Wednesday 17 April 2013

The National Funeral of The Iron Lady - As I Saw It

The Iron Lady. The Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher - now I'm not one that can sit and talk about politics all day but I don't have to be a political junkie to know who Margaret Thatcher was or 'The Iron Lady' as she was affectionately christened based on her nerves of steel and her strong and hearty manner. Love Her or Hate Her she was one tough lady, couldn't have been an easy job. I was only a toddler throughout her time governing the country at 10 Downing Street, so I guess I have no memories of her and know very little about her political lifetime. The news of her death earlier this month in the UK seemed to bring rejoice to certain societies and affectionate praise and blessings from others. So I thought it would be an interesting experience to hop on down to the streets of London to observe the atmosphere of this highly anticipated and controversial national funeral of the former Prime Minister. A historic occasion not to be missed.


I arrive in Piccadilly Circus a short time after 10am, there are lots of diversions on the roads, influenced by the set route that Margaret Thatcher's coffin will make its final journey up The Strand and Fleet Street to St Paul's Cathedral. Its a classic cliché morning for a funeral - dampening grey clouds adding to the toneless gloominess of the city, feeling like it is more appropriate to whisper than for protesting demonstrations which I think would have been expected by Thatcher herself. An eerie stillness lingers in the air as I approach Trafalgar Square, metal barriers barring you onto the pavement. The familiar busy roads around Nelson's Column are now strangely spacious and empty, solely populated by a heavy Police presence, TV Broadcasting Cranes and News Reporters milling around the scene. This means serious business or its the aftermath or something that's just happened. The deafening swirl of an Army helicopter circles up above as a stray newspaper page lightly blows in the wind around in front of me, catching on the back of people's heels.
Funny enough, a young guy stands on the pavement, rugged up like a winters day silently drained from emotion holding up a copy of 'The Daily Telegraph' newspaper which no one is approaching him to buy at that moment, headlining Thatcher's funeral with a supplement magazine dedicated to her. I cross over with the crowd to walk further down The Strand, noticing a Asian looking man wearing a light blue suit and sporting a pretty interesting eccentric hat.  Maybe he was the Chairman of the Margaret Thatcher Fan Club, with a crown adorned with her portrait and a Union Jack poking out the top. Maybe he stole it from the Art Department at Blue Peter.....but clearly a fan of the Iron Lady.

I continued on heading up The Strand, the road still barren and empty, aligned with Police officers standing astute, rocking back and forth on their heels as they leaned in to answer questions from the inquisitive public. I heard one mention that the hearse carrying her coffin had already passed through about 15 minutes before and was lying at St Clement Danes Church just up the way before being loaded onto a horse drawn gun carriage. If I was going to remotely catch a glimpse of the coffin, I would have to push it up a gear and hurry up. I could already feel the scurry of the crowd around me, picking up their paces along The Strand as they headed up in the direction of the church, passing multiple flags lowered to fly at half mast, mirroring the Houses of Parliament. 

I soon found myself at a dead end at the top of The Strand, hundreds of people had already arrived at the St Clement Danes Church blocking its view. Countless numbers of police officers surrounded it, on hand to manage the gradually increasing bodies accumulating on the pavement. A sea of cameras and mobile phones were raised high in arms, people resorting to stand on anything remotely above ground level to snatch a sight of the grim scene of the church or the coffin. The solemn echoes of the church bells chimed simultaneously, droning out into the bleak, desolate street... was kind of creepy, a sort of doomed apocalyptic feel to it which was quite chilling beneath the murky London sky. The city had really stood still. Really dead still. A short while after, the bells were accompanied by which I think were the sudden barks of commands from the armed forces, coming from the forefront of the crowd, likely to be the prompt of starting the second leg of the funeral procession. The crowds began to get excited straining their arms and leaning over each other as the chimes faded away and the rhythmic beats of drums and the burst of the orchestra erupted. I still couldn't see a thing. Boo.   

