The crowds, respectful and good-humoured in front of the Palace; the flowers – for every other person in the vast throng from Hyde Park Corner to the Mall had a bunch; the (mostly) orderly queue of people waiting patiently in an enormous queue to pay their respects: you know what it all reminded me of?
Yep, the enormous gathering of mourners who came to pay their respects to Princess Diana, when it seemed like London thronged around Kensington Palace. That was 1997. Twenty-five years on, it’s the same spectacle, only this time it’s for the Queen.
Barely a day has passed since her death, but it feels like everyone has felt a kind of gravitational pull towards the Palace, the place we most associate with her. The crowd stood silent as the gunners in Hyde Park sounded the salute – 96 times the guns rang out.
Someone whispered loudly: “It’s for each year of her life!” but otherwise, apart from a rowdy toddler, people were still. Then it was back to quiet chatter in the press around the line that separated the spectators from the Buckingham Palace railings, with a couple of policemen and a female security guard with roses tattooed up her neck, obediently bringing flowers from the spectators to join the growing display. The lucky ones had managed to stick their bouquets in the railings further down.
“Pass along”, a policewoman told the queue through a megaphone. “There will be an opportunity to put your flowers into the Garden of Remembrance further down”.
Not so much a garden, though; more like a vast floral display, plus the odd ornamental figure: someone had assembled statues of the Queen, a corgi, and a guardsman in a bearskin.
And what an extraordinary group this crowd was: as if someone from Whitehall, with instructions to assemble a crowd to represent Diverse Britain, had brought together the greatest variety of people possible.
Tough blokes with bunches of sunflowers, a drag queen in pearls and white platforms, a Jamaican gentleman in a bowler, a lady from Richmond with a Union Jack scarf who remembered watching the Coronation on the one small screen on her street, and a few teenagers in wheelchairs.
Oh, and the reporters. Stand still long enough and a reporter would come up and interview you. In fact, it got a little surreal when a nice South Korean TV girl reporter started to interview me.
She was particularly interested in how a new monarch would affect people, given the economic crisis and the energy crisis, and what about the new prime minister? (They’re very well informed in South Korea.)
I observed that it would be Liz Truss rather than King Charles who’d be dealing with the energy crisis, but yes, in normal circumstances, a new head of state would be enough to be getting on with, but a new king and a new prime minister in one week was quite something.
There was a wonderful gathering of nationalities, like the crowds at the first pentecost. Among those I spoke to, there were ladies from Sri Lanka, who were terrific fans of the Queen, a language student from Brazil with tattoos and a dear little bouquet, a couple from Lanarkshire who had come down for the Last Night of the Proms (cancelled, but no one told them) and were making the most of their proximity to the Palace, and several Irish (some, admittedly, drawn by my accent) including one young man, Gareth from Wexford, who’d managed to see the Queen when she and he were at Trinity College during her triumphant 2011 tour of Ireland.
HM Queen Elizabeth II A Nation Mourns
There were several people with babies and children. One grandmother had come with her daughter and grandson, Oscar, who would be two on Monday; the little fellow was being brought “to see history”.
The Jamaican gentleman, in a black suit, called Aubyn, was there out of respect for the Queen; as a boy, he had got the day off to watch the Coronation. He was there on behalf of his mother, who had also been a terrific fan.
Several people were there with instructions from their relations abroad to pay their respects. One man from Putney came with a letter of condolence from Australia.
And my favourite, a lady of 90 from Surrey, had come because she was pretty well the same age as the Queen, and had come to London to see the Coronation. “It felt right, somehow”, she said.
And, behind them, there was the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Everything had changed, but some things stayed just the same.