Like usual I was running late ( the phrase “You’ll be late for your own funeral” could have been invented for me) but thankfully this wasn’t mine, this was the funeral of Margaret Thatcher a figure that, depending you listen to, either divided or saved this country. Rushing across Waterloo Bridge I could already see a large police presence and tons and tons of crowd barriers. Whether they were there just for the funeral or were put in place early for the Marathon wasn’t clear. What was clear was that the crowd barrier business looks like something worth getting into. They must make a fortune.
There has been extensive debate since Thatcher died as to whether she had a positive or negative effect on the UK during her time as PM and I don’t think there’s any need to debate that further here. What I will say, just to get this out of the way early, is that personally I never liked the woman, she wasn’t exactly the kind of person who lent herself to being liked. As a kid she scared the living daylights out of me, the ultimate headmistress, she seemed reptilian, lacking in human empathy and very possibly hiding the fact that she could shoot paralysing red lasers from her deep set eyes. This was partly down to the likes of Spitting Image, the work of Gerald Scarfe and a thousand TV impersonators. She was the go to bogey woman for the age. When we stopped getting ice cold, half-pint bottles of milk and a lie down on the carpet after story time the teachers blamed Thatcher. When I saw police charging lines of men holding placards, images of bloodied faces and fire in Trafalgar Square they were almost always followed by footage of Thatcher. She seemed a woman to be feared. In the run up to this weeks funeral there had been a lot of talk of protest and people rejoicing in her death to which some commentators remarked that Thatcher would have delighted in. To me someone who would lead the country also taking a perverse pleasure in unpopularity seems a strange and dangerous combination. That’s assuming that she did feel any of that in the first place, she could have been deeply wounded by the loathing a large swathe of the country felt towards her and this talk of “delight” could just be the invention of a few maladjusted Tories who have fetishised her single mindedness into something cruel and weird.
The funeral had been hyped up in the press as a contest between those who supported Thatcher and those who despised her. There had been predictions of busloads of anarchists turning up, hijacking the event and possibly trying to steal her corpse. The terrible Boston Marathon bombing created speculation that terrorists might use the funeral for a high profile attack. Other sections of the press painted a picture of London grinding to halt, of clocks being stopped, traffic silenced, rivers of tears sluicing through the gutters. In the actual fact none of them were close, the real thing was actually quite a boring affair.
The first thing I noticed when I reached The Strand was that there seemed to be a hell of a lot more police officers and crowd barriers than needed for the amount of people milling about, however towards the Royal Courts of Justice the pavements became crowded and harder to negotiate. I wanted to get as close to St. Paul’s as I could but all the crowd barriers made it impossible to get anywhere where the only view wasn’t of a whole load of backs. I cursed myself for being late and set off around the back of the LSE to try and find a better vantage point. After a few attempts and exploring some side streets I had no idea existed before, I realised that my efforts were probably futile. It seemed that every office in the area had emptied to watch the show. At every side street I was greeted by the same sight, lots of the backs of heads and people clambering up whatever they could to get a view.
Eventually, and to my surprise, I found myself right next to St. Paul’s and managed to see the steps leading up into the cathedral flanked by guards. I could hear applause echoing from buildings further away and ducked back down a few more streets until I was in a position to make out more backs and the passing of the funeral procession. People clapped and cheered, whether it was out of respect or misplaced relief was unclear. Behind me a middle aged woman was being interviewed by a French TV station about why she was there. She was midway through telling them about how Thatcher had destroyed much of this countries industry when another woman stood immediately behind her and started clapping loudly and shouting “God bless Margaret Thatcher” in an obnoxious, sing songy, town crier-esque manner causing the crew to abandon filming and ask the lady to stop making so much noise. She refused and the two ladies began having a go at each other much to the delight of the assembled crowd. “Thatcher would never have let in all these immigrants…NEVER!” the unhappy clapper announced as if this ended the debate and in no way revealed her to be a moron. “Try telling us something she did do rather than something she didn’t do” countered the other. “Heard of the Falklands?!” was her response which, surprisingly, got a small ripple of applause “…or the poll tax” which as her chosen continuation received considerably less and caused some people to walk off, including myself. One city worker, all big tie, smarmy face and over confidence shouted at them both “Why don’t you both shut up you stupid lesbians?!” which actually caused a policeman to tell him to go back to his office, more light applause. This whole exchange between the women seemed to spread something through the people milling about and some low level, mostly twatty bickering had broken out in a few places. “The Tories are a bunch of criminals” said one man with a grey beard who was arguing with a young guy in a suit who was watching the funeral on TV through a window, “Yeah but they’re our criminals…we voted for them” he responded. I was still trying to figure that logic out as I got to Ludgate Circus where I met the first real group of the protestors I’d seen.
