STEPHEN McGinty earlier walked the funeral route, and found few Thatcher detractors
A strong wind is whistling along the streets of London, sending hats flying and scarves flapping, and images of the beginning of the Wizard of Oz sailing through my mind like Dorothy’s house, out over the dust bowl of Kansas.
A solitary BT telephone box bears a message written in black felt tip: “The Witch is Dead.” Yet if this is really the Emerald City after the demise of the villainess in L Frank Baum’s novel, her administration was far more successful than imagined – either that or her subjects are still bewitched and the protesters have been discreetly blown away.
My plan was to walk the three-mile route from the Palace of Westminster, where the coffin of Baroness Thatcher last night lay in state in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, up Whitehall and along The Strand and Fleet Street to St Paul’s Cathedral. I wanted to chat to people along the way and gauge the support (or otherwise) for the ceremonial funeral – similar to that accorded to the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales – for a woman who could not easily be described as the people’s prime minister.
As I approach the House of Commons, I hear chanting and see a penned-in hoard of protesters – not anarchists celebrating the demise of a political foe, but, among others, the Indian Workers Association of Birmingham protesting against India’s treatment of political opponents.
There is no sign of anyone who might have spent £1.99 on a digital download of Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead. Instead, Parliament is packed with sullen French school pupils and American tourists in chinos and white trainers – and Michael Pollock, on holiday from Australia, who is only too happy to tell me that spending money we can’t afford on a funeral for a prime minister made us “as bad as the Irish”.
I walk on past the media towers erected in preparation for the funeral and past the statue of Winston Churchill, the last prime minister to warrant the attendance of the monarch, at his funeral back in 1965.
At a stall just past Downing Street, Richard Hudson, 42, is selling miniature versions of Big Ben (which will fall silent today in tribute to the Iron Lady) for 99p. Trade has been lousy since the Olympics, he says.
“My old man was a Thatcher supporter, I suppose we all were down here, never did me any harm, but you lot don’t like her much – what is it, 50 per cent of Scots are supposed to hate her?” When I explain the figure might be a little higher, he says: “Was she really that bad?”
One Scot who doesn’t think so is Eddie Bell, an Airdrie boy who became chief executive of HarperCollins, which published both volumes of Lady Thatcher’s memoirs. The offices of his literary agency, Bell Lomax, are just off The Strand, along which her coffin will pass in a hearse before transferring to a gun carriage at St Clement Danes. He will be in the pews of St Paul’s today.
He says: “I thought she was great for the country. If Britain was a business, we would have kept her as chairman of the board. People’s memories are short. They forget what a mess we were in.”
Apart from the occasional police car and endless piles of steel crash barriers, there is little sense of an impending historical event until I reach St Clement Danes, the church of the RAF, over which a statue of Lord Dowding, commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, keeps watch. A camera operator from the BBC is rehearsing moves for when the flag-draped coffin is moved from a hearse to the gun carriage, pulled by six black horses, that will carry the coffin on the final stretch to St Paul’s.
At the rear of the church, sitting on the steps, is a bushily bearded homeless gentlemen with what looks like a carrier bag filled with cans of lager. After a quick internal debate over the ethics of interviewing the potentially befuddled, I figure it is worth the risk. If you can’t rely on the homeless to stick it to Margaret Thatcher on the eve of her funeral, who can you? However, Adrian Black, a former barman, voted for the Iron Lady and defends her record in office. He says: “I may not agree with everything she did, no-one could, but she did what she believed to be right.”
Along Fleet Street sits The Tipperary bar – surely this will be filled with bitter mutterings about the treatment of Bobby Sands? Well, no. Owner Steven Rowlands is hanging out a Union Flag to sit beside the Irish tricolour.
He tells me: “People say, ‘But this is an Irish pub, why are you putting out a union jack?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s about respect.’”
Footsore, I arrive at St Paul’s Cathedral, on whose steps stand 14 Chelsea pensioners, three of whom are wearing rather stylish sunglasses, as they rehearse for the arrival of the woman who, in her twilight years, frequently came to sit in their garden at the Chelsea Barracks.
A crowd watches as a Royal Marine sergeant in what appears to be an overly polished pair of Wellington boots puts the pensioners and the pallbearers through their paces.
Among the crowd is George Ferrari from Hackney, whose father owned a café. He works in the City. He says: “She gave me opportunities, but I studied in Sheffield and I’ve spent time up north and I know not everyone got the same break.”
As we chat, he explains that, in his mind, people don’t mourn the likes of prime ministers, but instead everyone looks to their own aged parents and thinks instead about the passage of time.
By now the wind has died down, the sun is shining and all is calm. There are still no protesters. But as I turn and prepare to retrace my steps, I think: maybe this is the calm before the storm.
Thatcher funeral: timetable of events
07:30 Road closures implemented along the route from Whitehall to St Paul’s Cathedral.
08:00 Flags lowered to half-mast over UK Government buildings.
09:00 Doors open at St Paul’s.
09:30 The ceremonial route is closed to all vehicles.
09:35 Gun carriage of The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery leaves barracks.
09:45 Street liners from the Navy and Marines, the Army and Air Force take position along route.
10:00 Guests seated at St Paul’s. Coffin leaves, by hearse, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. The coffin is dressed with a Union Flag. Three Metropolitan Police motorcycles will travel in front of the hearse. An unmarked police car will travel behind.
By 10:15 Coffin placed in St Clement Danes Church by civilian pall bearers.
10:15 Speakers of the Lords and Commons and David Cameron shown to their seats. Guard of Honour deploys to St Paul’s churchyard.
10:20 The gun carriage will take up position at St Clement Danes along with the procession band and escort.
10:25 The tri-service bearer party will carry the coffin from St Clement Danes and place it upon the gun carriage. The step lining party takes up position on the West Steps of St Paul’s. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury proceed to the Great West Door of the cathedral.
10:33 The gun carriage bearer party and escort party, led by a band of the Royal Marines, step off for the procession from St Clement Danes to St Paul’s Cathedral. Processional minute guns are fired from Her Majesty’s Tower of London by the Honourable Artillery Company for the duration of the procession.
10:35 The Lord Mayor of the City of London arrives at St Paul’s.
10:40 Members of Lady Thatcher’s family arrive at St Paul’s.
10:45 Choir procession within St Paul’s.
10:45 The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh arrive at St Paul’s.
10:55 The gun carriage arrives, to be met by a guard of honour from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.
11:00 The bearer party carries the coffin into St Paul’s for the funeral service to begin.
11:55 The funeral service ends. The bearer party carry the coffin to a hearse positioned at the foot of the West Steps. The cathedral bells ring half-muffled as the hearse leaves for The Royal Hospital Chelsea. The chaplain of the Royal Hospital, the Reverend Dick Whittington, accompanies the coffin.
12:10 Guests begin to arrive at the Guildhall for a reception of friends and family. A separate reception to be hosted by Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Mansion House for representatives from foreign states and other foreign VIPs.
By 13:15 The Prime Minister, senior ministers, the Lord Mayor, members of Lady Thatcher’s immediate family arrive at Guildhall from the reception at Mansion House.
14:30 The National Anthem is played in each room by military musicians and the reception at Guildhall ends.
20:00 Flags raised from half-mast at official buildings.