Hang on. Change of plan needed. The police were not letting anyone go any further along the pavement (not that you could unless you had the powers to transform yourself into paper thin cartoon Flat Stanley and slip your way through) it wasn't going to happen so I took a detour along with some other clever people down towards the River Thames, taking the back roads alongside Fleet Street to get ahead of the gun carriage. This turned into a frantic stampede for people which at the time was pretty comical, racing through a labyrinth of nooks and cranny's ahead of each other trying to find an alleyway that wasn't blocked by a surging tide of people and a sea of phone and camera screens. It was difficult to keep ahead of the gun carriage as I occasionally looked down each alley way we passed, hearing the rumbling melody of the passing marching band and claps and cheers from the crowds. I was level with the carriage as I caught a glimpse of the top of the yellow tinted flowers lain on top of the moving union jack dressed coffin. Getting ahead and sweating a bit paid off fortunately, when I ducked into a more sparsely filled arch way catching a relatively closer look at Margaret Thatcher's coffin as it strolled by.... behind a guy holding up his coffee cup in tribute!   

It passed out of view 10 seconds later as the crowds continued to clap and cheer, whether it was in merriment of praise for the former prime minister or in sarcastic bitter taste I don't know.

The coffin continued on, lead regimentally by the armed forces and marching band towards St Paul's. The main roads and backstreets are becoming even more congested with on-lookers moving on ahead to join the people already waiting outside the cathedral for her arrival. Moving with them, the streets were predictably jam-packed with city workers or whoever inevitably ended up being caught up in it all, grasping this opportunity to bid a final farewell to the Iron Lady regardless of their personal opinion of her. I was half expecting some drama or planned attacks to unfold but from what I could see on tip toes, the coffin went by totally unscathed or threatened. 


The coffin finally arrived at St Paul's at 11am. Access to the front of the cathedral was totally impossible. Photographers were cunning enough to bring ladders to stand on and I had to watch the coffin being brought in up the steps of the cathedral on a strangers IPhone showing live BBC coverage. The only glimpse I could get with my naked eye was of the golden stencilled jacket and black helmet of a few of the guards on horseback stationed outside the cathedral waiting patiently for further commands. I wandered round to the area beside St Paul's after the funeral proceedings had commenced and the armed forces had been dismissed. I was curious to see what demonstrations may unravel during the ceremony of a political figure inside the silent sanctuary of the cathedral as the pro and anti Thatcher followers wandered amongst the mix together outside on the street.

Young students and opinionated individuals were being quizzed by researching news reporters, cynically voicing their disgust and disappointment towards Margaret Thatcher's ideals and policies. An American girl passing through yells out 'You let us down Margaret!' receiving a few strange looks of disgust from the pro - Thatcher followers that happened to surround her. She didn't stick around, it was a pretty hostile environment. 

There is inevitably tension between people but also civilised grounding towards the fact it is a funeral of another human being. One man boldly exhibits himself holding a sign stating his admiration for Thatcher and the Conservative Party, condemning the works of Blair and the Labour Party. He winks affectionately at a passing girl dressed to the nines in fitting blue, modelling a Thatcher 'hairstyle' and sporting a huge 'I Love Maggie' badge. Maybe she's in the fan club with the hat guy who also made a second appearance in my day, he could have been her publicist.

She would have loved him.  

The funeral is scheduled to finish at 12am, a few spots of rains start to fall from the dull grey and lead clouds up above us, which I was just waiting for to happen. Sticking it out though for another half an hour, I feel like I am predominately cushioned by the warmth of pro -Thatcher followers as the crowds jubilantly begin to react from what they were seeing at the front of the cathedral. They begin to enthusiastically start waving union jack flags double sided with Thatcher's monochrome portrait, a sign that she is on her way out and the hearse appears carrying her coffin shortly after.

