The Queue, then. It writhes across London, tracing along the grey lines of the Thames, swirling through Waterloo then Westminster, ending in a coffin. The Queue doesn’t stop, ever, just slowly trudges forward, never quite pausing, a queue as a form of limbo, restless, breathless. The shape of The Queue is always changing – it kinks and curves, it stretches then springs, it grows longer then shorter, queue physics beyond the realm of scientific principle, generating its own gravity and power. We have monitoring stations that keep tabs on The Queue but we can never quite pin down where it starts. It is just there, a many-legged creature that is grieving.
Remember the last time you joined a long queue. There is anxiety in first entering a queue: Is it here, you enter, you cross the spiritual threshold from outside the queue to being a component part of it? There is always someone loitering quite near the queue but not quite actively enough in it, and you always have to pause: I’m sorry are you— is this the queue? Entering a queue is one of those flinching human embarrassments on a par with holding a door open for someone who is just slightly too far away, or squeezing past two strangers who are sat next to you when you need to get up on an aeroplane: to become part of The Queue, you have to push your head into the cold waters of cringe, and out immediately through to boredom.
You cannot fully just look at your phone during a queue: What if it shuffles forward, gaining and losing a momentum all of its own, and you have to shuffle with it? What if the shuffle forward that the 18, 20, 30 people in front of you did was too small for you to consider worthy of picking your backpack up for, moving your two feet, readjusting your position? What if that leaves a gap, just big enough, in the queue? Perhaps someone could slip into that point in the queue, undetected. You are now further back in the queue. It is better not to risk it. You half look away from your phone again. You move. The person behind you swallows their tut.
In Britain, we take great pride in our queueing, because we are culturally destitute. But what I think “British queueing” and “The Queue” – two overlapping concepts that make up our national identity – actually project and say about who we are is different to what we broadly think it does. In Britain, in England especially, there is this strange idea of us as a people: stringent politeness, good posture and even more principled politics, sardonic quips and Nobody Does It Like Us. Our national identity is projected a good ten or fifteen steps ahead of where, as a people, we actually are, and queueing is a good example of that. The spectral British idea of why we’re good at queueing is because we’re polite, because we’re orderly, because we’re respectful of each other and the natural order and hierarchy (the idea of the queue is socially flattening: you are put in an exact line in order of what time you turned up, and that is that).
But the reality of a queue is, normally, so far away from that it’s absurd. Jostling, sighing, walking too closely up to the back of someone to try and make the queue go faster. People make up sob stories from the back of the queue to try and gain five or six meagre places in it (“She’s ill, look at her! Her legs are tired!”). Loudly saying things about the queue and how long it’s taking, as if that makes the experience for the other queue-goers any easier. You are never more aware of yourself than when you are in a queue: You are no longer a lively and beautiful individual, a unique person deserving of great respect and care: You are now a face, a number, a blob on a map.
And then one of the great sins of the queue happens: Someone walks to the front of the queue (even if it is just to ask a simple question to whoever is controlling the queue – “How long have you been queueing? Will the queue close?” – but the hairs on the arms of the queue prickle up: everybody watches them, everyone drops to a hush and watches them move. They’re not going to, are they – ? They better not, or – Maybe they were here earlier. Maybe they were here earlier), or someone pushes into the queue. Then, all the order of the queue explodes. Our patina of Britishness is blown apart. “Hi, sorry, nO I WON’T SHUT UP: that person was there before you!” If you wanted to start an international incident right now, walk two miles into the middle of it and cut into The Queue. They will have to bring back the death sentence just for you.
The Queue, of course, is an expression of respect, for the Monarch who just died, and I don’t think there’s any greater illustration of the two people who occupy this country, the divide that yawns between us, than those in The Queue and those not: Here are the people who care, look, enough to walk five miles very slowly to look at a historical box, and here are the non-queuers, look, watching.
If you’re in The Queue you do not understand why anyone would not be in The Queue: a great foundational text of your national identity has just passed, you’ve just lived through a generational switching from one monarch to another (they’ll have to reprint all those wooden rulers you buy from National Trust shops!), history is happening all around you, you book a day and a half off work to queue. That’s Just What We Do. To the non-queuers, an absurd offshoot of the current solemn pageantry, a sort of performance art project painted by the hands of the people: thousands of them, in a line, thanking a box of royal lineage for ruling over them.
I do not need to tell you that I am typing this from outside of a queue. But I do not think the people in The Queue are idiots, or morons, or absurd. A huge thing has happened to all of us this whole week and we’re all tackling it in different directions. They are making memories with a Queen they loved in the only way they know how. I am filing copy for a nominal fee and making jokes on Twitter Circles for an audience of 40. Who’s feeling more noble? Who’s showing the appropriate respect?
I think a lot of people in The Queue think, had they met properly, they and the Queen would have really got on. Not mates, exactly – not invited to the palace, she would not smuggle herself out in disguise to get pissed with them in Soho – but perhaps the Queen would have recognised some spark within them, not just their loyalty and their idolatry and how well and neatly they bowed to her but themselves, the very core of them: She would have seen something there and half-winked at it. To these people the Queen was a person so special and so famous that she was worth holding soup overnight and not pissing for to get one final glance at. They know Charles will never replace her but they want to see what it looks like, what it feels like, under his rule. To them, this is what being British is about: they have never stared into the reflection of their own national identity with their eyes more open, and what they see there is profound.
These people live amongst us. You work with them, maybe. Over Christmas dinner, you might make a joke about The Queue. Remember that Queue?, you’ll say. God, that was – we all just lost it, didn’t we? you’ll say. You think that joke will land. You always think your jokes will land. Then.
“Yeah, we drove down,” that uncle who never talks says.
“You – sorry, you what?”
“Yeah. Drove down. Parking in London is a fucking nightmare, isn’t it?”
“Sorry, you – you drove down to London to stand in a really big queue?”
“Yes,” he says. This is natural to him. Your aunt next to him – well, not aunt; you don’t call her aunt, you don’t feel very aunt-ly towards her; your uncle’s wife, let’s call her – your uncle’s wife also says: “Yeah.”
“How long did you wait for?” They look at each other. Like childbirth, there is a hormonal flush after you have escaped a long queue, that helps you forget that cramping discomfort you felt in the middle of it, thousands of people behind you, thousands of people in front, the shuffle forward feeling endless, further away than when you started.
“Err –” your uncle says. “About – what was it, 14 hours? What was it?” Your uncle’s wife nods. “Not that bad, really.”
“And then at the end –” your mum is kicking you, hard, under the table “— at the end, you just…?
“Looked at the coffin briefly from behind a barrier, yeah.”
“Wow. And that was worth it?”
“Paid our respects.” He lifts a glass. He’s not going to— he’s not going to, is he? “God rest the Queen.” He did it. These are your people. These are our people. This blood courses around this country and into and out of you. You are five bad life decisions away from being in The Queue yourself.
Somehow, without realising it, everyone else lifted their wine up. It’d be too weird for you not to do it. Your arm is – no way! Your arm is rising into the air. You’re not going to say anything – it’s like in assembly, at primary school, when they all said a prayer out loud but you murmured the words along so it somehow didn’t count – and then touch your glass and gulp it down. You feel funny. You feel wrong. The Queue might have writhed to nothing but it never went away. Once more than ten people stood behind each other they created something unkillably British. Add this to the country’s false lore along with Paddington and the Olympic Games.