What a day it had been: after crowding around our news desk watching Huw Edwards on the BBC at 6:30pm with a dozen other journalists in utter silence (trust me, we’re a hard bunch to quieten), I had roared into central London to mourn the passing of the Queen.
A Londoner all my life, the only other time I’ve seen Piccadilly Circus disrupted like it was last night was during the depths of the pandemic. This time, what must have been a 30 metre-wide high-definition image of the 96-year-old had replaced the frenetic Coca-Cola adverts typically on the giant billboard. “Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II,” it read. “1926-2022.”
My friends left a nearby Soho bar to stand quietly next to me and we took in slow, deep breaths. Being a Queen sympathiser is perhaps my least progressive opinion; I respect those that think the monarchy should be over and done with, but my heart has deep admiration for anyone that says at a young age their whole life will be dedicated to the service of others. I believe she felt that way, and the fact that she remained in the same job through a time period spanning Churchill to Coldplay is astonishing.
Once, aged 17, I even got to have my “moment” with Her Maj. I broke royal protocol and asked the Queen if I could shake her hand at an appearance in Cambridge. She wasn’t doing a walkabout, but we bought flowers from the shop and, on leaving, the Queen spotted our bouquets and invited us over. She was generous and questioning and ordinary, and it made me respect her more. You shouldn’t ask to shake the Queen’s hand, we learned later, but my friend did and she was relaxed in her decision to let us and unbothered by our asking.
All this is to say that last night I had wanted to mourn properly, but once we’d wandered away from Piccadilly Circus, our heads turning occasionally back to the image of the Queen for a final glance, we were headed to Heaven, London’s biggest LGBT+ nightclub. I’d thought watching drag queens performing live would have been an incredible experience; these performers often respond to the latest news cycles with their live shows and, for me as a queer person, drag is essential creative expression that I live by. It’s the first thing I turn to for responses to anything, be it good news or a tragedy.
But Heaven was closed: a small sign on the door below the colourful sign read that the decision was taken “as a mark of respect”. It wasn’t just me that hadn’t checked social media to hear the club was shuttered. I spent a while talking to other people who rocked up and had to head home disappointed.
In principle, the age-old idea of mourning is a good one: to take time to respect the life of another before we collectively move on. But it shouldn’t stifle creativity or expression, especially of minority groups that need safe spaces such as queer clubs in which part of the culture is intrinsically about creating art and performance as a means of survival, no matter how hard the times get.
I assume Heaven runner Jeremy Joseph made this decision himself, but many other venues across the country will undoubtedly feel pressured into closing temporarily, all the while haemorrhaging money to fit in with the status quo, which isn’t fair on them. Meanwhile, press releases are pouring in announcing postponements of TV shows and events, some of which are charitable. And some of the mourning processes of restaurants and bars can feel performative; journalist Maddy Mussen noticed this, sending a tweet joking that Pizza Express would “only be serving British food” in honour of the Queen.
The last time there was significant public mourning on this scale was for Princess Diana, and now we look back and acknowledge that elements of that period were wrong. Princes Harry and William walking behind their mum’s coffin in their boyhood was not right.
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Can we modernise the old-fashioned idea of mourning and make it work for our 21st-century values? We’re not Victorians, and it’s no longer crazy to accept the idea that being entertained and showing deep respect aren’t mutually exclusive. Anyway, queer culture is all about respecting one another: there may be sly jokes, but really these days I don’t believe London’s drag queens would have seriously dragged the Queen. There would have been jokes, but in good taste.
On the other side of the alleyway to Heaven last night, the Players bar was open. It’s a British institution that’s famous as the watering hole for politicians, especially on Thursday nights before they head home from Westminster to their constituencies. Yesterday evening I went inside and, with the venue at full capacity, I gathered around the bar’s piano where the pianist was playing God Save The King. With a pint, and swaying drunkenly along with dozens of strangers, I bellowed those most unusual of lyrics. It felt like the epitome of modern mourning.