It’s one year since the Manchester Arena bombing, and like last year, I attended a vigil in Albert Square. The first vigil was hurriedly arranged, with speakers and volunteers phoned up with a few hours notice to attend. I can’t imagine how many favours must have been called in on that night. Still, everyone pitched in to provide a necessary outlet for our collective loss and disbelief. This time, there was more room to prepare.
One Year On: "Manchester's Defiance in the Face of Violence"
A private memorial service took place at the cathedral for the friends and families of those touched by the tragedy, and a one minute's silence was held nationwide.
In the evening, same time, same place as last year, thousands of people gathered to pay their respects. It was a very different experience. There were far more attendees than last year, and the programme of events included not just notable speakers and representations from all corners of our community, but pre-recorded messages and a live stream to the BBC’s One Show. Last year, the event was huge, but for different reasons. We were in shock and needed to bring people together quickly to show that the support is there and that we are a resilient city that would get through this.
This year, Manchester was building upon 12 months of activity in support of the victims of the tragedy and the city as a whole, to ensure that help is available to those who need it, and to bring people together from across the community. This has been such an essential part of the recovery process—removing any sources of division and suspicion between cultural groups—and in preventing such a tragedy from happening again.
The far-right have increased their activity in the UK and the US, and Manchester has seen gatherings of fascists in recent weeks, and more are scheduled. They are trying to capitalise on people’s grief and horror by publicly advertising an anti-extremist message, which is nothing better than a thin disguise for anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views. The city doesn’t put up with this kind of crap, but still, the White nationalists keep coming back, hoping to conflate Islamic extremism with Islam and immigration.
The city’s enduring symbol is the worker bee, representing Manchester’s industrial heritage. This symbol brought us together after last year’s attack, with hundreds of people having it tattooed on their bodies, and many pieces of street art commissioned with a bee theme. One of the most famous is the 22 bees painted on the side of Koffee Pot on Oldham Street. The bee symbol has existed for over 150 years, originally in the city’s coat of arms, yet many people hardly noticed it. It’s been everywhere in the city for years, so commonplace that people just didn’t pay it much attention. It’s on all the street furniture, in architecture, and in a huge mosaic on the town hall floor.
To so many of our residents, admittedly the fluctuating population of students and professionals that are here for a short stay, it meant little more than a branding exercise. This tragedy took the symbol and recreated the buzz it initially represented. Everyone knows the Manchester Bee now. It’s a symbol of the city, but also a symbol of solidarity and love. And for the last 12 months, we’ve been seeing a lot of those bees.
Returning to Albert Square, the arrangements were very different. There was a heavy police presence last year, but this year it was huge. Not a surprise, given the seriousness of the occasion, and it was somewhat comforting and added to the feeling of solidarity with the people of Manchester. We’re fortunate to have good police-public relations here—the police are generally trustworthy and concerned with public safety. Although there were several hundred officers on the streets, few of them were armed. What difference would it have made if more of them had guns? British policing errs on the side of prevention.
Actually getting into Albert Square was a little more involved this year. There were barriers around the perimeter both years, but this time there were also bag searches and roads blocked off. Not everyone could fit in the square, so we spilled out onto the nearby streets. By 7 PM, the square and the streets were full, and another one minute's silence was held before things really got started.
Speakers and performers were projected onto huge screens, although office workers overlooking the square got the best view. There were speeches, both live and recorded, from just about anyone and everyone with a connection to Manchester. We’ve produced a lot of talent and we’re well represented in the media, music, and the arts generally (and the sciences!).
Manchester’s Who’s Who introduced performances from poets and choirs from all around the city: 2,800 choristers in total—I guess we just like singing in Manchester. I heard one estimate of 10,000 attendees, but all I knew at the time is that I could just see a vast sea of people all the way to the front of the town hall. Heart-shaped balloons were released into the blue expanse of the sky.
After the formal performances, the whole crowd was led in a sing along to famous Manchester hits by Oasis, Take That, Elbow, and more. Liverpool got a cheeky mention in the form of a last sing-along to The Beatles "All You Need Is Love" to close the ceremony at 9 PM.
We were directed to follow the path of the Trees Of Hope, a one-mile long route through the city lined with trees adorned with tributes to the victims and survivors of the terrorist attack. It led us to St. Ann’s Square, where there was a light show projected on to the side of the church. The trees through the square were each illuminated, and song lyrics and messages were beamed on to the paving stones beside them.
We left St. Ann’s Square at about 10 PM, and followed the remainder of the tree-lined path to Manchester Victoria railway station. There were some drunks singing along to “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and it was actually a rather uplifting experience… a small crowd gathered to join in, and the police looked on, bemused, but knowing this was the least troublesome option for all concerned.
Onwards to Victoria station, we stopped to read some of the cards on the trees. So many paper tiles, with so many messages. The Manchester love was clear to see. A little shrine had been set up in the station, with cards, flowers, and balloons. The railway station has a direct link into the arena, and many survivors piled out onto the station concourse after the bomb had gone off—hence the focus on this location.
At 10.31 PM, the station fell silent. No announcements, no movement. All those within the station were asked to observe a minute of silence, marking the exact time the bomb was detonated at the Ariana Grande concert last year. Although I found myself tearful at many times during the evening, this was the most poignant moment for me. Even the trains were paused to pay respect to those who lost their lives.
Again, Manchester demonstrated that it is a city that stands firm in the face of fear and hatred, and that we look after each other. The attack last year has changed the city—for the better. We turned a moment of horror into a movement for love and solidarity. This time, love won.