Manchester 23 March 2017: The Outsider

I stopped listening to the morning news during that awful Brexit campaign. All the coverage given to any European or US politician evil enough to campaign on a fascist agenda only reinforced my view that this was a spectacle that didn’t interest me and that I was a happier, healthier, saner person without it.

And when I commute on those crowded morning trains, I usually make a point of saying hello to a few people. I can’t understand why people don’t greet the people they see travelling to and from work each day. Why let the depression, stress and anxiety of your working life stop you from enjoying life outside of work? Why retreat into your own shell and block out the people in front of you? Why let work win?

So I’m walking across Manchester’s fashionable Northern Quarter to pick up a connection from Victoria to the thrumming soundtrack of a police helicopter overhead. This took me back to living in the city centre, when there was always something kicking off and the sound of the police helicopter would keep you awake in the early hours.

I had 10 minutes to spare. It was a sunny morning; despite the racket overhead, I thought it would be well-spent sitting with a book in Exchange Square. It can be difficult to come up with somewhere really nice to sit without having to buy something. That’s nothing new – George Orwell mentioned the same thing in the 1940s. But the route along Studehill to Exchange Square was blocked by a police cordon. Back round The Printworks and along the tram line towards Victoria. Another cordon. A homeless guy stops me to tell me I can’t get through to Victoria – a bomb’s gone off.

I ask the two coppers at the cordon if there’s any point in me trying to make it to Victoria. “Don’t expect it to be open for a while yet mate,” the oldest one replies. I ask what’s happened. “A bomb went off and 23 people were killed”. What? Really? That’s crazy. “I haven’t seen the news this morning,” I stammer.

The city’s complexion changes. The sound of the helicopter isn’t annoying – it’s the soundtrack to the aftermath of a disaster. And nobody’s breaking their neck to get into work this morning – they’re ashen-faced and have furrowed brows. Resignation and gloom have replaced the morning panic. Through their minds went the only words from the bowl of petunias in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as they plummeted from the sky towards the ground below, “Oh no, not again.” And I notice cameramen taking photographs of police cordons. Yet again.

And in my morning routine, I stopped getting distracted by my mobile phone – preferring to read a book on the train than to be drawn into the inconsequential nonsense of social media. My phone is full of messages from people wanting to know if I am safe. I call my Victoria-to-Swinton commuter-friend Ruth. She’s upset and amazed that I’ve only just heard about it. Grabbing some cheap veg in The Aldi, I bump into Gareth, who is resplendent in a Motorhead t-shirt. He lives behind Victoria, and heard the blast last night. He says he sat in his flat and contemplated, “What would happen if that was something serious?” And then the sirens started.

I write without having looked at today’s news. Before politicians, already puffed-up campaigning for a general election have had a chance to grieve in front of me. I stop for coffee on Oldham Street, I wonder: What has a Westminster politician got to do with Manchester on a Tuesday morning anyway? And what place has the news? The endless reporting ahead. Making us spectators on other people’s hurt. To shape opinion, mould our characters, manipulate, exploit. To capitalise on outrage like the vendors in the temple courts of biblical Jerusalem. Who will drive them out?

I feel like The Outsider. Stuck in time, before the media is unleashed on me. Before outraged headlines from the very newspapers that sometimes sidelined the city and its people. Before the news churn. Before comment and analysis. Before horror becomes grief. Before grief becomes hate. Before hate becomes a friendly clap on the back to any small-minded bigot who articulates their own hate. I sip coffee in the heart of a city that adopted me. The vibrant, cosmopolitan city that took me in. And I wait to read the news.

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