The Big Moment: People were moving in a muted but purposeful way, as if answering a call

Funeral of the Queen Mother, 9 April 2002

The death of the Queen Mother at the age of 102 was hardly a shock. What was much less certain was how a nation with such highly divergent views on the Royal Family would respond. This was what our writer found, in a piece published on 10 April 2002, the day after the Queen Mother's funeral.

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.

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.

I left London, and the queue (or "The Four Mile Tide of Love", Daily Express) briefly at the weekend, down the M4 – the motorway, I was to learn from the Sunday newspapers, that the Queen Mother disliked so much that her cortege yesterday journeyed to Windsor, completely ignoring it. Either side of Newbury there were more long queues, but this time for a sale of Land Rovers and associated parts at the show ground.

The mood seemed equally unclear in Stroud, in Royal-country-residence country, where Princess Michael of Kent, I also learnt from the Sunday papers, was quietly at home after misreading things herself and throwing a champagne party at Kensington Palace on the Friday. The Stroud News & Journal was giving rather less space (four paragraphs, halfway down page five) to the death than the Morning Star (concerned, inter alia, that there had been no mention of the backing given to appeasement by "Ms Bowes-Lyon").

But Joe's Chippy, home of "the best chip sarnie in Britain, pounds 1.20, Feb 2001 award", was closing for the funeral; and a newsagent had devoted a window to a large photograph of the Queen Mother, the frame surrounded by plastic roses and resting on black satin. Also in the window was a copy of OK! magazine dedicated to "the century's most remarkable woman". A 19-year-old student from Stroud College was getting some sandwiches out of his rucksack. What did he make of it all? "Quite upsetting," he said. Really? "Yes, it's on the television all the time."

The Sunday papers still had pressing and extraordinary revelations. In one, the Queen's racing manager claimed she had never had a bet on the horses; in all of them she was revealed by her grandchildren to be a big fan of Ali G, as pause-giving a development as I had yet come across, until I read Ali's response: "A big shout to de fallen leader of de Windsor massive. She was always a hero in de ghettos of Berkshire. I'm glad to hear I was an influence on de Queen's Mum and not just on Prince Harry - who has always been one of me best customers."

It takes a lot of magic to resist that sort of light banter, but the last week has demonstrated that the Windsors have rather more of it left than people like me supposed. The thing was well and modernly done, with the television appearances, the mingling with the queues, part, yet apart; but the abiding image is the old pomp and confidence of the ceremonial, the captains and kings and presidents, the litany of styles and titles, the grandsons at the catafalque, with telling, ancient chivalric echoes; and, above all, with awesome elan, that jewel in the crown of the monarchy, the Koh-i-Noor. Death is not always a great leveller. It is also the purveyor by appointment of a respect far deeper and wider than Ali G's. And how the polls reflected it.

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