'God bless you Margaret Thatcher' shouts the bold man with the sign as the hearse whizzes past us through a cloud of final applause. Farewell Iron Lady.

Strangely, the murky clouds that shadowed the entire morning now disperse and a hint of spring sunlight glints off the clock of the cathedral. The crowds now gravitate towards the side entrance of St Paul's, some new people I discover are dressed up fancily to make some political statement, like this guy wearing a coffin on his back....they should get prizes for best costume, a lot of passion has gone in to them! The hundreds of guests to the funeral; politicians, celebrities and world leaders dressed in their all grim black attire begin to emerge through the cathedral exits - most of the names people are shouting out I don't recognise, the only familiar faces to me are a few past UK politicians, Sarah 'Fergie' Ferguson and Tony Blair who stood uncomfortably for a few moments with his wife for photographs bearing the eruption of hisses and boo's that were thrown at him from the crowd. I began talking to a few members of the lingering public peeping at the exiting guests - two ladies in their seventies who were getting excited about going off to the Tate Modern later on in the morning were happy to voice their opinions about the time of 'Thatcherism' as did a friendly middle aged guy who had come down to take some photography of the occasion.

'When will you ever see all these world leaders and politicians in once place again?' he rightly comments, before voicing his opinion on the flaws and faults in Thatcher's political decisions and the legacy that has been left to the country.

If you think the aftermath of the funeral procession would be all roses and daisies, you would be sadly mistaken. Nearby, a small balding guy who looked from a working class background parades up and down, waving the gay pride colours on a flag shouting a homophobic chant directed at Thatcher in a really snide manner. A small crowd begins to form around him as he allies with another woman and a book grasping young well-to-do Cambridge looking student who didn't look a day over 24 years old. They begin a fiery argument with an opposing ensemble of Pro-Thatcher followers - nothing to worry about though, for the police stand calmly on the side watching with a hint of a smirk on their lips, observing the debate like it was a source of entertainment. The endless parade of black suits and dresses of public figures still continue to file out, followed by the holy presence of the bishops and other contributing robed religious figures to the funeral. As soon as they're done boarding their chauffeur driven vehicles and courtesy coaches efficiently waiting on hand for them all, the City of London council are set to work straight away - literally whipping up behind their heels clearing up the aftermath as if it had never happened, awakening the city as if the time had been turned back. The street cleaners swoop in with their gushing hoses and trucks to start dismantling the steel barriers and clearing the roads of sand and horse manure from the front of the cathedral.....London service for you.  

I feel the remaining members of the crowd still floating around the cathedral are predominantly Thatcher enthusiasts mingling together, similar to a fan convention. 'Margaret Thatcher Put The Great Back Into Britain' reads one hand made sign held up in front of the cathedral. A man in a white suit who seems to give the impression that he may see himself as a messiah figure, stands close by, spouting comments and words through his flamboyant breath, his long greasy hair flicking as he jerks his head to anybody willing to listen or take notice of him. The rabble still continue to chant and eccentric individuals demonstrate their legions to Thatcherism in the name of political resolve, this is a celebration for them!. At times I feel like I'm caught up in the atmosphere of a rally or riot that may erupt or is this just a normal environment in the wake of a former political leaders funeral - maybe it is. I doubt her name will ever be forgotten, for the good or the bad in peoples minds....definitely not for this guy...he must be in the f
an club too....I didn't ask, but he was certainly in his element and so very British!


So there you go, the Union Jack continues to fly half mast on The Houses of Parliament - championed by Thatcher for the 11 and half years of her political reign. Its been an interesting day of tributes and attacks to observe, but the Iron Lady is finally laid to rest - her name etched forever on the face of World Politics and The Houses of Parliament. Ignorant as I am, I'm sure in the minds of some she is certain to remain a great iconic female figure associated with the culture of Great Britain. For others well....lets just say I don't think she would have been on some people's Christmas Card List!

R.I.P Maggie Thatcher. You gave it a go.  

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