Flurries of rain did not daunt the gathering crowd outside St Paul’s cathedral yesterday, busy swapping tales of the journeys they had taken to pay their final respects to Baroness Thatcher.
“I got up at three,” said one man. “My grandfather wasn’t well enough, but we agreed I had to go.” Others had camped all night, clutching bowler hats, union flags and, in one case, a biography of Henry Kissinger, huddled together in a line of sleeping bags to guarantee the very best positions.
Fears of protesters disrupting the occasion failed to materialise, at least near me. One man wore a Guy Fawkes mask and held a long and incomprehensible placard – but whatever he stood for, he did so silently. Overwhelmingly, the rest of us were there in tribute, or in some cases defiance. The woman next to me confided, “I came as an anti-protest protest. I wasn’t going to let them scare me off being here.”
We were young and old, white and black, foreign and British. After all the media talk of division, it was a little startling to some. “Is it just the press, then?” one man, down from Leicestershire for the occasion, murmured to his wife.
It was a friendly crowd, and as the honoured guests began to arrive by the coachload, information flew freely from one to another. There was general confusion about who the BBC presenter was nearby – “Jon somebody?” – but the medal-laden veterans in the crowd gave the rest of us a running commentary on the meaning of the assortment of gold-braided uniforms. Of the politicians, only Boris Johnson and Norman Tebbit scored audible cheers.
In the crush of the swelling crowd, mobile phones soon stopped working, leaving us cut off from events elsewhere along the route. But the military precision on display meant that as half past ten struck we knew the coffin was making its way on the gun carriage from the RAF church of St Clement Danes, and the mood began to quieten.
The Queen arrived, a small figure in black, to a chorus of the national anthem from the crowd and a formal greeting from the Lord Mayor, accompanied by the mourning sword, symbol of the City’s authority. His spectacular ceremonial finery, feathered tricorne and red ermine robe, echoed the plainer scarlet and black of the Chelsea pensioners lining the cathedral steps.
We waited together, the Iron Lady’s final audience. At the windows of the buildings opposite, builders in high-vis jackets pressed against the glass. In one office, a father stood at the first floor window with his daughters, something my mother had done at my grandmother’s office for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral.
Then we heard the Royal Marines band, soon followed by the clopping of hooves as the coffin drew into view. The man in front of me dived into a shopping bag, unfurling a union flag that he waved over his head as the crowd cheered Thatcher’s entry into the cathedral.
The great west door closed, and the sun, as if it had been waiting for its cue, broke through with the first hymn, He Who Would Valiant Be. People applauded the departing servicemen and women, chatted quietly about what they had seen, or gathered around handheld radios to follow the service. There was the beginning of relief, a sense that our part in the ceremony had gone well.
Then, at last, the doors were thrown open again. Half-muffled bells pealed out. The coffin reappeared and paused, as if for a final bow, at the top of the stairs. There was a great upwelling of applause. Someone in the crowd called for three cheers that were quickly delivered.
The funeral had, at the end, become a celebration, connecting those inside the cathedral with those lining the streets. There was a man wearing a bright red T-shirt that said, “I hope Thatcher burns in hell”. Even he was briefly mesmerised, staring up at the tableau. To the end, Thatcher compelled even her enemies.