The London rain started on 8 September 2022 just before noon. It had been a strange week already. One prime minister out, one in. The carousel of Tory leaders that began after the EU referendum acted as an unusual precursor to how arbitrary and fractious British leadership can be. In a poetic turn of events, we were about to be reminded how solid and unflinching it is when constancy is at its heart. Of all the things that people who loved her loved about the Queen (RIP), it was the quiet certainty to be herself, in spite of everything.
As another two sparring orators took to the despatch box for PMQs, the weather seemed to notice events north of the border, silvering the national mood with drizzle. Paper notes were passed across Parliament, a fittingly analogue reminder of events outside the chamber. The Speaker made his announcement that the then Prince of Wales and his wife had travelled to Balmoral to be at the side of his mother, understood to be in a state of medical emergency.
London continued to cover itself in mist, under deep, broken grey skies, hinting at a tempest to come. The announcement of the death of the Queen, Elizabeth II, arrived almost eight hours later from Scotland. Because she was 96 years old and we had been privy to the frailest official portrait yet of her only two days earlier, standing in one of the multiple drawing rooms of Balmoral, last Thursday’s announcement felt quick and suitably untheatrical. The mood across the capital switched to something impossible to pinpoint, both entirely predictable and oddly unprecedented. There has never been a dress rehearsal for a monarch dying after a 70-year reign. The summer was now over.
The Queen was our quiet chance to gauge the state of ourselves, in small detail and the bigger picture. As symbolism, she was flawless. Over eight decades, through war, famine, plague and prosperity, she was British constancy. Her death is the moment in which we look at where we have been and where we are going. She was the starkest reminder of time’s slow passage.
Newly minted ex-prime minister Boris Johnson was quick to christen 8 September ‘the saddest day’, but that didn’t quite capture what had just happened. Nobody wants an old woman to be in pain. Death happens to us all. The saddest day for the Queen herself was surely the death of Prince Philip, a year earlier, one which she had weathered stoically, respectful of its moment by sitting through his funeral alone.
The eighth of September was another mundane, rainy Thursday at the office. By the end of the day, an era had ended. Something both sad (a finale) and happy (a beginning) was upon us and so the national mood wrestled with itself from somewhere in the middle, leaning one way and then the other.
The state moved with swift ease into mourning phase: sombre, deferential, grand. News presenters dug out the black. Broadcasters adopted plaintive, respectful voices. Oddly, nobody told us how she had died, which felt somewhere between cap-doffing respect and national infantilisation. It formed a strange bridge to a woman we know everything and nothing about. When somebody you care about dies, the first question you ask is, ‘What happened?’
Our connection to the Queen is indivisible from our sense of self, whichever side of the monarchy fence we sit on. Her great life triumph was to exist in a portal of recognition unsullied by the need to entertain. Traditional news channels chose serious, considered portraiture of her to emblemise her life, some old, some new. On social media channels, the more democratic form of news sharing that will ultimately coalesce to form the people’s opinion of what just happened, many shared the utilitarian version of the Queen: postage stamps, bank notes. Like the Queen herself, symbols of a different time.
The afternoon of 8 September was a moment to stare life in the eye, to gauge everything around us, to take stock of how we will look at ourselves now that our most consistently watchful gaze has gone. It will take a lot of processing. Perhaps this was why the mood of the country, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of her death, was so scattershot and difficult to locate. In an age of self-publishing, no single body or organisation gets to dictate the tone of the times. The diffident popularity metric of social media, of deference, jokes, pride, shame, argument, agreement and the odd incandescent rant will form a body of opinion to which everyone can turn for confirmation bias of what they personally thought of the Queen. In this sense, the closest we had to a precedent for what happened last week were the deaths of David Bowie, George Michael, Victoria Wood — figures so persuasive the national character shaped itself around them. Many cared, some didn’t. Everybody got to have their say, if they wanted it, loudly.
Amid the grand search for the national mood, one certainty remains. We no longer live in the era of Elizabeth II. In 1952, when she came to the throne, the National Health Service was just four years old. The Second World War was seven years past. Domestic life was starting to be brightened up by the most exciting of new technologies: the television. We were two years away from the birth of the grand demographic power of the teenager, officiated by the release of the first Elvis Presley single, ‘That’s Alright’. Skirts were getting shorter, trousers tighter.
Seventy years is a long time, 96 longer yet. As we untangle some of the past century through the life of an utterly remarkable and unique presence who defined those years, the hope is that some of that optimism can be reframed with circumspect hope and reflection. By Friday 9 September 2022, the sun had started to break through the clouds. There were still intermittent showers. The anchor is gone, but the ship still sails.