The ring of white vans around Buckingham Palace have all got “Party Hire” written on them – and giant pictures of clinking champagne flutes. The marquee rental business really doesn’t have the right livery for this kind of thing. It deals, for the most part, in happy times, not sad ones.
The men putting up the TV tents looked like they knew what they were doing, going through now familiar motions. The last time the marquee village set up here was only a few months ago, for the platinum jubilee.
By 9am on Friday morning the crowds were already queuing all the way up Constitution Hill to Marble Arch. Queuing just to walk past the front gates, to see the flowers and read the messages and lay some of their own.
“We just wanted to show how grateful we are for everything she’s done,” said a woman called Caroline Sutton. She’d come in from Kent with her mum, Sue. They’d bought a £10 bouquet at Gillingham station. Once laid, Caroline is heading to the office, Sue going home again.
“I wanted to come more than she did,” said Sue. “I would have liked to have come with my own mum, but I can’t. She’s all I’ve thought about, really.”
The front-row seats at royal events are usually filled with the same faces, who’ve become wearily familiar. The first tents pitched outside royal weddings, the prime spots outside the Lindo wing – it’s always the same gaggle of royal ultras. This time, not so much.
Most crowds you can spot a mile off. Football crowds, proms crowds, carnival crowds, Crufts crowds, the crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show – no one who’s spent more than 10 minutes in the UK would find it hard to deduce which was which.
But you’d be hard-pressed to stick a label on the Victoria Memorial at the moment.
Young, old, middle-aged, black, white, brown, French, Italian, Thai, suits, ties, trainers, brogues, gilets, desert boots, cargo shorts, leggings, baseball caps, beanie hats, hoodies, bum bags, cappuccinos, vapes, Marlboro Golds. All this, marching slowly forward under umbrellas from the Zetter hotel, from JP Morgan Asset Management and the West Ham United club shop, beside elderly parents pushed along in wheelchairs and little kids on push bikes and scooters.
One woman called Gillian, from Biggleswade near Cambridge, was wearing full funeral attire, including hair piece and veil because, she said, “I am in mourning.”
It takes about 40 minutes to make it to the palace gates, the waiting time slightly extended by the steady stream of pensioners with mobility issues apologetically pushing in at the front and cheerfully welcomed through.
I didn’t bring a card but was asked by a young woman in her thirties if I might lay hers for her, a simple white envelope with “Her Majesty” written on it: “I’m sorry, would you mind? I just don’t have time to wait.”
Most of the cards are thank you cards. “To our Queen, Thank you for everything. Love The Morleys,” read one. They all say the same.
“I’m just here to pay my respects, to say thank you, you know,” said Paul McCarthy, a postman on his day off. “I can’t believe it, really. It feels like everything’s changed.
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“She is the one constant in my life, you know, the one constant. I know everyone’s said it but it’s true. She’s always just been there.
“She was a good person. She was such a good person. I don’t think all these people are here because you know, 70 years or whatever, they’re here because they loved her. I loved her.”
And that is the crucial sentiment. It’s not too mawkish to suggest the country will not be waiting another 70 years for such a moment. And not too mawkish to speculate that such a moment might feel rather different.
The gathered masses aren’t here to genuflect before some grand institution. No one I spoke to had ever troubled the Mall or the pavements outside Westminster Abbey on a royal occasion before. They just wanted to say goodbye to someone they felt they knew, and liked, and who they already miss.