diamond geezer

 Thursday, April 18, 2013

I missed Winston Churchill by six weeks. His coffin was marched down Fleet Street in January 1965, too far back for my small life to overlap with his. Which means yesterday's send-off for Margaret Thatcher was the biggest funeral for a UK politician in my lifetime, and quite possibly in yours too. A state funeral in all but name, her ceremonial despatch was full of the pomp and circumstance our nation does so well. The Armed Forces and the Establishment turned out to play their part, and even the Queen turned up, because it's hard to say no to plans agreed two governments ago. From the first appearance of Margaret's hearse at Westminster to its departure from St Paul's, these are two hours the capital will long remember. Assuming you noticed, that is.

I have a sense of occasion, so I wanted a peek at the event even though I'd be at work while it was happening. I left home earlier than usual and hopped onto the District line, slightly surprised to be sharing my tube carriage with a policeman. But that was nothing compared to what lay ahead. I diverted via the Strand to cast my eye over preparations, about three hours prior to anything ceremonial, expecting to see a few early spectators out lining the route. Not so. The pavements were empty, apart from those of us shuffling to the office, and apart from a phenomenal number of boys and girls in blue. They stood in pairs by the roadside, staring intently or talking to their partner, and then a dozen steps up the road two more, and repeat. In some cases the groups were threes, usually a slightly junior-looking soul alongside two others, no doubt whipped out of their day job when all leave for Specials got cancelled. Some groups were bigger still, perhaps fresh off the minibuses lined up down various sidestreets, still chatting semi-socially as they prepared to take up position as appointed. I have never before seen quite so many police officers lined up to supervise so few. As I said, the day was still young, but Wednesday was already lining up as the perfect day to go burgling in the suburbs.

Overnight preparations had been carefully executed. A trail of sand led up to a temporary beach at the front door of St Clement Danes church, then curved away towards the Strand along the route the gun carriage would follow. A temporary structure to the north provided a vantage point for TV and press cameramen who'd bear full responsibility for this part of the story later in the morning. Heavy streamlined barriers blocked the access roads, to minimise the risk of any protestor-juggernaut cruising this way and disrupting proceedings. A yellow pedestrian gate was in position, of the 'metal kiosk' type so often used these days as a temporary security checkpoint, ensuring that only official mourners and bandsmen could make their way onto these pavements later. But some of the crowd control barriers were only just going up, rising from rough stacks on the pavement to create an impenetrable pedestrian divide. We early morning commuters might be the last ordinary Londoners to pass through Aldwych for quite some time, but few stopped to stare, to pause, to remember.

By the time the Baroness's coffin reached St Clement Danes, I was deep in work at the office. No chance of slipping out to watch, nor of firing up the iPlayer to watch the ceremonial. Instead I slipped a headphone into my ear and half-listened to Radio 4, because, like I said, I have a sense of occasion. It proved impossible to listen to the whole thing, on one occasion forced to nip off to the photocopier mid-procession, and on another removing the Bishop of London's address for an important chat with my boss. Don't worry, I made up the time later - indeed so much later that by the time I finally got home I was too late for the funeral repeat. But in the office I think it was only me who tuned in, indeed it felt like I was the only person aware of the events unfolding across the city. There was no impassioned discussion at the water cooler as there had been a week ago, no unspoken air of solemnity, just the buzz of an ordinary Wednesday at work. I bet it would have been different for Winston.

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