At this point soldiers had begun marching back from St. Pauls to chants of “Waste of money, waste of money, waste of money.” I’m inclined to agree with this. At a time where we’re being told that there is no money to be had and that cut backs need to be made I do find it a mysterious decision to lavish a reported £1o million pounds on funeral for a very divisive Prime Minister. I’m still not sure why this happened. Was it because she was the first female prime minister? I’m sure she would have hated the idea. She may have “smashed a glass ceiling” for women but she boarded it up and got on the phone to the 24 hour glaziers pretty damned quickly afterwards. Was it because she was a prime minister through a time of war? I sincerely hope not because logically that suggests that we’ll have to do the same thing for Tony Blair…and can you imagine what that would be like?!?! Shudder.
Around Ludgate Circus there was more bickering as one old man planted himself in the middle of protestors and told them that they were a disgrace to the nation and should all move back to North Korea. A quick look over the people he was talking to revealed that none of them were from North Korea. He then went on to brand them all communists, soap dodgers and workshy benefit claiming frauds. “Pinochet was great!” he continued. He did all this with a smirk on his face which went unnoticed by a particularly shrill looking woman next to me who began to shout “He’s a plant, a PLANT!!” Where, by who or for what reason she imagined that this old div had been planted in the crowd is mystery. It was clear to me, if not to him and the people around, that this guy was more of a troll, he was trolling the crowd, an analogue troll. He knew what would get people fired up and was spouting his nonsense to get the “lefty poofs” as he called them, all riled up…and it was working. Immediately he was surrounded by cameras and people wanting argue with them. He was still smirking as he said “Bobby Sands…what was his nickname again… “Slim”? This sent out new waves of outrage through the crowd. The outraged were arguing back but yet smiling at the same time. It was clear that both sides needed each other. Without the other what would they have anymore? What would define them? Who would they argue against? This was an eternal game, one side infuriating the other but deep down kind of liking, maybe even fancying each other like Bogart and Bacall, Batman and the Joker. I had to suppress an urge to tell them to just get on with it and kiss to break the tension.
The whole event from a crowd perspective seemed like an exercise in attention seeking to me. Nobody really wins by protesting a funeral and others showing up dewey eyed, spouting platitudes about what a wonderful person Thatcher was just shows how short some peoples memories are and how effective a bit of hasty rebranding in the press can be. I left feeling that both sides of the fence just as ridiculous as each other. What does anyone really gain from turning up to an event like this? Nothing. I’ve people watched at a number of big events over the past few years and I’ve come to view us as quite a peculiar people who want to be part of something, anything we can really and will hold strong beliefs for as long as we need to. More than that I’ve noticed how we dance to whatever tune the press is playing on it’s fiddle at the time. There were a lot more cameras present than there were controversial people there, anytime anybody did something vaguely interesting they were immediately surrounded and orbited by people clutching microphones and camera. I’ll be intrigued to see how many of these end up on the news tonight.
Just before I left Ludgate Circus Channel 4′s Jon Snow arrived with a couple of producers and crew in tow. He began questioning one man about why he was there. “I’m here to see the funeral, why are you here?”
It was a good response and made me think I should probably just go home.