The death of Queen Elizabeth II will dominate the headlines and much of public attention in the next few weeks. Doubtless, more think-pieces, op-eds, and columns will try to analyse the national response from any and every conceivable angle. But I wanted to get out this morning and be among the events as they happened. Perhaps not the first draft of history, but notes toward one.
The Mall was crowded and quiet. A constant trickle of people made their way down from Admiralty Arch and toward the Victoria Monument. As I walked, the intensity of the moment increased. The face of the Queen looks out from almost every bus-stop and electronic billboard in Central London, but here there were few images. Instead, umbrellas and flowers, and more than a few damp eyes. Black ties and suits were common among men: many women wore formal clothing. Journalists were everywhere, a crescent of gazebos filled with journalists and technicians from all over the world. I spoke with a Polish journalist, who told me that the Queen was “symbolem klasy” – a symbol of class. In so many ways, many of them deeply problematic.
The procession past the gates of Buckingham Palace was moving swiftly, though many broke away to linger at the fence, gazing into the empty forecourt. Cards, flags, flowers, messages of grief and gratitude. Paddington Bear was a recurring motif. By the gates a crush developed, with a forest of hands holding mobile phones. I made my way along the fence, looking at the crowds behind the barriers: waiting, I now realise, for the King to arrive. On the Victoria Monument, it was quieter: a child slipped through the barriers, decorated with EIIR, one of the many things that we will have to accept as reminders of the past rather than indicators of the present.
The police and Household Cavalry tried to clear the way on the Mall: one rider fell from his horse, but quickly got up again, his pride more damaged than anything else. Tour guides led their groups through the chaos, heading toward the action as the rain came down.
As I made my way north through Trafalgar Square, the bells of St.Martin-in-the-Fields tolled. Some people paused, others passed quickly. We are not yet at the moment where, like yesterday, the rolling coverage willl build the tension to a fierce, taut hush again. For now, the city goes about its business, with street food eaten and assignations made under the benevolent smile of a monarch who is no longer present, but is surely not yet gone. We are at a crossroads, and we do not yet know where the future will lead us. But lead us it surely will, hopefully at peace with ourselves and with others. It is unquestionably, however problematic one might feel this to be, what she would have wanted.