Sep 19, 2022
11 mins read
The Queen arrives at the doors of Westminster Abbey and her sailors stop and bow their heads as the gun carriage comes to a halt.
And I begin to write.
I think: are all the writers doing this? Are they all scribbling in their notebooks? Because some of them are of a certain age, like me, and they know they won’t remember it all, and they want to remember it, because they - me, you, all of us who are watching today - know they will never see anything like this again in their lives.
The moment The Day Thou Gavest Lord Has Ended starts to play, I begin to cry.
I hear some old voice in my head, not quite my mother, someone from childhood who was more practical and businesslike (rather like the Queen herself) say, ‘Have a jolly good cry. Get it all out.’
I think I’ve got it all out, but the tears continue in sudden bursts, set off by the smallest things - the look on the faces of the pallbearers, heavy with responsibility; the youthful choristers, so serious and so focused and singing their hearts out; a high soaring descent to one of the hymns.
So I scribble and weep and scribble and weep. I thought about leaving this for a day, and writing it for you in a great, polished sweep, with my best prose. I’m not going to do that. This feels like it is not a day for polish. I’m going to give you my notes. They start off intermittent and haphazard, nothing more than little aides memoires, and then they gather steam and become a torrent of consciousness.
‘Trumpets!’ I write, on the third line of the notebook. I don’t know why, but I was thrilled by the trumpets, echoing down the nave.
And then -
‘A whole lot of men in ceremonial uniforms randomly getting up and going somewhere.’ There would have been a stern reason for this, but it seemed at the time wonderfully idiosyncratic.
I write: ‘I do like that the Queen is referred to as our sister.’ That was the Archbishop of Canterbury, I think, or one of the many prelates in their long robes. His had a clasp of two socking great amethysts, a kind of bling that made me laugh and which none of the others were allowed.
Then a bit more:
‘Rosemary and oak leaves in the Queen’s funeral flowers. And do I spy a Bishop of Llandaff?’ Actually, it wasn’t that dahlia at all, but one called La Recoleta. I looked it up afterwards.
I’m starting to move now. ‘The trumpeters in their Herbert Johnson hats are playing the last salute. Outside, in Hyde Park, people are standing and bowing their heads. The camera zooms in on five very old Chelsea pensioners, in their singing scarlet coats. More fabulous trumpet action. And then the piper, because she loved the pipes.’
I write down perhaps the visual which I want to remember the most - the aerial shot of the Queen’s coffin, all alone in that great abbey. The camera pulls back, higher and higher, right up into the eaves, and there she is, in solitary state on the black and white floor, with the mourners standing in their serried ranks to either side.
The service is coming to an end now. I imagine the relief of the friends and family. It’s that moment when you know you have just about got through it and you absolutely know you can’t take any more.
I jot down: ‘The smallest choristers in their black armbands. The soldiers coming to collect the Queen. I suddenly think this the last time we will see her.’
I stop writing then because there is some more crying.
And then we are outside, into the gentle sunshine. ‘All the sailors wait with their heads bowed. The Yeomen of the Guard are lined up too and soldiers in scarlet tunics and plumed hats. All the hearse bearers are given their bearskins back.’
That last detail struck me, I don’t know why. There were two soldiers whose job it was to hold on to the bearskins of the bearer party - for that is what they are called, as their leader shouts out his orders: ‘Bearer party, stand! Bearer party, turn!’ - and they go slowly down the line, returning the hats - ‘Bearer party, hats on!’ - to each man. The most important, weighty part of their job is over now, and they can feel proud that they fulfilled it with perfect dignity. (I think: I hope their mums are proud of them. They had a heavy burden to bear, literally and metaphorically.)
I don’t know what I expected, but the procession somehow takes me by surprise. I write:
‘The band plays and Big Ben chimes and guns go off in the park. And suddenly, from nowhere, all the armed forces fill the streets.’
It does seem from out of nowhere. All the forces are moving and I wonder where they were waiting. (Hidden in the trees?) To my absurd delight, they are led by four Mounties, on the sleekest black horses you ever saw. The horses are calm and perfectly trained and walk easily in time, as if they have no idea that they are taking part in the biggest moment of their life. Of course, they are horses, so they do have no idea. If their humans want them to walk down city streets filled with flags and silent humans and marching people in uniform, that is what they will do. I think of their goodness and willingness, and am moved.
I write to a WhatsApp group of old friends, all of whom are watching, ‘The Mounties! I did not expect the Mounties!’
I’m not sure why they give me such a jolt of joy. The Mounties live in my imagination from childhood days. There must have been a book I read about them or something. I have no idea really what they do or how they are seen in their native Canada, but they are an enduring symbol of wonder to me and have been since I was a little girl.
There is a gap then, as I was watching with such rapt attention that I stopped writing for a while. I gazed and gazed and gazed.
Then: ‘The veterans lower their standards as the Queen passes the Cenotaph. The forces are all walking with their arms reversed, as a sign of mourning.’
I find both of these sights impossibly moving.
‘The parade comes up the Mall, which is lined with huge Union flags, and right up at the front, showing the Mounties the way, are gleaming, imperturbable police horses.’
