I woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and got up to get a glass of water. Checking my phone I saw that some people had declared themselves safe in Manchester - the Facebook application it uses during terror attacks. It couldn't be, could it?
Of course, we now know that a murderer walked into the entrance of the Manchester Arena (still known as "Nynex" or "the M.E.N" depending on your age) and blew himself up in the most crowded area - as parents waited for their children to come out of the Ariane Grande concert, or were leaving quickly themselves. There are 22 dead, including the murderer, and a large number seriously injured. The home made bomb made to inflict the most damage. The youngest dead is an 8-year old girl.
On the Monday morning I had been at a session with the leader of the council and the new chief executive, where the discussion had all been about planning for the future, and - despite all the cuts the public sector has faced since 2010 - a sense of hope and optimism. 24-hours later their agendas will have been upended, as the worst terrorist attack since 7/7 bombing in London, and the worst loss of life in Manchester since the second world war had taken place.
A pop concert is the "softest" of targets of course, but along with football matches and shopping centres, its long been realised that this is the nightmare that we hoped would never happen. Its impossible to find the right words of course. On Tuesday the office was preternaturally quiet, as the need to get on with the mundane daily work was a relief from thinking too much about what had happened. By the evening their had been the announcement of a vigil outside the Town Hall. It was short, inclusive, poignant, with an absolutely on-point poem by my friend Tony Walsh aka Longfella Poet.
There was hardly a space outside the Town Hall on the most gloriously sunny night of the year so far. The crowd though was a young one. The young of Manchester drawn from their daily business - work, school, college - knowing that there's nothing unusual about the rite of passage of a concert at the Arena, that it could have been any one of them there - not just the unlucky few amongst the 21,000 crowd. Afterwards I went for a beer with my friend, and then walking back an hour or so later, the square was still busy, as if people needed somewhere to be. The city hadn't shut down, the people hadn't cowed with fear, rather they had come to show they cared, they had a need to be part of something collective. I suspect part of the youth of the crowd was because older people - those with families - would have wanted to rush back to be with their own, to hug them tighter than before, to be with the ones they loved.
I had tickets to see White Hills, a U.S. psych band, who were playing to less than a hundred people in the Soup Kitchen. A world away from the Arena, but connected as well - and they recognised how important it was that we'd still come out. Not an act of bravery, I think, more an act of confirmation - to our lives, to art. On the tram home there were Simple Minds fans from a gig at the Bridgewater Hall, whilst the Arena had cancelled, inevitably, that night's Take That concert.
Manchester has been here before of course: though in the all the reminiscing about the 1996 I.R.A. bomb it suddenly dawns on us how lucky we were that it was a bomb aiming to destroy property, not to kill people, remarkable that nobody died (though a previous I.R.A. bomb had killed.) Time will tell how different this feels. It does seem a different world, but despite the pessimistic views of the right wing press and politicians in particular, that difference is a world that begins, I think, to look like a new century, not the old. None of us can be unaware of the major human disasters in the civil wars of the Middle East, but it doesn't feel like a clash of civilisations that is taking place here; our Manchester feels - and felt yesterday - like a place of strength and optimism, however depraved certain events such as Monday can appear to be.
Undoubtedly over the next hours and days, the media scrum will give us as many dangerous angles on what has happened, as insight. Whilst the officials look at the risk of further atrocities, we'll all be overwhelmed by the individual tragedies that have happened. The unnecessary election taking place on 8th June seems even less relevant (yet is probably more so) though one hopes that politicians on all sides will be able to resist making political capital. Soldiers on the streets - as we've seen in Paris and Brussels - is not a sign of confidence, but of fear; let's hope it is only a short term change.
I wanted to write something about this - because its happened here, in the city I've lived in for over 20 years, but I find myself unable to move beyond the pure facts; my own numbness - today I saw some flowers - and a teddy bear - being moved to St. Ann's Square from Albert Square - and I almost broke up; is an irrelevance compared with that of those who knew the dead and injured. There is a flower shrine now in St. Anne's Square, and there will be a national minutes silence tomorrow. I'm sure other tributes, as well as collections for the families, will follow. I am grateful at how many people have been in touch from around the world: Manchester is truly loved by those who have visited it, or know people here, and that love seems to be echoed by the love people have for their own city. I've lived here long enough to have some reservations about the "special" nature of the city and its people - in many ways, its friendliness is not universal, like all cities, it can be a lonely, dangerous, even alienating place, particularly with its culture of alcohol, football, and some of the violence that sometimes accompanies it; the new city is as shiny as the beautiful yellow trams, yet the grime under the fingertips of the city has always been as appealing as its bright lights. For a couple of days at least our eyes have had no time for the rough sleepers, and spice addicts, as their difficulties seem a distraction.
For the murderer was also Mancunian borne and bred, even if that hideous ideology of the suicide bomber, comes from conflicts half way across the world, the city will come together and has come together - but just as during the riots a few years ago, the idea that "this" can't happen here of all places, is clearly a chimera. There will no doubt be time for more reflection, more analysis.
Now, it is necessary to remember. To feel sorrow. To feel proud. As the world's media camp on our doorstep, to speak truth to them - that we don't feel hate for the killer and his ideology, but puzzlement, acknowledging it as a warped view of our city's reality that has no truth to it. I'm going away overnight on Friday, and I'm glad I'd got that booked. Next week is Whitsun week - many of the people who died, were injured, or knew people who were, would have been looking forward to a long weekend, or a week off school or work; just as those attending the concert would have been looking forward to a night watching their favourite singer. Our dreams, our hopes - particularly for the young - seem particularly strong this week; but it is also right that we feel sadness, and yes, anger, that for some those hopes have been taken away.
An eloquent tribute. Praying for your city.
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