London’s Two Rivers

This photograph, taken on the morning of the 2015 Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, shows Pietro Annigoni’s 1955 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a painting regarded at the time as a fresh and daring way of depicting Royalty. It hangs in Fishmongers’ Hall, sited next to London Bridge. Outside the window, the River Thames flows through the heart of the Capital.

19 September 2022

By Tim Koch

Today, Monday 19 September, is the day of the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. On Thursday, I went to see the lines of people waiting for many hours for their turn to briefly pass by her coffin lying-in state in the historic Westminster Hall of 1097.

On observing the long, quiet queues of people waiting to pass Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall in 1965, the journalist Vincent Mulchrone wrote, Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people*. The same could be said in 2022.

For these people on Lambeth Bridge, their long, slow walk was almost over. For those in line on Thursday evening, the expected wait was eight hours, by Friday morning it was 11 hours, and, by Saturday, those at the end of the five-mile queue had to wait 24 hours.
Many who were waiting to pay their respects were not obvious supporters of the Queen or of Monarchy, but I cannot imagine that the anti, the ambivalent or the simply curious would have undertaken this taxing and time-consuming commitment.

I had expected the line to be dominated by the pale-skinned, middle-aged and middle-class – but it was not. It was heartening to see a noticeable number of Britons of colour who presumably thought that the Queen and what she represented deserved their respect. This was in a difficult week for what was once commonly called “race relations”. In London, an armed police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man. The facts have yet to be determined but there have been little-reported protests in at least nine towns and cities by those who felt that this was another of the ongoing injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

As to age, children (understandably) and those in their teens were underrepresented but there was a wide spread of those from their 20s to perhaps their 70s. I doubt that any were of the Queen’s wartime generation but there were a few who showed the same indomitable spirit. The lines contained some very frail and/or elderly people who were clearly suffering from the effects of standing outside for a long time but who were also obviously determined to say farewell to their Queen. By Saturday evening, 700 people had been treated by First Aid providers on site and 40 had been sent to hospital.

Social class is rather more difficult to determine at a glance nowadays, not least because the whole world seems to have agreed to dress for maximum comfort with minimum thought. A minority of people did choose formal black clothes, but the majority wore what they would have done had they been visiting a supermarket. A clothes snob such as myself could easily be scathing about this lack of sartorial effort but, when I saw a middle-aged man in an unflattering T-shirt, sagging jogging bottoms and fluorescent “Croc” sandals sobbing as he left Westminster Hall, how could I think that he had any less respect for the occasion than the composed man in the immaculate dark suit that followed him?

As people queued along the South bank of the Thames, the world’s press and television took advantage of the distinctive backdrop of the Palace of Westminster on the north bank of the Thames, the home of Westminster Hall and of both Houses of the UK Parliament, the Commons and the Lords.

National Symbols abounded at Westminster:

Union Flags on The Mall leading to Buckingham Place.
The statue of Churchill on Parliament Square. Born in 1874, he was the first of the fifteen Prime Ministers of the Queen’s reign. The last, Liz Truss, was born one-hundred-and-one years later in 1975. Before he became an MP, Churchill took part in the last full charge by British cavalry at Omdurman and later escaped from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp. Before she became an MP, Liz Truss became an accountant and worked for Shell and Cable & Wireless. 
Both the image of the clock tower popularly known as “Big Ben” and the sound of its chimes are often invoked to imply security, stability and power, emanating as it does from the site of parliamentary democracy, the Mother of Parliaments. The statue of Boudicca, a tribal Queen in Celtic Britain who fought the Romans, is often used as a symbol of British independence.
British policemen in their distinctive helmets. Forces from all parts of Britain have sent personnel to assist London’s Metropolitan Police. “Heddlu” is the Welsh-language word for “Police”.
Ultimately though, it was the long, patient and polite queue that was the most potent symbol of Britain and its traditional values.
Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, born Princess Elizabeth of York). 21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022. Picture: National Portrait Gallery.

* The full quote is, Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.

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