By Stuart Diamond
The week leading up to the lying-in-state found me pondering whether to stand in line to pay my respects, or simply give it a miss and watch this important moment in history on the telly. The thought of eight to nine hours of queuing seemed ludicrous — even if it is a British national pastime.
On Thursday 15 September, after a Mitzvah Day interfaith cooking event, I spontaneously decided that I needed to be a part of it all and I headed down to Southwark Park. Initially, my thought was to bear witness to The Queue, rather than join it, so — wholly unprepared — with just a bag of Mitzvah Day t-shirts and a bottle of water I set off for what I had planned to be a quick look at a line of fellow Brits.
I left from Golders Green tube station, Metro newspaper in hand, changing from the Northern Line to make my way to Bermondsey Underground Station. While on the tube, I would meet the first of our group of eight, a couple who had traveled down from Milton Keynes to show their respect. On arrival at the station, we were met with encouraging volunteer marshals who directed us towards our starting point. It was 21h15 — arguably a late start — but there was no jostling, just a calm and supportive atmosphere to ensure that each person could experience this moment as they wished.
As we entered the gated walkways, something in me shifted and I knew I was staying for the long haul. Twenty minutes later, conversations started — a couple from Enfield, another from down south and finally a gentleman from Northampton. As a group we represented the best of Britain, a diverse collection of people whose life-stories, faiths, political lenses and even taste in music were vastly different. Yet, a Queen who had served, led and shown by example until her very last, brought this group together.
We made good time on the walk towards Westminster Hall with a brisk pace and only a few stops. As we walked, I tried to soak in all the sites along the way; Tower Bridge, The Borough Market, London Bridge, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. I was getting a full experience of London at night. As we reached London Eye and started walking through Jubilee Park and Garden, a cold wind started to pick up, coming off the Thames. As one does, I placed one of the extra Mitzvah Day t-shirts I had in my bag over my work shirt and lifted my collar to protect my neck from the wind. It was not even a minute later when I heard, “Stuart, you’re cold, take my spare jacket”. This was just one act of kindness that took place during that night. The sense of comradery (and the lending of the jacket) was warming — we shared Kit Kats and marmalade sandwiches, we were given cups of tea from Americans observing The Queue and packets of crisps from officials as we wandered along the Thames.
It was then that we hit Belvedere Road with the sight of St Thomas Hospital ahead — and a mile of walking that lasted over two hours. We would later find out that the line had been paused between the hours of 2am to 4am because this is the best time to vacuum the carpets in Westminster Hall.
With Big Ben in sight and the Palace of Westminster in view, our spirits and walking pace lifted. The time had come to cross Lambeth Bridge — the ninth bridge we would count on our long night — and head towards our destination. Westminster Hall is the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. What makes it such an astonishing building is not simply its great size and the magnificence of its roof, but its central role in British history. In and around the Hall, the major institutions of the British state came into view: Parliament, the law courts and various government offices. Closely involved in the life of the nation since the 11th century, a journey through the Hall’s past is a journey through 900 fascinating years of history.
On entering the precinct, we would be funneled one last time, going up and down and up and down. It was a sea of people moving with a single purpose; to say their final thank yous.
As we drew closer, the conversations decreased as people started to process their thoughts, reflect on the moment and to take it all in.
There was one final airport-style security check, the government and volunteers leaving nothing to chance. As I walked closer, I placed my yarmulke on my head and started towards the door. The climb to the top of the staircase was quiet, not a word was spoken — just the odd cough that penetrated the silence. As we reached the top of the stairs, we could finally see Her Majesty’s coffin draped in The Royal Standard. The lines moved slowly towards the coffin as people said thank you and shared their personal thoughts, prayers and wishes for The Queen.
I chose to say the Shema as it is an affirmation and declaration of faith in God. Her late Majesty was a person of faith and I wanted to honour that while using this as a moment to reflect on her work in bringing faiths together. I also shared my personal thanks for her lifetime of service.
To consider that over 250,000 people made a journey of between four and thirty hours to take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ is astounding. In a world where many seem to have stepped away from truly serving their communities, her late Majesty’s words ring out, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
While some might say that ten and a half hours in a line is long, I believe it is the briefest of moments compared to that lifetime of devotion.
• Published in the October 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.
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