I love the police horses.
I stop for some questions. I have many. ‘Why do some members of the guarding party have long white plumes falling from their hats? What does that signify? Who are the fellows in deep racing green, with eagles’ feathers in their bonnets?’
I discover that the racing green gentlemen are the Archers, the Queen’s bodyguard in Scotland. That accounts for the eagle feathers. The eagle feather is a big thing here. All the chiefs of the clans wear them in their own bonnets when they attend Highland games. Perhaps because of the nobility of the eagle, the king of birds. The Archers, I decide, have the best uniforms, the chicest thing I ever saw, and they are up against some hot competition.
I scribble down the other sights I want to remember: ‘The drum horse with his flowing mane and his drums draped in black. The major general who is, according to Huw Edwards, in charge of all the hundreds of troops here today. He looks pale and thoughtful and ascetic. His eyes miss nothing. The heralds in their colourful capes. And, at last, a flashing glimpse of the Household Cavalry. (I want more horses.) The Irish Guards and the Welsh Guards. The crowds, so still and silent. Behind, in a car with high windows, so everyone can see in, the Princess of Wales and the Queen Consort, their faces sombre with strain.’
I am struck by that. I know that feeling after the end of a funeral service. You’ve just about got through it; you’ve just about held it together. When you leave the church, you know you can have a damn good cry and a huge drink and hug everyone in sight. Those two women can’t do that. They have to drive, behind their revealing windows, past the watching public, keeping their emotions under close guard.
‘Every so often, I get a glimpse of a taut face, watchful, hard-eyed, just behind the gun carriage and the walking King and princes and royal dukes, and I wonder who they are and I realise they are the security services.’
I know that look. I’ve met a few close protection people in my time, and they all have that look. It’s a kind of basilisk stare, very present and faintly remote at the same time. They’ve been trained to see things which ordinary people don’t see. They are ready for things which ordinary people don’t experience. They are, always, very slightly other, a little removed from the usual run of life.
The procession is moving on now. The silence has been profound in the crowds, the only noise the rhythmic music of the military band. ‘And, at the last, as she comes to the end of the Mall, there is low but definite applause.’
Another snapshot: ‘Just in front of the Household Cavalry, an RAF padre.’ I don’t know quite why I wanted to write him down, with his flying uniform and his dog collar, but he made me think of the boys in the Battle of Britain and how some of them must have needed the words of a man of the cloth when their friends did not come home.
I write, with a burst of enthusiasm, ‘This is the most beautiful parade I have ever seen.’ I shouldn’t call it a parade. It is, after all, a most solemn procession. But there is something glad and thankful and even, very subtly, celebratory in it, for a long and meaningful life, well lived.
‘Huw Edwards finally tells me that the plume men are the Gentlemen at Arms.’ Of course they are.
And then we are back to big picture: ‘All the troops start to line up at Hyde Park Corner. As the Queen passes Buckingham Palace for the last time, the people who worked for her are lined up to watch her go. The hearse goes through Wellington Arch and stops and there is a great long whistle as the bearer party takes the coffin off the gun carriage and then a sound like falling rain as the naval ratings march away.’
Finally, ‘Princess Anne gets in the car go to with her mother. She has been with the Queen from first to last, from the moment they drove out of the Balmoral gates and on that long, slow trek to Edinburgh, to the flight back to Northolt, and now, in the end, to go with her back to Windsor. This feels very moving and very right. And, as the procession heads down South Carriage drive, the crowds are twenty deep in Hyde Park and there is suddenly clapping and whooping and people are throwing flowers.’
I stopped writing then, because I had to go down to the mares and get them ready for Wendy the Farrier. We all love Wendy and she makes me laugh as she always does and she takes it entirely on the chin when I tell her I have spent all morning weeping like a loon.
It was perfect. There is a thing about horses, and I suspect the Queen knew this and loved it too, which is that you can’t be self-indulgent. You can have all your emotions; in fact, it is vital that you allow every single emotion to run through you because there is nothing horses hate more than the jangle of suppressed feelings, coming at them like a storm. But you can’t wallow. You can’t set up your tent in melancholy and live there. Horses need you to get on with it, to meet their needs, to be their sturdy, reliable person. They live in the moment and they need you to meet them in that moment.
So, after all that beauty and sadness, there was a job I had to crack on with. And I did it so well that the red mare went into her Place of Peace and Florence didn’t put a foot wrong and after we waved a merry goodbye to Wendy my sweet Kayleigh, the Queen of the Posse, came with me to the big meadow and we did some ravishing canter work with Clova the Connemara and we exclaimed and smiled as the little pony stretched out her body and used all her glorious, strong, Irish muscles and we went home with that lovely, humming feeling of pointfulness and usefulness.
I realise, as I finish this, that it has a delightful symmetry to it: something very big, and unique, and almost numinous, and then something very small, and ordinary, and practical. I talk always of balance. I try to balance myself, to balance my horses, to balance the light and the dark, the sad and the joyous. Here is balance, at the end, and I shall hold on to that and cherish it and feel glad.