Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Reflections on the Manchester Bomb from "That Woman"

The 22nd May 2017 started like most others. It was a Monday, and I went to work as normal and had an ordinary day, and so did 22 ordinary families. I actually got an early night after a delicious, healthy dinner prepared by my best friend Erika who was living with us at the time.

All of a sudden I was pulled out of deep sleep by sirens. Nickie apologised, but in my sleepy haze, I told her not to be silly, it wasn’t her fault sirens were going past the house. But the ambulances were on a video on her phone, around 20 of them, driving through the city centre. At that point, nobody knew what had happened. There were rumours on Facebook and Twitter, but nothing solid. I was still a little delirious from being woken, but was hoping that perhaps the noises could have been balloons popping, or a speaker exploding. The two of us wouldn’t get much sleep for the rest of the night. Dad called, checking that we were OK, he didn’t know who Ariana Grande was, and so wasn’t sure if we’d have been at the concert. We kept a close eye on GMP Twitter until around 1:15am  on the 23rd when they released a statement to say that a device had been detonated, with more details about those killed and injured coming throughout the night.

The following morning I drove into work and listened to Joel and Lorna on Heart, and Phil Trow on Radio Manchester. The 24 hour news cycle was in full swing and there was no escaping the reality of what was happening in our city. Allan Beswick had been hosting his late night call-in show as the news broke, and the Breakfast show was filled with live commentary from people who had been there; people who had seen things nobody should ever see. The stories were graphic, emotional and presenters on all channels were moved to tears, shaking the professional stiffness normally shown in these situations.

Stories were pouring in about the amazing taxi drivers who ferried people in and out of the city all night for free; of the first responders and locals who opened up their homes. I was proud of our city that day, and every day since.

Aj Singh - One of the taxi drivers who offered free passage to those affected

Coming into work there was an air of shock and despair. People didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Our amazing senior team took the whole floor off the phones and gave us time to process what had happened. They spoke of the resilience of our people, and we learned that several people had been personally affected, and had lost someone. Our colleagues across the world sent messages of support and love, and our customer were so kind when they found out we were based in Manchester.

Our team had never been closer than we were that day. People coped so well, just getting on with it. We were allowed to leave early and attend the memorial that evening in Albert Square if we wanted to, so I drove 3 colleagues to town and met Nickie, along with thousands of others spilling out of the square and down Princess Street and Cross Street. People wanted to share in their grief. Chetham’s School choir posted a video of them singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, and the sentiment felt right.

Despite being far removed from what had happened – I wasn’t injured, I didn’t know anyone personally who had died – I felt things deeply, as I always do, and so, immersed in the constant cycle of news coming out every minute of every day, I fell into a deep depression, punctuated by the names of the dead. I wrote poetry, I cried, I went to bed early, I posted on Facebook. I couldn’t move past it.

On 25th May, a 2 minutes silence and vigil was planned at St. Ann’s Square. I had made the decision that I would stay at home and observe the silence in quiet reflection alone. It was my day off, so I went to my Slimming World class in the morning and the atmosphere was, as would be expected, sombre. Somewhere over the next couple of hours I decided that spending the rest of the day alone would be a bad idea. I drove the car to Levenshulme Station and took the train to town. It was a scorching hot day and I was wearing shorts, sunglasses, a cap and a comic book graphic teeshirt. I know this because that “iconic look” was plastered over the internet later that day! I decided that I didn’t want to turn up at the square empty handed, so I bought a big bunch of sunflowers from Marks and Sparks at the station, and made my way through the throngs of people to St. Ann’s Square.

When I arrived with, probably 40 minutes to spare, the square was already pretty packed. If I close my eyes now, I can still smell the bouquet of the floral carpet that started at the Robert Cobden statue, and radiated half way down the square. It was getting busy, and I started to feel nervous. You must remember that there was still tension in the air, and armed police stationed throughout the city centre.

I went to Seen, the designer optician shop in St. Ann’s Parade where Erika works, to meet up with her and we sat with a coffee talking for a while. With 5 minutes until the vigil, we emerged into St Ann’s Square to an unending sea of people; Mancunians, press and people from outside the city. The silence was observed by everyone, in the square and beyond. There were lots of children and babes in arms, and not one of them made a sound. It was eerily beautiful. Next came a huge round of applause signifying the end of the vigil, and then silence again. I became nervous as this second silence hung heavily across the city.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I started singing “Slip inside the eye of your mind, don’t you know you might find, a better place to play?” The song had been in my head since I heard Chetham’s singing it days before, and I had always been a fan of Oasis since my formative 90s childhood. A lady, Jackie, joined in behind me, and slowly but surely, the sound spread out through the crowd. The sound grew larger and larger and by the first chorus, half the crowd was singing along with me! I heard a shout from the back “come on, sing up, you heard her!” and all of a sudden everyone had joined in! It was an electric moment which still gives me goosebumps to this day. As the last notes waned, and the crowd began to disperse, I was surrounded by people wanting to shake my hand and give me supportive hugs and say thank you. Josh Halliday, a reporter for The Guardian had caught the moment on his phone, and had tweeted it to his thousands of followers. What happened next was absolutely unexpected.
Video courtesy of BBC 5 Live/Audio courtesy of The Guardian

I was interviewed by media from across the world; The Guardian, Sky News, a Danish TV network, and later on that day ITV and Channel 4. The hustle and bustle of those next few days helped me to process what had happened in my home city. I still remember Dad calling to tell me that Noel Gallagher was on TV talking about how “That Woman” started singing at the St. Ann’s Square vigil, and a message from my brother who was at the Courteeners concert. I received hundreds of supportive messages from the most unexpected places. People I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 20 years got in touch. I reconnected with an old friend that I had fallen out with. Strangers tweeted me and got in touch via Facebook. I even got a bunch of flowers from Noel Gallagher! The most significant and poignant message I received was from a gentleman who was injured in the IRA bomb in Manchester in 1996. He told me that watching me singing helped him let go of his anger after 21 years.

In the intervening months between then and now, I have seen the popularity of the song grow and grow. Noel Gallagher talks about it often (although he STILL refers to me as “That Woman” who started singing!) and it is played up and down the country every day. Manchester has recovered. Those brave people who were injured with shrapnel, the families of those who died, the first responders – they have begun to recover, but many have been left in constant pain. Some are unable to sleep without nightmares. Some will never see their child, mum, brother, partner again because of one despicable act of cowardice.

Don’t Look Back in Anger has become a Manchester anthem again, just as it was 20 years ago. The song, now a song of defiance against terror, has helped me out of the dark hole of depression. It helped me look at the positives in my life, and with the help of an amazing life coach – Heidi Mavir – has allowed me to come off anti-depressants after 15 years. This all sounds like a big ask from one song, but for me, Don’t Look Back in Anger has helped me to stop being “That Woman” and to start being Lydia again.

1 comment:

  1. Lydia - this is beautiful. Some people come into our lives for a reason - you and I met that day (I was the Jackie you mention) and I hope will stay in touch now. The memories of those 22 who sadly lost their lives on 22 May 2017 will stay with all of us whose lives were touched that day. Sing for me tonight please. Jackie xxx


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