Margaret Thatcher's funeral: A little heckling, a few tears, not much unity – but a lovely day out

Once the sun came out, the great British public's fiercely held political allegiances seemed soon forgotten

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Outside Coutts Bank in the Strand, a Filipino artist called Chito Salarza-Grant was showing off his Thatcher hat to cameramen. It was a fantastic creation, an elaboratel- wrought cube whose sides bear images of Mrs Thatcher's face, backlit by flickering holograms. On the crown was a miniature supermarket trolley, in homage to her birth as a grocer's daughter, surmounted by Union Jacks. Salarza-Grant admitted he wasn't around in Baroness Thatcher's heyday – he was studying art in Manila – "but I feel she empowered generations of women around the world. I like her because I'm gay and I like how tough she was in a world dominated by men."

An elderly passer-by, who had stopped to listen, turned away in exasperation. "Good riddance to the old bag," she muttered.

That brisk exchange set the tone for the funeral of the UK's first woman PM: great admiration, extreme condemnation, lots of voices and display, plenty of eccentricity, and absolutely no sense of a nation united in grief.

"We've come up to London for the day," said Melissa Cordingley from Salisbury, Wiltshire, "and felt we ought to attend Mrs Thatcher's funeral because, although she had many faults, she turned the country around. In the 1980s, I was bringing up young children and to have a woman in charge at No 10 meant a lot. My husband was serving in the first Gulf War and I think people felt secure with Mrs Thatcher. She wasn't perfect but she was, by and large, brilliant."

Patricia Welch, 69, a retired health-worker carrying a cardboard sign that bore the words, "10,000,000 FOR TORY FUNERAL – CUTS FOR US!", said: "I came up for the day from Winchester because I was so outraged I couldn't stay at home. To think they're closing down the SureStart nursery in Portsmouth and spending £10m on a Tory jamboree."

Some holders of rival views squared up to each other. In Ludgate Circus, a professorial-looking chap yelled "Shame! Shame!" at a Falklands regiment marching past. Red-faced with anger, several middle-aged men rounded on him. "Get back to your sewer!" cried one. "These men are war heroes!" screamed another.

Signs and placards were everywhere, many silently expressing the same outrage at the funeral's cost, while others simply read "Thank You, Mrs T" or "Margaret Thatcher put the Great back into Britain". Across the road a contingent from the Socialist Workers Party held up a huge banner showing Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Sir Fred Goodwin locked in a tendrilous embrace, while a sign nearby read, nostalgically, "We remember the miners, Falklands, Bobby Sands, Poll Tax – now bury Thatcherism."

This conflation of present and past was apparent everywhere, as if Lady Thatcher had only recently relinquished power. Claire Harris, 34, a vision in a Dennis the Menace jumper and V for Vendetta mask on the back of her head, was born in 1979, the year Lady Thatcher came to power. "I'm here representing the LGBT [Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community," she said, "because of Section 28, which left a generation of gay people bullied and berated for being gay.

"I have friends who lived through it. But I'm also protesting about this disgraceful waste of money. Why should taxpayers pay for a Tory funeral?"

For a funeral, there was little evidence of tears. One exception was Able Seaman Ian Scot Irving, a striking sight in his beret and medal and the words "Falklands 1982" tattooed on his right wrist. He was on HMS Invincible, one of two aircraft-carriers in the Task Force that sailed for the invaded islands on 5 April 1982. Irving vividly recalls the day. "It was Easter leave, and the whole Navy was fast asleep. I was down at the pub when the call came from our ship's regulator, saying 'Get back on board this minute'." When the cortege went by, "the tears came down," he said.

As the now-empty gun carriage returned down Fleet Street, and the bells of St Dunstan-in-the-West played a mutedly cheerful ding-dong, the sun came out. The mood of the crowd lifted. It felt as if Spring had come at last. By noon, there was standing-room only at bar El Vino, while The Earl of Sandwich began to do a roaring al fresco trade. The giant crowd, slowly wending its way towards the Tube, were harangued by another placard-wielder. But it wasn't about politics. "This is a country with no sense of shame," he thundered to the meekly ambling throng, "O you fornicators, you adulterers, you exhibitionists, you abusers of the self…" A drunk man offered the crowd a hilarious parody of the evangelist, until he was cautioned by a policeman.

The old lady beside me told her handsome grandson, "I think it's been a lovely day, all in all." Two men in suits furled up a giant banner saying "CONSERVATIVE". The edgy dissidents from the SWP addressed yet another camera crew about the military-industrial complex. And the great British public, having striven to their utmost to be furiously right or left-wing for a couple of hours, went to lunch. It had all gone off jolly well, on the whole.

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