There was an odd mood at the palace. Odd because it was unexpected. The news had led me to believe that I would be confronted with an overwhelming atmosphere of grief and sadness — sobbing monarchists and generally sad people all round. Yet it was not like this. While there were those paying their respects and having a quiet moment of reflection, most people were in fact far more interested in taking photos for Instagram. I had expected a sea of flowers and was instead presented with an obnoxious sea of smartphones vying for the highest vantage point and best photo. It seemed rather fitting that potentially the most significant technological and social shift in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — the advent of smartphones and social media — was the most dominant at her memorial.
On my way to the palace I walked up The Mall — teeming with people carrying bouquets, snapping photos, and weaving their way around security vans and media crews. Now I must admit I have previously written a scathing article on the monarchy and so I’m probably not the one you would expect to talk about respecting the monarch; however I soon had a revelation that presented me with a new perspective. Coming up to the palace, I was approached by a reporter who asked me to answer some questions on film and I agreed — unsure but excited nonetheless. He asked me what the general mood of the country was and how I felt. It made me think. Regardless of your position on the monarchy, everyone was shocked. And that’s what I said. There’s no denying she was a figurehead that was ever-present while the country underwent seismic change. The reporter then asked my opinion on Charles as King — would the institution still be as respected? No. I answered that many people don’t like Charles, nor Camilla and he doesn’t have the length of time behind him that the Queen did to earn her status. Across the Commonwealth many realms are moving towards becoming republics, but most have waited for the Queen to pass out of respect. Without her the monarchy is much weaker. Yet Charles has been the longest ever heir apparent and so should have all the experience he needs if he is going to succeed. Time will tell where the country stands with him.
But this was about his predecessor and mother. And as I wove my way around the crowd that had gathered in front of the palace I walked up to the railing and read some of the messages placed amongst the flowers. She clearly meant a lot to people — she was a significant figure even in my life where the Jubilee street parties were highlights of my childhood summers. The overwhelming scent from the thousands of bouquets placed there was impressive — even more so as the sign announced they were removed to another park every 12 hours. I could not help but be overcome by the profound sense of respect and outpouring of respect that was on full display here.
I sat down on the Victoria monument opposite the Palace and looked down on the scene below. The number of people was astounding. The Mall was full. There were seemingly limitless bouquets. But somehow it felt slightly underwhelming — I had seen it all before on the archive films from Diana’s time. Nearly as many TV crews dotted the mall as people walking it, and the media crews and their bright lights seemed to overshadow the actual scene. Still, when it started pouring with rain nobody left and the respect that showed was legitimate. I was there for three hours and still people came, the number ever increasing as the evening drew in.
Eventually I found myself penned in by railings as I entered the queue to the main flower laying area. It was all heavily managed by uniformed staff and barriers were plentiful. Suffocating was an understatement and between the onsetting claustrophobia I noticed an old car with a flag on top. It was Charles. Standing on my tiptoes to see through the sea of phones in front of me, I managed to catch a glimpse of him waving. Cheering ensued and some next to me shouted “God Save The King”. It was echoed by many others. But it was when some people burst into the song of Rule Britannia that I laughed to myself a little. For those that say the monarchy has entered the modern age, its supporters certainly haven’t.
I wasn’t there because I adamantly follow the Royal Family in the tabloids. I was there because it was an historical occasion. It still feels like a parallel universe when King Charles III appears in the news. But with time it will settle in. The next week will evidently show the respect the country had for its greatest servant. And despite my reservations of the monarchy, it is a hugely symbolic period for the country. She was responsible for many moves that defined a near century: shaking hands with Martin McGuiness for example.
The reality facing the country now is a new PM and monarch in the same week amongst an economic and social crisis. The one person many looked to as a bulwark of stability for a lifetime is gone. And for the country at this time that will be a challenge. My condolences are with the rest of the Royal Family at this difficult time.
Image credit: Jack Twyman