By the time I went down to Westminster after work on Friday, September 9, someone’s head of broccoli had been plugged into the gates of Buckingham Palace with the bouquets of flowers removed. However, there is much more to see.
After Queen Elizabeth II’s death was announced at 18:30pm on Thursday, people from all over the country had arrived in the thousands, despite the fact that the Queen remained in Scotland until next Tuesday.
The narrow streets through Green Park, a 40-acre grassy triangle bordering the palace’s northern corner, were packed. I saw a man in a suit trying to make his way through the crowd by walking across the lawn and quickly plunging into the mud in a Three Stooges-worthy slip.
The weekend atmosphere is weird. It is very busy, and somehow busier with each passing day. Even near midnight on Saturday, when I would expect to find only errands after pub loitering around, the streets were heaving with people of all ages. Frustrated cyclists complained loudly about their inability to use the road.
Construction work is underway to prepare for next week’s funeral, which means that although there was a respectful quiet over the number of people, an obviously bogus beep from JCB resounded in the air.
Twenty-nine identical white tracks with brilliant studio lights have been set up for the press at the edge of Green Park, giving it a bit of a taste of an unusually linear crime scene.
The place was filled with journalists. I asked a boy in a Union Jack beanie why he was coming down, and he told me in a slightly weary voice that I was the third reporter to ask him. “It’s the man with the hat, I told you, it’s the hat,” his friend said, slapping him in the arm. He didn’t take it off.
The reason we do funerals is partly because it gives people a scenario of how they are supposed to interact with a death. Monday’s funeral will determine how the Royal Family wants the public to feel about the Queen’s departure: that it is a somber moment of momentous circumstances that call for an almost sublime degree of ceremony.
But the public jumped on that gun and didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves in the meantime. People have different reasons for coming here. Romantic tour groups of teenage Europeans weave their way around historic rubber tracks, passers-by who have just arrived to learn about the news event, spinning in slow circles, pages with their phones held overhead.
I watched as a couple was standing in front of the palace, taking a few selfies with their stone-faced scowls and then moving again. I asked Adam, 24, why he was there. “I don’t know. She seems fine,” he said, shrugging.
To place flowers at the palace gate, you must line up separately, fenced. Not everyone is delighted with cellophane-wrapped bouquets.
I spoke to a crowd control sheriff, whose name I don’t know because halfway through our conversation he was called to intervene in a small fight that broke out between a police officer. Another boss and an angry commuter, who tried to jump over the barricade to make the train at Victoria station, begged me to tell everyone to stop. “Tell them to invest in a charity instead, we will have to collect all these flowers at some point. We have a cost of living crisis. ”
A woman from Sheffield named Anthea overheard us and stopped to protest. “Of course people will bring flowers. She can’t have less flowers than Diana, can she? “
For some, being here is less of an option than an obligation. A group of elderly women were leaning against barricades and watching a black star-shaped balloon drearily buried at the gate.
“We would do anything to be here today,” said Diane, who met the Queen when she received her MBE for music education services. Graham Fuller, who brought the whole family with him, felt he had to be here because he had “served the Queen” as a police officer for 30 years.
Kenny, a 77-year-old man from Scotland, came down wearing a wooden sign around his neck that read “King Jesus is coming, repent” and a Britney Spears-style mic wrapped around his head. He feels worried about King Charlesalso coming. “He must come to God for help to rule this country, because great trouble is coming like never before in history. We are headed for the biggest recession in history. “
On Saturday, Green Park feels less like a pilgrimage site than a music festival. The station was closed due to overcrowding and the queue to get to the palace gate was rumored to last up to 4 hours. The girls slipped through the crowd in crowds, holding hands, and the grass was trampled to humus.
Come Sunday, you can’t get anywhere near the palace without committing to half a day in the crowd. Instead, frustrated people put their flowers around random trees in Green Park. A scrawled letter accompanied by a bouquet of flowers that read, “What’s your favorite animal, King Charles?”
This is a buffet crowd. I heard very little anti-royal sentiment, and what I heard was said in a discreet tone and not in the newspapers with their names. The elders said what I expected to hear, that they felt like she was part of the family, that they had spend their whole life with her and want to pay their respects.
The views of the young people surprised me even more. My fifth birthday party took place the day after Diana passed away. It was obviously a light affair for the adults present, but I ate the chicken nuggets happily, none the wiser.
However, Britons under the age of 25 today were born after the death of the princess. They had never seen a scene involving the death of a beloved royal. A 23-year-old girl named Monica told me: “It’s always a sad day at the end of matriarchy. “That’s what saddens me the most, that now we have to say: ‘Long live the King.'”
Lily, 15, and Rosie, 18, were milling about a hundred meters from the palace on Saturday afternoon, drinking cans of Strongbow Dark Fruit. “Yes, we love the Queen,” Rosie said. “I think Charles is quite good because he is very social with the environment. I feel like the Queen hasn’t pursued that as much.”
In general, the reactions to Charles have been muted. It’s hard to imagine what emotions will be captured in this place for many more years, as people gather to witness the end of his reign. Apart from anything else, he won’t have as long as the Queen has to fix herself in the public imagination. “He didn’t have 70 years in him, did he?” as one person said.
Two 17-year-olds, Charlotte and Hannah, got up from Croydon after a birthday party on Saturday night. “Don’t say Croydon,” Hannah instructed me, “say Surrey, that sounds better.” “We’re going to have a lot of kings now, so especially young women, I think she’s been really empowering,” said Charlotte. “Girl power, isn’t it,” Hannah added.
Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist living in London. These photos were taken last weekend by Benjamin McMahon and Alice Zoo
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to learn about our latest stories first