When Sir Winston Churchill died in 1965, Daily Mail writer Vincent Mulchrone wrote there were "now two rivers running silently through in London, one of them made of people" as people queued to pay their respects.
The flood has returned as mourners across the country pour into the capital to say goodbye to Queen Elizabeth II before the state funeral on Monday, September 19.
We’ve seen an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented these past years, and I’m sorry to say it again, but few other words feel appropriate for the numbers waiting in line. Truly unprecedented.
Some 750,000 people are expected to file through Westminster Hall past the Queen’s coffin in silent tribute, having waited for hours, and meandered for miles past some of London’s biggest landmarks.
Those who haven’t joined the queue, which has now reopened after a pause as capacity swelled, are instead spectators, watching in complete fascination and sharing stories as they trickle through that all-knowing modern newswire and rumour-mill: Twitter.
I can’t tell you how many times my phone has pinged with Whatsapps over queue waiting times (“FOURTEEN HOURS!”), pictures and clips of the queue, and, living close to Tower Bridge, been asked to verify the length of the queue with my own two eyes, from friends and family, all invested in the slow, sad procession of the second Elizabeth line.
Reports of mourners attempting to smuggle pets into the Great Hall have raised a wry smile, but it’s the sparks of celebrity-sightings that’s proving a boon to the tributary of tribute-payers.
Despite the existence of a separate VIP entrance, David Beckham was spotted in line, waiting alongside everyone else. According to reports, he joined the back of the line at 2am and waited 12 hours through the early hours and into the afternoon, buying doughnuts for others (imagine that!), all the while, I imagine, gamely answering a thousand questions and posing for just as many pictures along the way.
One can be sure he’s doing it for the right reasons - brand Beckham hardly needs publicity or promotion - but this will do nothing but raise his stock and cast iron seal his status as a national treasure.
Waiting patiently in the public queue on his own was no doubt a risk: if anything could cause a riot and detract from the sombre moment, surely it would be the sight of Golden Balls. But the crowd remained respectful, presumably taking solace in the fact that a household name was, too, humbled by the occasion, and standing without fanfare amongst them, sharing in their grief.
Besides, there’s nothing more irritating to someone in a queue, especially one with a wait that stretches into the double-figures, than seeing other people cut in front - particularly people with privilege.
The unfortunate fact is that some folks will be unable to pay their respects in time; meanwhile celebrities, peers and MPs are fast-tracked to the front.
Why those doing the organising didn’t opt instead for timed entry visits is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because, in this instance, the act of queuing is a pilgrimage, a drop of effort one can offer against a lifetime of duty from Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
If any line should be paused for entry, it’s the separate, faster-moving, star-studded one. It’s reasonable to assume many of the VIPs using this line may have met the Queen in person, perhaps multiple times.
Wouldn’t it be more respectful to keep their memories, so that the thousands of people, some waiting overnight, can have one to treasure of their own? Either that, or follow the lead of internationally-recognised Becks and quietly join the back of the real queue.