Queen Mother: The mourners - people like us?

It was a long time coming - but when it came, the nation's response to the Queen Mother's death took the chattering classes by surprise
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So: the tumult dies, the Queen and the queues depart, the pipes and drums and Dimblebys are stilled, the Spitfires and Lancasters take one more last bow over the horizon, the flasks and the foil blankets are put away, and the bystanders and the chatterers are left in puzzled huddles, still trying to make their own sense out of it, having failed pretty well so far.

I know, because I am one of those bystanding chatterers. For a long time I have chattered, and listened sometimes, and I have formed running and passable opinions on most things, including the royal family. Broken down and simplified into phrase bites, in the chatterer's way, my royal opinion goes like this: outmoded institution, exposed by the death of deference, too much light let in on the magic, still some instruction and entertainment left in its haughty failure to realise all this and its clumsy struggle to catch up, not much longer to go, present monarch almost certainly Elizabeth the Last.

The passing of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother slipped easily into all this: not really the end of an era, as she had lived well beyond her time, all tributes done over and again, remnants of the older generation paying dignified respect while the rest of us look on in a spirit of sympathetic but disinterested understanding.

I suppose I first began to doubt that the nation was entirely carried by my views just before St Helens played Wigan at Knowsley Road on Easter Monday evening. There was a call for one minute's silence. It seemed a risk: rugby league is, proudly, by far our most anti-Establishment sport, magnificently dismissive of anything to do with Southern toffery, and St Helens against Wigan is a tribal rite that overrides all else. The silence, though, was pin-drop; and the faces were moved, and moving.

And then came the recall of Parliament. Sage nods, again, at the decision of many Labour MPs not to turn up because they had more important things to do, and at the thoughts of Norman Baker, the Lib Dem member, writing in this paper: "The way the death of the Queen Mother has been handled says far more about Parliament than it does about her. It says that Parliament, unlike the population at large, still treats the monarchy with a deference and a reverence of an age now gone. Strengths are praised, shortcomings glossed over. It says that celebration of the institution is still more important than celebration of the individual."

I had laughed, too, over Mark Steel's "So couldn't someone in all this coverage find something, anything, that she could do? Given that she lived so long with such privilege, you'd think she could do something, like play the bassoon or do some trick shots on a snooker table", and had thought, like him, that her wartime canonisation had long since been declared theologically and historically unsound.

But then, during the debate, Oona King, the black Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, raised the roar of the day with her constituents' recollections of the Blitz and the Queen Mother visiting and a woman shouting, "Ain't she lovely, ain't she just bloody lovely!"

Our greatest brains have wrestled with the complicated simplicities of the human condition; even this one was beginning to detect an inconvenient inconsistency of approach in the hearts and minds of the nation. And this was before The Queue, which I learnt about on Newsnight, just after a short report on the procession of the Queen Mother's body to its lying in state at Westminster Hall, when it was announced that, owing to numbers, the hall would be staying open all night.

I went down. There were indeed a lot of people there, moving in that common, muted but purposeful way, as if answering some call, that I hadn't seen since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the last great time of complicated and unpredicted popular response, with those huge queues in the Mall to sign the books of condolence. It was said then, famously, that when the British are not quite sure what to do, they form a queue. This was not quite the same: the British seem to have brushed up their soundbites since then.

This is a selection I gathered in when I asked people why they were there: "I think to be part of history, when it comes to be written." "It's like when Diana died, there is a lot of pent-up feeling people want to express." "There's a feeling that something has happened, and people want to come and touch and feel and see for themselves." "We met some friends on the way home from a drink and decided to come along. It's just interesting." "The Queen was just something else again." "Apart from anything else, I've lived in London for 30 years and I've never seen the inside of Westminster Hall." "The Queen Mother was an important figure, loved throughout the country." "I met her once at Sandown racecourse. She was very nice. No, I didn't dare ask for a tip." "I think it's a moment in history that I couldn't miss, and I feel it's important to queue up for it." "She was like everybody's grandmother." "She was the mother of our country." "It was really neat.'' (That last from an American woman on a mobile coming out of the hall.)

Who were they? Well, on different visits over the days, I spoke to, for example, a merchant banker, a systems analyst, a retired research chemist, a former officer from the 9/12 Royal Lancers, a 10-year-old, and more than a few teenagers and 20-year-olds. There were also, as mentioned, some tourists. I should say, though, that most of the queuers I saw were from what were called, in the Queen Mother's salad days, the "respectable classes", aged between 30 and 60, with few minorities apparent, including the upper orders (who seemed, generally, rather less affected by the death. The only piece of bad behaviour I witnessed over the days was on Friday night, when a car slowed alongside the queue on the Victoria Embankment and a Hooray voice drawled, "She smelt, you know." Charming.)

"We are the silent majority," said one queuer, "voting with our feet." Well, hushed, certainly, but despite the queue's length, not a majority. As many people, for example, went to watch Arsenal against Spurs on the Saturday, and with rather more idea what they were doing.

For as you may have already gathered from the above, there was no clear agreement as to exactly what the queuers were honouring, or why; even if, to the Prime Minister, it is "the simplest of equations: she loved her country and her country loved her".

"It's difficult to put your finger on it," said the former Lancer officer, in a Lancer officer's way. "She meant a lot to quite a few people. Everyone had their own view of what made her special. She was the colonel of my regiment." Indeed. But perhaps the most popular image was contained on the note on the bouquet in Parliament Gardens, next to the one reading, "A wonderful lady and our Queen Mother, God be with you always. Janet and Brian and the animals." It read, simply, "For the Nation's Mum".

The Nation's Mum! There it was again, that splendid, contemporary evocation of ancient memory and myth; and as mysterious, particularly as so many people *