It's been a strange day here in Manchester. Bright and summery with most of it passed at my desk in the top floor of an office block in the city centre. Outside was eerily quiet save for the occasional intrusion of helicopters circling overhead and sirens wailing in the distance. And so I sat there and got on with my work as though today was just another day and the biggest mass murder in the city's history hadn’t happened just down the road a few hours earlier.
I say I was working but of course in truth I spent almost the entire day online, reading again and again about this local tragedy whose magnitude was propelling it around the globe. Occasionally there would be a detail - of the first two named victims, one went to the same college as me and the other, an eight year old girl, was from Preston, my hometown - which would cause me to look away from my screen and out of the window at my view of the city, high-rise buildings folding away into leafy terraced suburbs in the distance, and try not to cry. It all felt so keenly personal and yet I had no right take it personally: so far as I know, I have no connection to any of the victims. What I have is a connection to the city, which isn't the same thing at all.
I've struggled with the heartening stories, the tales of people helping, offering up their homes, giving blood. Have they been heartening, these acts? Yes and no. Yes in themselves, undoubtedly, but no in the way they response I've found they elicit. I understand the impetus to find the glimmers of something positive and reassuring, but honestly I find it hard to feel anything other than just flat-out depressed right now. Anything more just feels like a pretence, like ornamentation. I get the whole ‘we carry on’ rhetoric, but at the same time it smacks of dismissiveness, of depreciating something which is objectively and comprehensively unconscionable and demands we stop carrying on. A massacre which targeted local daughters, children murdered on the streets in their dozens while they held onto pink balloons. You have to go back to the Christmas Blitz of 1940 or perhaps the Moors Murders in the early 1960s to find anything comparable in the vicinity. From now on this will undoubtedly be Manchester's darkest day and it's going to be a very tough and traumatic experience for everyone to go through, particularly those directly involved. Why pretend otherwise? Perhaps tomorrow can be a day of hope and plodding bravely on. Today, for me, is for simple grief.
Throughout the day the attention of the world’s political leaders, media and commentators seeped into town where it will presumably remain for the next week or so. It’s slightly surreal to hear presidents, prime ministers and members of the royal family make their condemnatory speeches in relation the crappy music venue on the other side of town from where I work, and I find I’m curiously defensive of the place, both that crappy venue and my invaded city. But it's a surrealism which takes on a faintly nightmarish palette when attached to the tedious freeloaders who pop up whenever there’s a terror attack, people like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage and their pointless ilk, clamouring to promote their boring opinions on a city about which they know nothing beyond the usual handful of clichéd signifiers and whatever lurks within the parameters of their own dimly-lit imaginations. Respectively: historical industry, Oasis, football; large migrant population, racial tension, terrorist hotbed.
That’s bollocks though, all of it. Immigrants, Muslims, whoever - they aren't to blame. I know saying that is considered the kneejerk response of the hopeless, blinkered liberal but it's also the painfully obvious truth. Whatever you end up hearing about Manchester, know that, while it’s a city with all kinds of complex problems, it is foremost a place which goes in heavy on solidarity, bigheartedness and resilience, all of which make for as vibrant, welcoming and successful an example of multiculturalism as you could hope to encounter. I moved here about seven years ago and found a city so replete with neighbourliness it was frankly intimidating and is still now a source of fascination and at time even irritation to me. Simply put, it's a great city and those who insipidly denigrate its residents aren't worth listening to.
After work I took a packed train home, the sweltering heat ramped up by the crush of fellow commuters, all anxiously checking our phones and intermittently breaking out in conversation in an attempt to dispel the tension only to land on the only terrible topic to hand.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but as I looked around at them quietly chatting I thought: the people here are frightened, but I honestly can’t see this attack, or anything else, making them frightened of one another.