By Alexander Winning
LONDON (Reuters) - "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs arrived for his funeral on Friday in a hearse bearing a large flower display in the shape of an obscene two-finger "V-sign", a fitting emblem of his lifelong defiance of the British authorities.
Biggs, a small-time criminal who became a celebrity during a life on the run after the notorious 1963 robbery, died last month at the age of 84 in a London nursing home.
He had served just 15 months of a 30-year jail term when he escaped in 1965, fleeing to Australia, then Brazil, from where he flaunted his freedom, partying in exotic locations and giving interviews to the British press.
But after 36 years on the run, Biggs returned to Britain in 2001, broke and in poor health, going back to jail until illness prompted his release in 2009.
In his final year, Biggs appeared in public twice, frail and wheelchair-bound, but unrepentant for his role in the heist in which the gang stole 2.6 million pounds ($4.2 million) from a Royal Mail train, equivalent to about 40 million today.
At the funeral of the robbery's mastermind Bruce Reynolds in March last year, Biggs found the strength to stick two fingers up at the cameras.
On Friday, a cortege of Hell's Angels bikers and a brass band playing "When The Saints Go Marching In" led Biggs' coffin into a north London crematorium, followed by his family and various underworld figures, and watched by a scrum of media and some passers-by.
"Biggs was not a major criminal but he had a eye for publicity. This is a circus, and everyone has fallen for it," said local resident David Rose, watching as the coffin draped in the British and Brazilian flags passed by in heavy rain.
HERO OR VILLAIN?
The Great Train Robbery became one of the defining events of 1960s Britain, coinciding with the Profumo affair - a sex-and-spies scandal that rocked the British establishment - and the rise of the Beatles and other working-class heroes. It spawned several films.
Biggs, the most famous member of the gang, was a latter-day Robin Hood to some but an unrepentant villain to those who pointed to the violence used on the train driver.
Jack Mills was hit over the head with a iron bar during the robbery and died seven years later, with some people blaming the injuries for his death.
A 67-year-old local resident who came to see what the media fuss was about, but declined to give her name, said: "I am ashamed I have come to watch a common criminal being buried."
Biggs, who was born in south London, always said he had never regretted his role in the robbery as it had given him a "little place in history".
His life, chronicled in a 2011 autobiography entitled "Odd Man Out: The Last Straw", made ideal fodder for a film script.
After escaping from London's Wandsworth Prison in 1965 by scaling a wall with a rope ladder, he used his share of the loot for plastic surgery and passage to Australia.
He later fled to Brazil, via Panama and Venezuela, pursued by his great adversary, London police detective Jack Slipper ("Slipper of the Yard"). The fact that he had a son with a Brazilian woman eventually spared him extradition.
Tanned and sporting his white hair in a ponytail, he regularly gave interviews to British newspapers. In 1978 he even recorded a song, "No One is Innocent", with the British punk band the Sex Pistols.
In 1981 he was abducted from Rio by former British commandos who took him to the Caribbean on a yacht, hoping to sell him to the highest bidder.
(Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by)