On the day the Queen died, I laughed. A hard-bellied laugh. With tears even. Before you shout ‘Treason!’, let me explain. I had tickets booked for a Soho Theatre double bill — first to see drag queen, comedian and friend Amrou Al-Kadhi aka Glamrou, and after to see Stewart Lee’s Work in Progress, at the behest of my partner, a Lee fanatic. It was going to be a droll evening gallivanting around town. I’d bothered to apply mascara. I planned to have half a pint of shandy because the baby inside me is hopefully well-baked. Keeping abreast of the rolling news, I gingerly ventured into town to an event at Selfridges. As I got off the bus at precisely 18.34, my phone pinged. The Queen had died. I looked up to check other faces. Nobody else seemed to be as alert. I’m seemingly enslaved to looking at Apple News alerts. When I entered the store, brows were furrowing at their phones but shopping for the new season was still propelling them forward.
Ten minutes later, after checking out cool boutique Machine-A’s pop-up, the DJ asked, ‘What? We can’t have any music?’ He was perplexed. Then the whole store went silent. Still, the shoppers shopped. It was only the next day that the store fully closed as a mark of respect.
Back on Oxford Street the news was fully out there. But there was no grieving in our tracks. Feet kept moving and tills kept ringing, albeit accompanied by phone-scrolling and a running commentary. ‘She was 96?!’ ‘I wonder who was with her.’ ‘What time exactly did she die?’ ‘Is this another Twitter hoax?’ Disbelief, stoic resignedness and curiosity all round. Tears weren’t shed just yet at this weird hour.
I headed to Soho Theatre, assuming laughing out loud would be cancelled immediately. The place was heaving. Actually all of Soho was. TVs in pubs showed sombre faces and bouquets swelling outside Buckingham Palace. But drinks were still sloshing liberally. Small plates in hip eateries still needed to be decided. And so I sat down to be entertained by another queen, Glamrou, dressed in sparkly regalia. The show would indeed go on as Amrou powered through his coming-of-age tale as a conflicted Muslim boy in Iraq coming to England as a youngster.
‘Too gay for Iraq, too Iraq for gay,’ is the tagline. Wrapping up in an hour, Amrou touched on nuances of British identity and post-colonialism that would be unpicked by others on social media in days to come. We laughed hard even if Amrou’s tale veered somewhere dark. The only queen in the house was he.
After inhaling a deep-dish pizza next door, we headed to the Soho Theatre basement for Stewart Lee, heckling latecomers, attempting to distill stand-up to its essence and skirting around She, who shall not be mentioned, before finally taking bait. Guffawing laughter (mostly from white men of a certain age, who like to mansplain Lee’s comedy to partners) bellowed out.
Maybe in those initial hours on 8th September, we didn’t quite know how to react. How should we be. How should we act. What does national mourning mean when we’re not a collective of unified subjects but a sea of individuals. And yet because she had been so constant and omnipresent. Even if for some, she was contained to bank notes and postage stamps, we all were affected somehow. That rainy evening when the city was still thronging, there seemed to be nothing to do but laugh out loud, until protocol and pomp kicked in. I raised my much-needed alcoholic beverage that night.