Queen Elizabeth II: Queues reach 30 hours as people pay their respects

In his essay on the English people, George Orwell remarked that any foreign observer would be struck by their orderly behavior and especially their “willingness to form queues”. It’s one of those British stereotypes that has come to mind in recent days as the mother of all queues lengthens and snakes along the south bank of the River Thames.
Around 750,000 people were expected to travel to London ahead of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral on Monday. Queues began forming days earlier across the Thames from the historic Hall of Westminster, where her coffin lies elevated in a bier. By late Thursday afternoon, the line was nearly 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) long.
We know all this because there is an official live queue tracker, which reports length and average time to destination at around 0.5 miles per hour.
Those standing in line are given wristbands to mark their place. There are “additional welfare facilities” (read: toilets) and taps to relieve the discomforts of slowly stirring during the day and night. There is also detailed guidance on what to bring (food, water), what not to bring (water bottles, camping gear, large bags) and how to behave. There is plenty of security, not that it seems necessary so far, while archival footage of the Queen is shown on the big screen. Volunteer faith leaders are on hand to help the bereaved process what they are experiencing. Not even Disneyland, with its famous queue management strategies, can match that.
That so many came from so far to wait so long for such a brief glimpse of the late monarch’s casket will strike many around the world as strange and some as excessive. People took time off work and pulled kids out of school. They’re not waiting for the latest iPhone, but for the chance to pay their respects to someone most of them have never met.
Most Americans tend to despise long lines. “It was incredible,” wrote a friend on her way home from a trip to London amid travel chaos this summer. “It took me two hours to get into Heathrow and people were just tolerant and conscientious. It would never happen in the US. The Americans would be angry and there would be chaos.”
To die-hard individualists, queues generally feel like a waste of time, suggest poor organization, and seem evidence of a herd mentality. It can be uncomfortable if you’re wearing the wrong shoes or don’t have access to the bathroom. In the early 90s, I lost all feeling in my toes after standing in line in minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) to buy some essentials at a Moscow general store.
Yet we all stand in line as an inevitable means to an end—to get through airport security or a ski lift or a museum exhibit. I happily waited in a long line one February to buy an impressive hot chocolate from a kiosk in Paris. But I’ve never done anything like what hundreds of thousands of Brits and visitors are doing right now. It takes some stoicism, humility and determination to drop everything and become a part of it. In the never-ending debate about whether there is such a thing as society, here seems heavy evidence.
Orwell was not wrong. There’s something to the British reputation for queuing, which dates back partly to the industrial revolution and partly to wartime rationing. Queuing properly is so synonymous with common decency that when the UK set its first citizenship test in 2010, how to form a good queue was on it. When former prime minister Boris Johnson sought to defend his policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, he accused the male refugees of “paying smugglers to jump the queue”.
But the reputation of a nation that likes to stand in line – the Brit who gets in line before asking what for – is mostly exaggerated. Yes, Brits wait in line overnight for Wimbledon tickets, but Americans camp out for tickets to a Duke University basketball game. Britons were as furious with the travel mess as anyone, as they made clear on social media. Even recent reports that Tesco shoppers preferred to queue rather than use the cash register proved to be exaggerated.
Those lining up to catch a glimpse of the Queen describe several motives: to be part of a unique moment in Britain’s long life, to express their gratitude and pay their respects. The deaths of other historical figures have caused large public gatherings in the past, but nothing like this.
Around 200,000 came to pay their respects to the Queen Mother in 2002. More than 300,000 passed through Westminster Hall to pay their respects to George VI in 1952. A similar event was to honor Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill — the wait was about three hours and the line was about a mile long. About 250,000 Americans waited up to 10 hours to see John F. Kennedy lie. Around 100,000 mourners paid their respects to late South African President, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and world changer Nelson Mandela, with many disappointed they were prevented from doing so. I set aside the communist figures of Mao and Lenin.
By all accounts, the atmosphere among those waiting to pay their respects is serious, neighborly, expectant, happy, sad and, above all, determined. People made new friends, stood in silence or chatted. No one seemed to have any doubt that the wait was worth it. Those who emerged from the historic hall describe the experience as visceral.
FOMO aside, how willing would you be to join a line that stretches about five miles and takes up to 30 hours? If you had asked me a few weeks ago, the answer would have been quick. Now, I’m not so sure. But I am glad that there are so many who do not hesitate.

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