Queen Elizabeth II's state funeral will be a moment when the nation unites for the single biggest shared event of all our lives – Susan Dalgety
I have vague memories of Britain’s last full pomp-and-ceremony state funeral. It was on a dreary Saturday, January 30, 1965, and Sir Winston Churchill, the man credited with winning the Second World War, was given a send-off like no other politician of his generation.
I remember, as a nine-year-old, the flickering black and white images of his flag-draped coffin nestled on a gun carriage, making its ponderous way to St Paul’s Cathedral.
I have no recollection of the service, but I do recall my surprise that Churchill’s last journey was on a barge to Festival Hall, before his coffin loaded onto a train for his final resting place. “Why was his body on a boat?” I remember asking my mother. I don’t recall her answer.
But I did have a distinct sense I was witnessing something of great importance. Even as a naïve child, I understood the significance of Churchill's funeral, given that almost everything had come to a standstill on the day. There was no trip into the village to buy groceries as was our usual Saturday routine.
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My father still had to milk the dairy cows in the early morning and late afternoon – nature stops for no man, not even one as famous as Winston Churchill – but little else happened that day, as we all huddled round the tiny television screen in the corner of our sitting room. Tens of millions of us the length and breadth of Britain.
Societies need ceremonies. They offer families, communities and, indeed, entire nations the chance to share grief, or joy, providing us with shared memories that bind us together.
So, I have no patience with those people who carp about today being a public holiday, or with those who are angry because their local supermarket is closed. I do have some sympathy with people whose medical appointments have been postponed – or were threatened with eviction from their holiday park – but on balance, I applaud those businesses who have closed for the day.
The Queen’s state funeral is the single biggest shared event of all our lives. Even as we sit in our living rooms, scrolling through Twitter or posting comments on Facebook, while the Archbishop of Canterbury delivers his sermon on our smart TV, we will be joined together, just as we were at Churchill’s funeral.
My grand-children will remember this day and pass their memories on to their children and eventually their grand-children, and so history is written.
History is not just tales of ancient battles, often re-told to make a contemporary point, or even of kings and queens, it is also the modest stories passed from generation to generation. Your grandmother’s ration book from the war, your father’s crumpled ticket for the Beatles at Edinburgh’s ABC cinema in 1964. Your son’s first computer game, which still sparks joy even at 45.
When we sit down today to watch the final public appearance of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, we will all become part of our country’s history. Future historians will write of the day Britain stopped everything to say goodbye to a 96-year-old woman. We are united more deeply than perhaps we realised.