Queen Elizabeth II: Queues last 30 hours as people pay their respects

Queen Elizabeth II: Queues last 30 hours as people pay their respects

In his essay on the English people, George Orwell noted that any foreign observer would be struck by their orderly behavior and especially their “willingness to form queues.” It’s one of those British stereotypes that has emerged in recent days, as the mother of all cows elongates and snakes its way along the south bank of the Thames.
As many as 750,000 people were expected to travel to London ahead of the state funeral for the late Queen Elizabeth II on Monday. Queues began forming days earlier on the opposite side of the River Thames from the historic Westminster Hall, where her coffin lies raised on a catafalque. By late Thursday afternoon, the line was nearly 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) long.
We know all this because there is an official live queue tracker, which reports the length and average time to the destination at a speed of about 0.5 miles per hour.
Those waiting in line are given wristbands to mark their place. There are “extra welfare facilities” (read: toilets) and water fountains to ease the discomfort of slowly shuffling through the day and night. There is also detailed guidance on what to bring (food, water), what not to bring (bottles, camping equipment, large bags) and how to behave. There is plenty of security, not that it appears to be needed so far, while archive footage of the Queen is shown on a big screen. Volunteer faith leaders are present to help mourners process what they are experiencing. Not even Disneyland, with its famous queue management strategies, can match this.
That so many came from so far to wait so long for such a brief glimpse of the late monarch’s casket will strike many around the world as curious and some as exaggerated. People took days off and pulled kids out of school. They’re not waiting for the latest iPhone, but for a chance to show respect to someone most of them have never met.
Most Americans tend to despise long lines. “It was amazing,” texted a friend when she returned home from a trip to London amid travel chaos this summer. “Took me two hours to get into Heathrow and people were just tolerant and obliging. Would never happen in the US. The Americans would be angry and there would be chaos.”
To the rugged individualist, queues generally feel like a bad use of time, suggest poor organization and seem evidence of a herd mentality. They can be uncomfortable if you’re wearing the wrong shoes or don’t have access to the bathroom. In the early 90s, I lost all feeling in my toes after standing in line in minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) temperatures to buy a few essentials at a generic grocery store in Moscow.
Yet we all stand in line as an inevitable means to an end – to get through airport security or to a ski lift or into a museum exhibit. I happily waited in a long line one February to buy a spectacular hot chocolate at a stand in Paris. But I’ve never done anything like what hundreds of thousands of Brits and visitors are doing right now. It takes a certain stoicism, humility and determination to drop everything and be a part of it. In the endless debate about whether there is such a thing as society, here seems heavy evidence of it.
Orwell was not wrong; There is something about the British reputation as queue tolerant, which some go back to the Industrial Revolution and others to wartime rationing. Queuing properly is so synonymous with common decency that when Britain set up its first citizenship test in 2010, it was about how to form a good queue. When former Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to defend his policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, he accused male refugees of “paying people smugglers to jump queues”.
But the reputation of a nation eager to queue – the Brit who stands at the back of the queue before asking what it’s for – is largely exaggerated. Yes, Brits queue overnight for Wimbledon tickets, but Americans camp out for tickets to a basketball game at Duke University. Britons were as outraged by the travel chaos as anyone, as they made clear on social media. Even recent reports that Tesco customers preferred queuing to using the self-checkout proved to be exaggerated.
Those queuing to see the Queen describe many motives: to be part of a unique moment in Britain’s long life, to express gratitude and to show respect. The deaths of other historical figures have drawn large public gatherings in the past, but nothing like this.
About 200,000 came to pay their respects to the Queen Mother in 2002. More than 300,000 passed through Westminster Hall to pay tribute to George VI in 1952. A similar turn was to honor Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill – the wait was about three hours and the line was about a mile long. About 250,000 Americans waited as long as 10 hours to witness John F. Kennedy’s lie in state. About 100,000 mourners paid tribute to the late South African president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and world changer Nelson Mandela, with many disappointed that they were prevented from doing so. I set aside the communist figures of Mao and Lenin.
By all accounts, the mood among those waiting to pay their respects is solemn, neighborly, expectant, joyful, sorrowful and above all determined. People made new friends, stood still or chatted. No one seemed to doubt that the wait was worth it. Those who emerge from the historic hall describe the experience as visceral.
FOMO aside, how eager would you be to join a line that stretches five miles and lasts up to 30 hours? If you asked me a few weeks ago, the answer would have been quick. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad there are so many who don’t hesitate.

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