Small talk, stillness, glimpses of royalty: witnessing history from its background

LONDON — It was eerie, how you could pinpoint the moment the surreal became real.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/09/2022 (194 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LONDON — It was eerie, how you could pinpoint the moment the surreal became real.

It was exactly 10:59 a.m. local time Monday, and all along the barricades that snaked away from Westminster Abbey, the first hymn of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral began piping on the loudspeakers, broadcast to a crowd of thousands that lined the route, waiting to catch a glimpse of her casket.

As the hymn’s first notes sounded, the crowd, which until then had murmured along at a lighthearted hum, fell into a stark silence. Their faces changed. Their smiles faded and gazes drifted away: grief, for those who felt it, but also a sense of something shifting. The queen is gone, really gone, and what comes next will be a transition in more ways than one.

The mood in London this week hadn’t felt funereal until exactly that moment.

In the mass of people flanking the Horse Guards arch that led to one of the procession route’s most open spaces, a man hugged his 10-year-old daughter closer. The hush that fell over the crowds stayed for the next hour, broken only by the beat of marching band drums.

The people had converged on the heart of London well before dawn, disgorged from subway stations and funnelled by security guards into sections of the funeral procession route as each opened up. Some had stayed up all night to stake out a prime spot along the Mall which leads to Buckingham Palace; by 9 a.m. all spots were taken.

There was little choice in your destination. You went where the flow of people was leading. Once inside the barricades, you couldn’t leave until it was over. The smart ones brought camp chairs; the smarter ones brought folding stools, which could offer both rest and vantage, the latter of which swiftly became the day’s most precious commodity.

I would like to tell you, in the seven hours spent penned along the route, the folks around me shared moments of beauty. I’d like to tell you we shared intriguing stories or elegant thoughts on the past or the present or the future of monarchy. I’d really like to tell you, for seven hours, we connected as we waited to meet history.

But we didn’t. We stood, and when we got tired of standing we sat, and if we were tired enough we laid down on the gravel, wedged backpacks under our heads and we slept. The hours crept by in a haze of small talk and silence. The world shrunk until it was no bigger than the route, the back of each other’s heads, and the grey sky.

There were no viewing screens on that part of the route, though the loudspeakers were set to share a radio broadcast of the funeral at 11 a.m. Before that, we were on our own, trying to piece together what was happening from the movement of the police officers and ceremonially uniformed soldiers that periodically marched by, getting into position.

“It’s strange,” I told my neighbour, a woman from Poland who had moved to the U.K. 20 years earlier and was attending the funeral with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. “Here we are at the heart of what the world will be watching, except the rest of the world knows more about what’s going on here right now than we do.”

It was around 9 a.m., and 400 metres from where we stood, world leaders were filing into Westminster Abbey. My neighbour pulled out her phone, and though the connection was poor — too much demand on the system — she was able to bring up the BBC livestream of the funeral. Others did the same, inviting strangers to huddle close.

For the next two hours, we stood in small bunches, watching what was happening down the street on our smartphones.

I would like to tell you what it was like to witness history, but I didn’t witness it.

When the queen’s casket left Westminster Abbey, we didn’t hear the gun salute; we didn’t hear Big Ben tolling. The crowds at the barricades stood seven or eight rows deep, so from anywhere but the front all you could see were glimpses, each one in a breath disappearing.

Here, seen for a split-second between a sea of raised arms: a flash of purple velvet, the Imperial State Crown lying atop the queen’s casket. Here, a man you can recognize from his gait alone. (“The King,” my neighbour whispered to his daughter.)

Then, for a brief instant, a flash of red hair passed through the space between the back of people’s heads, and was gone.

“Oh, Harry,” a middle-aged woman beside me said with a motherly sigh, resting her hand on her heart.

In a minute, it was over.

The crowd was less witnesses to history than its backdrop, the scenery. We were the window dressing for images that will live for posterity: look at all the people, these undifferentiated masses that turned out for the procession, giving the myth to the story of how the queen’s last journey was met.

History will see the crowd that thronged that procession better than we could see it.

Still, let that history remember the people bade it farewell together. From the streets where they’d waited all night in the cool breeze of September; from the vast parks of central London, which had filled with as many as a million people wanting to be part of the whole.

It won’t be the same again, not in our lifetimes, and maybe not ever. The world knows it. The United Kingdom knows it. The former colonies know it, too.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, there have already been renewed discussions about the monarchy, its tangled history, and its place in our world; the new King’s reign will be different, for better or worse.

Or will it? When the funeral procession was over, security kept us penned where we were for nearly an hour, taking care not to allow a dangerous crush of people chasing the casket further, or pouring out of the Mall. The crowd waited in an amiable and unhurried fashion, nibbling sandwiches on picnic blankets, until at last the guards let us go.

“I’m coming back for the coronation,” a woman beside me said, as we shuffled out. “No need to be sad for long. Next time, though, I’m getting up earlier. I’m not f—-ing around. No complaints though, we had a front-row spot, but it could’ve been front row in a better place. Coronation though, 3 a.m. I’m doing it.”

One last thing. It was a moment that happened near the end of the funeral.

Just as the two minutes silence fell over the crowd, the sun broke through the blanket of cloud over London, growing bright and brighter until it was blinding. The members of the crowd turned their faces to the light in a quiet awe: it was one of those moments that, although coincidental, creates a sort of enchantment. For the first time that morning, the sky gave warmth.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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