This weekend marks a year since one of the strangest things to ever happen to me, and I wanted to write about it a bit. Story time, grab a cup of tea!
On the 16th of September 2022 as I left for work I grabbed my sketchbook, with the vague idea I might draw something related to the one story on the news on my way home. As I passed through Blackfriars station on the Thameslink I spotted the queue. It was strange: faster moving than I'd expected, and more purposeful. I got off the train and got out my sketchbook.
The Southbank had an energy that's reserved for rare and brilliant occasions in London: those where everyone is thinking and talking about the exact same thing. It reminded me of summer 2012, or the tube before an arena tour, or my vague recollections of July 2005. One collective thought bubble. Discussion about monarchy is often pretty polarised, and the atmosphere was, unsurprisingly, firmly at one end.
I started out of Blackfriars station, looking up to the doughnut caravan I loved the smell of as a kid. I kinda flunked this first drawing- it was cold that evening, and my fingers weren’t warmed up yet. It's hard drawing outside past September.
Further along, I turned around to see the queuers face on, with St Pauls and the city on the horizon. Drawing on location (for me at least) involves almost instantaneous judgements about colour palettes, and the sun was beginning to set, so the view mapped itself out in peaches and yellows.
One duo I chatted to had been up since 3am. We talked about the cold, the views, the big screens showing montages of the last coronation. Conversations continued the full length of the path, mainly with older men who’d been sent off to find teas for their wives and her friends and the occasional royalist teenager. Such peculiar cheerfulness for a walk to a coffin.
The queue security were not jolly- they were quite angsty about my lingering without a special, hard-earned wristband. I walked as far as I was allowed, up to the London eye, and did what became the favourite drawing: the blues and oranges and yellows of a September dusk, Bankside lampposts, distant parliament. I left the queue as it trailed along the covid memorial wall.
I thought twice about sharing the drawings online. Within an hour, however, the Press Association had asked for an interview. I sent over some hasty answers and an even hastier selfie (good god, if I’d known how wide that photo would reach I’d have put in a bit more effort!) I listed prints in my shop and spent the rest of my Saturday with a friend, not checking my phone. But the constant buzzing wore me down, and mid-way through the gig we were at I saw that the PA story had been picked up in several places, including the Independent, Evening Standard and Metro. I increased the print stock levels and put the phone away again.
That next morning, I was faced with texts from friends and relatives saying they’d seen my (grim) selfie in the papers and a three-figure unread inbox, which did not abate for about three weeks.
What an inbox! People who’d been in the queue, telling me their feelings as they’d walked through Westminster hall, about the people they’d met on the way. Those who hadn’t been able to go, due to age, or mobility issues. People who were outraged that I’d demeaned myself by even acknowledging the event, others furious that I hadn’t sounded royalist enough. But there was heartwarming stuff, with stories of old friends reunited and parental wishes being posthumously honoured. The day of the funeral, one woman emailed me minute-by-minute with her reflections on her grief (and on Kate Middleton's hat).
That first Sunday I was contacted by a woman claiming to be a figure in one of the drawings. By the next week, three more women had told me that same figure was a picture of them.
All those figures were people. Some people saw themselves being drawn on paper from over my shoulder, some saw themselves later, in a corner of a website or magazine. Some people now see themselves in prints on their walls at home. I think that’s probably why the Press Association got in touch, even why I shared them initially. The whole event, online and in person, was one big queue: a crowd of so many kinds of people, from all corners of everywhere, with all sorts of views, for and against, grieving and ignoring.
So yeah, that was my September 2022, one year ago today. For me, the death of that monarch will forever mean coordinating with printers and Royal Mail. To others, it was queueing.
Unless otherwise stated, all images are (c) Gracie Dahl. Please do not re-share or reuse without permission.