Friday 16 September 2022

Why all those people in The Queue are, er, a bit odd

For the past week, I have been out of London, away from home. Far from the madding crowds – and, of course, far from The Queue.

I have been with people who were getting on with their daily lives: shop-keepers, restaurant-owners, dog-walkers and holiday-makers.  (Thérèse Coffey, please note: no Oxford comma.)

It has all been wonderfully, refreshingly, normal. It has been, you might say, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

True, I have spotted a few – very few, to be honest – Union flags flying at half mast. And the local bakers have put a sign in their window saying that ‘after much deliberation’, they have decided not to open on Monday.

In the evenings, I have been watching the TV news. News from afar, from a different country. A country where countless journalists and broadcast executives have at last seen all their years – decades – of preparation pay off. Who can blame them for wanting to make the most of it?

TV cameras love crowds. They love spectacle, especially spectacle for which they can plan so meticulously so far in advance. Uniforms, bands, men in fancy dress wearing Gilbert & Sullivan medals. It’s all totally irresistible.

But I don’t mean to sneer. The death of a monarch, especially the death of the only monarch most of us have ever known, is of course an event of major national importance. It is perfectly right and proper that the event itself, its implications, the ceremonial that accompanies it, should all be reported on and analysed.

Yet something has been not quite right. I have been barely 130 miles from London, on the north Norfolk coast – not on Mars, or in the furthest reaches of the Scottish Highlands. But it has felt as if the Britain I have been seeing on the TV each evening has not been the same Britain in which I have been enjoying walks along the beach or delicious pub lunches.

I fully acknowledge that for many people – probably millions of people – the death of the Queen has been an event of deep sorrow. I also acknowledge that it is a moment of real significance in the history of our realm.

But how do we best reflect the true state of a nation in which there are so many different reactions to the same event? It is an unfortunate fact of life that journalists always tend to ignore the mundane, the ordinary – what’s news-worthy about the thousands of planes that don’t crash? The hundreds of MPs who go about their business unsung, uncorrupt? The thousands of NHS patients who, despite everything, get treated promptly and efficiently by caring health workers?

By definition, what we see on the news is the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary. The people queuing up for countless hours to file past the Queen’s catafalque in Westminster Hall are not ‘ordinary Britons’. They are the opposite. They are – and I hope they won’t mind me saying so – a bit odd.

I use the word odd to mean unusual, not to imply that there is anything suspect or untoward about all those men, women and children, young and old, who have been shuffling patiently along the banks of the Thames to the Palace of Westminster. Each will have had their own reasons for being there: a genuine affection for the late Queen; fond memories of a dead grandmother of whom she reminded them; a simple wish to ‘be there’, to create a memory that can be shared with future generations.

But they do not represent an entire nation. They are not typical, they do not symbolise a ‘nation united in grief’, or whatever is today’s cliché du jour.

Somehow, and I don’t know how, we reporters need to reflect that reality without appearing to mock or belittle. 

I reported for the BBC during that crazy week in September twenty-five years ago when the people of Britain seemed to have lost their heads following the death of Princess Diana. Yes, some of them did go completely bonkers – but most did not.

I think we failed to realise it at the time, or to reflect it – and I fear we’re making the same mistake again.