The Queue is pilgrimage

10.32, Friday 16 Sep 2022

Right now there is a queue to observe the Queen’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall.

The route runs along the south bank of the Thames, past Big Ben, past the big wheel, past Tate Modern, past Borough Market, past Tower Bridge. The queue is currently 4.9 miles (BBC News) and is touching Southwark Park, which is not a place I associate with the centre of town.

Right now the wait is 14 hours. It’s outdoors (the weather isn’t great). It moves 24 hours a day; there’s no camping out or sleeping on the ground. A continuous slow progress.

The front of the queue is being broadcast live by the BBC (the lying-in-state will last 4 days) and watching it has a meditative magic: And the queue shuffles ever forward in quiet contemplation.

It’s easy to laugh or to be cynical but I want to note this moment. It’s special.

It is known as The Queue.

Ian of Ian Visits narrated his experience of The Queue on Twitter. Here’s the thread (unrolled). It took him 8 hours. He took photos along the way.

Reading around, people are making friends in The Queue. It’s well managed – you can stop off at one of the 500 loos along the way and get back in using your wristband. There’s a bag drop.

People are talking about The Queue as something wonderfully and uniquely British. Here’s a Twitter thread from @curiousiguana:

The Queue is a triumph of Britishness. It’s incredible. …

It is the motherlode of queues. It is art. It is poetry. It is the queue to end all queues. It opened earlier today and is already 2.2 miles long. They will close it if it gets to FIVE MILES. That’s a queue that would take TWO HOURS TO WALK at a brisk pace. …

The BBC has live coverage of The Queue on BBC One, and a Red Button service showing the front bit of The Queue.

NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD JOIN THE QUEUE AND YET STILL THEY COME. “Oh, it’ll only be until 6am on Thursday, we can take soup”.

Queues mean waiting for handouts and dole queues, yet also decency and fair play.

Queuing as part of British national character was forged in propaganda during the Second World War (BBC News):

“Propaganda at the time was all about doing your duty and taking your turn,” says Bradley. “It was a way the government tried to control a situation in uncertain times.”

We think of ourselves as good queuers, now. 80 years later and it’s a story we tell ourselves, though at the same time we take it for granted.

Perhaps, with a bit of distance, we’d see queuing for the ritual it is. We’d apply to add it to UNESCO’s lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. We should!

Or perhaps it’s not so unique.

For queuing is pilgrimage. Reading the stories in the papers of the people in The Queue, or following them on Twitter, there are all these aspects bound up: respect, struggle, meditation, endurance, collectivism (yet also: people I know who are going individually because their friends don’t want to join them), journey, devotion, transformation. You can hear about all of these, behind the words.

The Queue = pilgrimage.

The filthy journey to and from Glasto = pilgrimage.

Hajj = pilgrimage.

I can’t help thinking how good it would be for our (a) mental health and (b) collective empathy if we had a proper shared cultural tradition and understanding of pilgrimage.

I barely have that understanding! Enough to recognise pilgrimage when it’s happening, but not enough to truly unpack it.

It’s such an alien term, at least for me. It seems funny to use it. And yet! I feel that aha response when I say it out loud!

I’ve undergone pilgrimage myself, I see now in retrospect. It’s not something I want to talk about here, it’s private, but it’s enough to say that what is happening with The Queue resonates strongly.

And there are personal pilgrimages! Tiny pilgrimages! Mundane pilgrimages! What is the Capital Ring Walk if not a pilgrimage to London? Why else make a spectacularly disproportionate trip to a certain gallery or spot on the coast or restaurant to have an experience that has deep meaning, a meaning that makes no sense to anyone else?

Imagine, in the midst of this Culture War, people from different backgrounds and beliefs suddenly able to make the connection between similar acts of devotion and journey and saying to one another: ah I get it now, we’re the same you and me.

Pilgrimage seems like a human universal. I wonder what it is, really; I wonder what it fulfils in us. Maybe it’s not important to answer that.

My takeaway is that I’m going to work harder to identify my own moments of pilgrimage, secular and spiritual, established and vernacular, big and small, and I’ll do my best to name each moment as such, and to give it the space and the weight they deserve.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.