I wasn't in London when Margaret Thatcher died, and I'm not sure whether I would have gone to line the streets if I was. But here's what I imagine what the day looked like.
And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.
— Margaret Thatcher, speaking in an interview in 1987
We came in our dozens. We came in our hundreds. We came in our thousands. We came from all over the country. From the privileged avenues of Surrey, we came to thank her one last time. From the ghost towns of the North, we came to turn our backs on the cortege, one last protest, far more dignified than the ones our fathers had waged, far less courageous, too. From the colleges of Oxbridge, we came to observe so that we could make pithy comments and write pieces we would pitch to our local newspapers, even though we had not yet been born when she left power.
From everywhere we came to say goodbye to our childhood, or our innocence, or the decade that changed us forever, however old we had been. Seven years old and wondering where the daily milk at school had gone. Fourty-four and suddenly the unimaginable: to be able to buy our own house. Eighteen years old and admitted to our top choice of university thanks to the private school that her Assisted Places Scheme had paid for. Nineteen and finding our student grant didn’t quite stretch the way it used to. Sixty and bereaved of our grandson in a war that need not have been fought, were it not for an unquenchable thirst for power and a desperate clutching at the frayed remains of empire.
We wore black clothes and sombre expressions. We wore our brightest dresses and carried banners that called for celebration and bordered on the offensive. We wore whatever, without really thinking about it, and took a packed lunch because we remembered the crowds from the royal wedding and the way it takes forever to leave the Mall when it’s that crowded.
Behind the metal barriers lining the streets where her car would pass us, we were silent. We chanted. We told our children, yes, just hold on, I’m sure you can hold it in for another half an hour. We told our parents, I’m sure it wasn’t that terrible. We told the BBC: People say she divided us, but I remember the seventies. We were already divided. We spoke to each other when we were sure that the person we were speaking to shared our feelings. We ascertained this thanks to the clothes, and thanks to the accents, and thanks to the smile or the frown or the smudged mascara, but sometimes even these things lied to us. Sometimes people turned out to be more conflicted that they knew or would admit to.
One of us said, I wanted to be like her, and then went on to say that attempting to be like her had earned us more enemies than friends, perhaps not realising that was, in fact, the sign that the goal had been met. One of us said, my father killed himself during the miners’ strike, and the rest of us shook our heads. We sideways-hugged. We smiled sympathetically. We looked down and hoped no one caught our eye because these displays of emotion were really most un-British. One of us said, Imagine what the ten million pounds they spent on this could have bought. One of us coughed and made a comment about the weather before it all got too political. One of us said, Clement Atlee never got this, and he founded the NHS. One of us said, We are all Thatcherites now. One of us spat. One of us tutted. One of us muttered, Over my dead body. One of us, quoting a pithy line from a film we loved, said, No, over hers. One of us snorted. One of us shushed the rest of us: the service was starting.
Afterwards we said all the right things. All the predictable things. Lovely service. Or, that granddaughter of hers wasn’t half fit. Or, there’s something about that hymn, isn’t there? Makes me come over all patriotic.
Or, Well at least a bomb didn’t go off. And we laughed nervously because we had all been thinking the same, though some of us remembered the days when bombs were so common they took away the bins from all the Tube stations, and some of us knew despite ourselves that for a while at least there had been fewer bombs, and it was in part thanks to her.
We had expected more drama. We had expected fist fights. We had expected romance to spark between strangers as it does in novels at these monumental, nationwide events. We had expected nothing, just come, just to see. We had expected that when the time came we would all behave, because we were, after all, British.
We streamed back to the Tube. We streamed back to St Pancras. We streamed back to Liverpool Street. We flicked through our photos from the day. We wondered if we’d ever use the phone numbers we had given each other. We wondered if the centre ground of politics would ever move leftward again; these things, after all, move in cycles, don’t they? We wondered what a suitable opening line for an article might be. We wondered if we’d ever see an event like this again in our lifetimes. We wondered where to have lunch. We wondered whether to drop in on a friend. We wondered why we had come. We wondered if there would ever be another decade as fraught and fun and fluorescent as the eighties. We wondered what we had done with our favourite fuchsia scrunchie.
We went back to our lives. We went back and in the next election we would vote, or not vote, or not care that much either way. Life would go on. Life always does. We parted ways, and went back to being men, and women, and families. We parted ways and threw away each other’s phone numbers. We parted ways and went back to being I, each of us. No greater tribute, we might have said. It’s what she would have wanted.
Photo by Thomas Dutour, purchased from Shutterstock for editorial use