Tourists do not queue for seven hours. They do not wear regimental ties and swap anecdotes about the Blitz, nor do they clutch crying toddlers to their breasts and make them promise to remember the day.
It grieves a republican heart to say this, but the tens of thousands of people who stood in line on Friday and again yesterday to see the Queen Mother's coffin were not just holiday-makers lucky enough to be in town for a royal show that makes the Changing of the Guard look as tame as Cats.
No, it takes sincerity and commitment to join a line at Waterloo Bridge that you know is four miles long and moving very slowly. Particularly when the sun is fierce, the wind bitterly cold, and there's nowhere to sit down.
"We had to come," said Brian from Lincoln, who had sandwiches and a flask of coffee in his plastic shopping bag. He was too young to remember the war, and too sensible to be a flag-waving royalist of the sort that camps in the Mall for every state occasion. He described himself as an ordinary history teacher with a quiet respect for the Queen Mother's place in British life over the past century, who wanted to be close to the action for once.
"I think change has got to come to the Royal Family," he said. "But that's a discussion for another day." His grandson played on a Gameboy as they waited outside the Palace of Westminster. "It feels like the end of something, but I'm glad we're doing it properly."
Westminster Hall shut for a couple of hours yesterday morning, after being open all night. The doorkeepers, in their black tails and white ties, must have been glad to thaw their fingers with mugs of tea. Then, when four Welsh Guards were in place with their busbies bowed, silence fell again in the cavernous hall. Those who doubted whether the public would turn out in such numbers for a second day were about to be proved wrong.
The first person down the steps, at 8.06am, was a tall, grey-haired gentleman in a suit and very shiny shoes. He stood to attention, gave a short, precise bow from the shoulders, then walked briskly away. Soon a steady stream of people entered from under the Memorial Window, but it was clear that most of them did not know how to respond to what they found in the hall.
There was the coffin, as expected, draped in the Queen Mother's royal standard. The diamonds in her crown reflected the flicker of six candles and the glare of many more spotlights. But while the setting was already familiar, from the television, the atmosphere came as an obvious jolt to many.
Words died in the mouth as people realised there was very little sound apart from the click of cameras in the press gantry. A few old soldiers saluted, and police officers removed their headgear; but most of us don't wear hats any more, and in this casual society we lack the skills to respond to such formal moments. It's hard to bow with a rucksack on your shoulder, and you can't snap the heels of a pair of trainers together. So people just shuffled past the coffin, propelled forward by the memory of all those waiting outside, until they were nearly at the North Door. Then they stopped, and looked back, trying to prolong the moment.
Lying in state is the ultimate inanimate tableau; but the changing of the guard every 20 minutes was a welcome piece of theatre that brought the procession of mourners to a standstill.
Some people had come in their Sunday best, such as they might have worn to meet Elizabeth when she was alive; but others wore T-shirts, jeans, and even shorts. There were only three black or Asian faces among the hundreds of people who walked through in the first hour, and two of those were in the police honour guard.
There were few tears. This was not a tragedy, after all. The woman in the coffin had died peacefully in her home, at a great age, and of natural causes, after a life graced with comfort and privilege. Some people came to pay their respects because she really had touched their lives. Others, like Brian, felt the significance of the moment in their bones and wanted to be part of it.
"I'm so glad we came," said Pauline Cramp as she left the hall with her husband Trevor and two young daughters. They had travelled to Westminster from Woking in the early morning, but still had a two-hour wait to get in.
"The camaraderie in the queue was great," she said. "People were just chatting all the way. Then we came into the hall and there was suddenly absolute silence. Amazing." She looked down at Jessica, five, and Rebecca, four. "We wanted the children to see this, so they can remember."Reuse content