twice in a long life, and even more possible to say to a grandchild: “Look at this apparition with me, because I will not see it again, but I hope you will live to do so”.
So passes the Queen.