The crowds, respectful and good-humoured in front of the Palace; the flowers — for every other person in the vast throng, from Hyde Park Corner to the Mall via Green Park, had a bunch; the patient queue of people waiting in an enormous line to pay their respects: you know what it all reminded me of? Yep, the enormous gathering of mourners who came to pay their respects to Princess Diana, when it seemed like London thronged around Kensington Palace. That was back in 1997. Twenty five years on, it’s the same spectacle, only this time it’s for the Queen.
Just a few days have passed since the death of the Queen but it feels like everyone has felt a kind of gravitational pull towards Buckingham Palace, the place we most associate with her. Last week the crowds could leave their flowers right outside the railings of the Palace but now you have to go on a long detour through Green Park and right around the top of the Mall, taking in a nice view of St James’s Park. Security firm workers in high-vis orange jackets are everywhere, next to the police in high vis yellow, who are friendly to the crowds. There are black signs en route, directing the flower-bearers to a huge patch of Greek Park which is steadily getting covered with bouquets, candles, bunches, balloons, hand-drawn pictures of the Queen … as well as cards, letters and poems.
Sensibly, there’s a big bin for people to discard the cellophane wrappings. And so many messages.
“God accept the Queen: we share the pain of loss … from Ukrainians”, read one big yellow message under a stretch of blue satin. Paddington Bear was perched on top; he’s everywhere, is Paddington, even if people have been asked to hold the marmalade sandwiches. A handwritten page “from Colombia and the UK” was addressed to “Your Majesty … you were an empowered woman and you taught others to be empowered too”. There you go: the Queen as posthumous feminist.
The messages reflected the breadth of her appeal, from Vets4Pets in York, to All Saints Primary School in Bishop’s Stortford. One infant admirer wrote under a huge smiley face with a crown: “You have dun evreythink for this cunchrey”. All weirdly moving.
Looking at the display was a gentleman in a beautiful green tunic from Jamaica, Delroy Morrison, who came, he said, for “quiet reflection, to take in the unbelievable fact that our Queen, my Queen, is not with us any more. I came on Friday but there were so many people, I couldn’t take it in. I thought I’d come back and say some prayers. A 21-year-old Queen made that promise to serve, and she kept it.” He had worked at the Palace in 1990 during the Fergie and Diana years. “It was fun,” he said.
If there was one thing that was repeated again and again, it was the message that one child had written under a hand-drawn Queen: “Thank you. I love you”.
And what an extraordinary group this crowd is, as if someone from Whitehall with instructions to assemble a crowd to represent Diverse Britain had brought together the greatest variety of people possible. Tough blokes with bunches of sunflowers, a drag queen in pearls and white platforms, another Jamaican gentleman, in a bowler hat, a lady from Richmond with a Union Jack scarf who remembered watching the Coronation on the one small screen on her street, and a few teenagers in wheelchairs.
Oh, and the reporters. Stand still long enough and a reporter would come up and interview you, especially if you have eyecatching tattoos and piercings. In fact, it got comic when a nice South Korean TV girl reporter started to interview me. She was particularly interested in how a new monarch would affect people, given the economic crisis and the energy crisis, and what about the new prime minister? (They’re very well-informed in South Korea.)
I observed that it would be Liz Truss rather than King Charles who’d be dealing with the energy crisis, but yes, in normal circumstances a new head of state would be enough to be getting on with, but a new king and a new PM in three days was quite something.
There was a wonderful gathering of nationalities, like the crowds at the first Pentecost. Among those I spoke to there were ladies from Sri Lanka, who were terrific fans of the Queen, a language student from Brazil with tattoos bearing a dear little bouquet, a couple from Lanarkshire who had come down for the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday (cancelled, but no one told them) and were making the most of their proximity to the Palace, and several Irish (some, admittedly, drawn by my accent) including one young man, Gareth from Wexford, who’d managed to see the Queen when she and he were at Trinity College during her triumphant 2011 tour of Ireland.
There were several people with babies and children. One grandmother had come with her daughter and grandson, Oscar, two today; the little fellow was being brought “to see history”.
One young woman, Francesca, originally from Kansas and here for 12 years, is now a UK citizen. “The Queen”, she said, “gave me a love of Queen and country. I’m devastated.”
The Jamaican gentleman, in a black suit, called Aubyn, was there out of respect for the Queen. As a boy, he had got the day off to watch the Coronation. He was there on behalf of his mother who had also been a terrific fan. Several people were there with instructions from relations abroad to pay their respects. One man from Putney came with a letter from Australia.
And my favourite, a lady of 90 from Surrey, had come because she was pretty well the same age as the Queen, and had come to London all those years ago to see the Coronation. “It felt right, somehow, to come now,” she said.
And behind them, there was the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Everything had changed, but some things stayed just the same.