It would be easy at this moment to say that it’s hard to find words for what happened in Manchester but that would be one of those glib ‘writerly’ clichés. Words are only too easy to find this morning. The difficulty is in matching the images on the TV screen with the reality I know.
I find it hard to believe that it’s the same Manchester, 20 minutes from doorstep, which I visit nearly every week. That’s surely not Manchester Arena and the newly refurbished station with its smooth clean concrete now marred by atrocity. That can’t be the National Football Museum that’s cordoned off, along with the small garden outside Chetham’s School of Music, where the students sit and children play in summer and where we always hurry past the polite but overdressed people selling Watchtower. This can’t be Manchester where Victoria station is the best gateway into the city, allowing us to avoid the crowds at Piccadilly and to cut past the attractive cathedral, leading down onto Deansgate, the finest street on the planet because that’s where you find Waterstones, where I often go to draw or write…
Surely it’s not the same.
It’s surely not Manchester because the Manchester I know has nothing to do with global news. Rachel Maddow, last night, talked about landmarks that were somehow familiar to me but surely it was a different Manchester. The Manchester I know is the Manchester filled with warnings about suspect packages that we never take too seriously because every shop doorway seems to contain a suspect package in the form of a grubby duvet concealing someone homeless or spice addicted.
That’s not to say that we ever thought that Manchester was immune to attacks. I remember the Arndale bomb, which injured hundreds but caused no fatalities. People around here still speak about the IRA doing ‘the city a favour’. The dismal old Arndale, with an interior always cast in a horrible yellow pall, was replaced by the new Andale which is so light and cavernous that it doesn’t seem right that it is ever evacuated, like it was this morning, with scenes of people running. It’s so much easier to think of the previous terror attack in those terms rather than dwell on the reality that men could deliberately leave explosives in crowded streets.
Yet, if it is the same Manchester, then there are 22 dead and 59 injured and I really can’t begin to process that information. A suicide bomber? In Manchester?
Instead I think of a night, almost exactly a year ago, when I was woken by the sound of gunfire and explosions. Even at the distance of half a mile, it was frightening until Twitter explained that we were hearing the end of a big anti-terrorist exercise that had started in Manchester’s Trafford Centre earlier in the week. The operation had come under scrutiny because Manchester police had been accused of racial stereotyping because somebody had shouted ‘ali akbar’. Like I said: just a year ago.
‘It all seems a bit over the top,’ said a taxi driver the next day. ‘We don’t have that sort of thing up here.’ I agreed with him. He was right. We don’t and certainly not at an Ariana Grande concert filled with children and teenagers.
There is, then, a gap between knowledge and understanding, or witnessing something at third hand and witnessing it in person. It’s why I know that the politicians are right when they say that Manchester will prevail and that the British people won’t be cowed. They are speaking to those of us witnessing this at the distance we sit from our TV screens. Unlike the victims and their families, we cannot begin to understand the events of last night. We need these formal statements that verge on the platitudinous so that we can move on and not dwell too long on a reality that could easily overwhelm our senses.
Because that, really, is what the attackers hope that we will do. The nature of the attack, clearly targeted at children, appears designed to make us retreat into our own ignorance; to talk about ‘monsters’ and enter into the apocalyptic narratives of our enemy. It’s why it was so good to see Donald Trump refuse to subscribe to that language. ‘Losers’ might seem typically bumbling and Trumpian but, for once, he was right. ‘Losers’ is apt. The bomber was a ‘monster’ no more than he was a ‘martyr’ or ‘chosen’ or is now enjoying paradise. ‘Monsters’ and ‘martyrs’ are just the myths that each side of these events construct to explain the world which is real, difficult, filled with mere circumstance we wrongly call ‘bad luck’, and persists with a history that none of us can change.
So how do we understand the events of last night? How do we explain such cruelty, such suffering, and such loss of life? We begin by refusing to construct false narratives. This was the Manchester I know and love but which I had wrongly written into the narrative of my life. Manchester was neither safe nor dangerous. It was both and neither. There was no luck nor fate. There was just a deeply deluded individual who killed 22 people, many of them children, in the name of a supernatural belief.
That, surely, is where we begin and how we recover. We accept that our greatest enemy is ignorance and we continue to work to overcome ignorance through education, science, and the moral authority of the law. Some will lay the blame with Islam and others will deny that a peaceful religion would ever justify such barbarity. Both are as correct as they are wrong. If one is to believe in a supernatural justification to do good, then we would also need to accept those bad things done under the same ridiculous authority. We need neither. We only need the human ingenuity that built Manchester with its wonderful new railway station, the trams, the Royal Exchange, the G-Mex, the sublime beauty of the John Rylands Library, the Northern Quarter, Afflecks, the coffee at Pot Kettle Black, the fantastic Art Gallery, and the street music including the crazy Piccadilly Rats.
Manchester is as much a reminder of where we can go in the future as, today, it is a reminder of where we have been in our dark past. Going forward, we have to be clear sighted and know that we are better than our delusions would make us.
This piece first appeared at Reaction and is reprinted with permission.