This story comes from the team of thespinoff.co.nz.
Few tears, many smartphones. Reporting by Henry Cooke from Buckingham Palace.
I thought she was going to pull through.
My central London office was unsure what to make of the news, released early Thursday afternoon (local time) (or middle of the night in New Zealand), that Queen Elizabeth II was in “medical alert”. Some thought it had to be over; others like me knew she would have the best health care in the world – surely this was the beginning of the end, the beginning of a long battle, not the end itself? The Queen had begun her reign when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, surely she wouldn’t slip away just 48 hours after inviting her 15th British Prime Minister to form a government?
My workplace didn’t quite stop – we still had meetings, wrote emails, made phone calls. The commercial radio station we have hasn’t stopped playing music or having commercial breaks. The myth that we would all have a week off if she died was quickly debunked. Rumors were going everywhere – a particularly strong one was that we would have some sort of statement around 5pm, but 5pm came and went. I figured if she was already dead, there was no way she hadn’t fled at this point.
But then the sky darkened and the rain started to fall. It started to feel a lot more real. About an hour later, minutes before the BBC stream I was watching, the tweet came out confirming his death.
* Live: Mourners flock to Buckingham Palace to honor Queen Elizabeth
* A double rainbow appears over the palace after the death of Queen Elizabeth
* Death of Queen Elizabeth II: what did Queen Elizabeth II mean to you?
* Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled the UK for 70 years, dies aged 96
I opened the window to look up and down the Soho street where I work. The 70-year reign was over, but nothing seemed to have changed. People standing outside pubs started gesturing at their phones, exclaiming, showing their phones to friends, but still having a good time.
It’s not often you find yourself at the center of a monarchy when its most senior leader dies, so I finished my work and headed to Buckingham Palace, where crowds were gathering to see the official notice posted on the railing. The new king was not there – indeed, from what I can tell, the entire royal family was 800km north of Balmoral. But it was the natural place where Londoners came to cry.
Was it mourning? There wasn’t a lot of crying. Perhaps the tears will come later, unleashed by the funeral ceremony in a week or so. Again, crying publicly isn’t particularly British – it’s not a tin dictatorship where you have to publicly show your loyalty to the regime.
Instead, as I got closer to the palace, I mostly saw people doing what all modern people do when interesting historical events happen – taking photos or videos on their smartphones. Piccadilly Circus already had a huge wraparound image of the Queen, in front of which people dutifully took selfies.
In front of the palace itself, people gathered on the statue of Queen Victoria to get a good view of the palace, with the union jack at half mast. The wind didn’t really play ball, so every time it picked up, dozens of phones rose in unison. One side of the Memorial Gardens was crowded with legions of TV reporters, all standing under identical white gazebos well separated from the public.
I couldn’t see anyone crying, even though there were solemn faces. People stood by the doors, laying bouquets of flowers and taking endless photos, leading one man to yell “once you’ve taken your 10 photos, can you please continue?” People shared beers from the handy M&S. Instead of heartbreak, most of the conversations I heard were about logistics: wasn’t it amazing how all the media had cut into everything? Wasn’t it crazy how air traffic control kept the skies clear (not sure if this one was true). Wasn’t it interesting how early King Charles decided on his official name? I myself couldn’t stop thinking about politics: Tony Blair had cemented his post as Prime Minister with his reaction to Princess Diana’s death, coining the phrase ‘the people’s princess’. Could it be a similar moment for Liz Truss?
One man began a rousing rendition of God Save The Queen, to much applause and some eventual attention from the press cameras. He did it again once he was done, presumably for the benefit of the cameras, and received the same applause. Another man shouted “God Save The King!” to absolutely zero response. Another man shouted the first line of God Save The Queen, then complained “no takers for the second verse?” since no one joined him.
Away from London, the country as a whole has entered a state of sustained ceremony. Long-planned strikes have been called off. The idea of politics – on the picket line or in Westminster – became meaningless, at least for a while.
The rain got heavier so I put on the BBC and started walking home. The emotion hit me quite unexpectedly when the BBC aired clips of Elizabeth as a child recording a message for London’s evacuated children and then for lonely Brits during lockdown. I guess it’s the BBC’s only unwavering aim to make you sad when the Queen dies, but it worked. Away from the crowds, flowers and selfie sticks, I felt like I was on the verge of tears myself.
Elizabeth II’s lack of power was probably her institution’s greatest strength. It is much easier to accept a hereditary monarchy when the power they hold is only on paper. No one blamed the Queen for the slow sense of decline that set in here after World War II, for the Suez Crisis or for the high energy bills. Instead, she was invested with symbolic qualities above parliamentary politics: humility, compassion, fantastic manners. The prime ministers who served under her seem to have appreciated her advice – which is fair enough considering that she would have read more civil service documents than any other human being living after her first two or three prime ministers.
Of course, it’s not a service his 16 New Zealand prime ministers have been able to make much use of. The idea of Jacinda Ardern seeking advice from the Queen’s representative in New Zealand is absurd, and she could hardly text Her Majesty. Some will use this moment to push New Zealand to opt out of this system and embrace a republican future, but as always, I doubt our political class will ever be truly bothered. It’s hard to defend our setup on a symbolic level, but logistically it has some serious advantages over the messy process of setting up something else.
The BBC worked its magic, but I didn’t quite cry. As I walked away from the palace, London seemed more and more normal. A homeless man outside Green Park station called for help in an increasingly agitated voice, and almost everyone kept walking, eager to shelter from the rain.