British film

For unknown reasons the queue has stalled. It is past three in the morning on London’s South Bank and I am sitting inside the BFI sipping hot coffee and watching a silent, exquisitely re-coloured film of the Queen’s visit to Pakistan in 1961: there she is laughing as she is asked to pick a prize ram in Peshawar, meeting engineers above a new dam and hydro scheme, standing on the bridge of a minesweeper to inspect the Pakistani fleet at anchor, her presence drawing fierce cheers from a crew of bearded submariners. 

The BFI’s café and its friendly staff offer respite from the five mile queue to pay our respects to the late Queen lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. It feels good to sit down in the warm. At a nearby table a pair of sisters from Coventry are eating a pizza and chewing over conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination. Next door a group of former RAF comrades share acid recollections of MOD turf wars and inter-service rivalry.

Hundreds, thousands of people stand on the Embankment embarked upon a pilgrimage towards Parliament where Her Late Majesty waits for them in a magical crimson and gold lily-scented silence entirely of her own making. Someone laughs, someone else lights a cigarette. A tired mother and daughter cuddle on a wooden bench. “Six hours” a marshall admits to an elderly man with a rucksack on his back and a pair of police officers from Wiltshire nod their heads in sorrowful confirmation. The man shrugs and disappears back into the queue. This huge communal march may have become agonisingly slow but these people are philosophical – they are here to demonstrate what their Queen meant to them, how grateful they are to her for being so faithful to them. Far up ahead some invisible obstacle breaks and the queue moves on. 

The BFI’s screens are now showing the smiling Queen in a cherry blossom pink coat greeting the Emperor and Empress of Japan at Victoria station. A pre-dawn chill rises off the Thames and shivers its way upriver along the queue. On the north bank the Savoy Hotel squats like a hunched golden toad; through the empty streets of nearby Whitehall sailors in shirt sleeves are pulling a practice coffin towards the Abbey. The queue shuffles forward. Tomorrow there will be an energy crisis. Tomorrow, all being well, the Ukrainians will push back further the ragged Russian army. Tomorrow will bring its own problems but the people in the queue reckon they’re going to be alright. Together they hold a story they understand, one they can use during hard times. And beautifully simple methods of good behaviour. Old stuff. Reassuringly repeatable. The Queen is dead. God Save the King.

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