Like a nightmare from the past
To the sound of splintered glass …
What kind of times are these?
They drive you to your knees
—“A Person Isn’t Safe Anywhere These Days,” by the Chameleons, a Manchester band
I was eight and watching Saturday Westerns with my maternal nana in her Moss Side maisonette when the IRA bombed central Manchester in ’96. My nana had a color TV, but she preferred to watch the world in black and white. I’d helped her drain the settings. She had a budgie called Bluey and an Alsatian called Blacky and a serpent tattoo on her thigh.
We were eating grapes.
But my mother is convinced we weren’t. Not when the bomb went off. Years later she told me she’d heard the news before we left the burbs; she’d taken me to see my paternal nana in Wythenshawe that day instead, avoiding town.
I don’t remember worrying about my maternal nana or being awed by footage of the debris cloud—like something out of Thunderbirds, only not on a TV but on a street down which I’d walked many times. I don’t remember being relieved that nobody was killed. Then again, apparently, I don’t even remember where I was.
But I do recall how Manchester transformed in the aftermath of that bomb. We got posher shops, while nearby Hulme, where other relatives lived, a place then notorious for its crime and counterculture, continued to be demolished and redeveloped apace. That bombing—which as of Monday, May 22, 2017, 22:31 BST, is no longer the bombing—caused an estimated 1.2 billion pounds in material damage and haunts the city in the shape of Harvey Nicks.
All my writing has orbited that bomb and failed to reach it. I feel I know for certain I was there. I know I was happy at my Moss Side nana’s, almost every Saturday, watching Gary Cooper do the right thing when everybody else wouldn’t. I know I was well within earshot of the Corporation Street blast, whether or not I remember hearing it. There might be something vaguely hauntological to this stuckness, my obsession with Manchester’s lost future and my fear of finding it. More likely it’s just childhood nostalgia.
Now I’ve circled another Manchester, another bomb—this one incommensurate with the last; this one an atrocity destroying more than concrete, steel, and glass; this one erasing the other as it compounds the city’s trauma, its transformative energy from Peterloo to now. Unlike so many in or from my hometown, I haven’t truly lost. I will remember I was twenty-nine and partying on the Croisette, trashing films at the seventieth Cannes Film Festival while celebrating my own and celebrating myself, when the Manchester Arena was bombed. Twenty-two children and parents died. Here are their names. At least 119 others were injured.
Like many, my wife and I had worried about terror attacks in Cannes. Even half expected one. There had been a bomb scare at the Debussy Theatre the evening before we arrived and our anxious friends had texted us, checking that we were safe.
The festival’s much publicized heightened and tightened security measures meant men cradling machine guns everywhere: outside cinemas, restaurants, hotels, beaches, those ever-posher shops.
“Do you feel safer?” I asked as machine guns passed our dinner table.
“Yes,” a friend said, reluctantly.
“No,” another said. “Now I’m just scared of them.”
Being in Cannes then meant missing the first four episodes of the long-awaited Twin Peaks revival. I am one of those lifelong Lynch devotees. My wife, too. A few years ago, we made the pilgrimage to Poulsbo and North Bend, Washington, to visit the Double R Diner, Ronette’s bridge, Snoqualmie Falls, and other landmarks from the original show. But Lynch would soon be here with the cast to premiere his new series on the big screen. We were leaving Cannes before he arrived.
“But we’re here now,” I said, stressing the irony.
“Now there’s a good problem to have.”
I didn’t hear about Manchester until that next morning, when my wife told me.
“But I told you last night,” she said. “I had a text after we got in. You’d already gone to sleep. I woke you up to tell you, but you didn’t really say anything.”
“No, you didn’t,” I said, ashamed, unsure of whom I was accusing: her or me. I was too angry to cry and spent most of that morning texting family and friends back home, hoping everybody I knew and they knew were safe. A few close calls, but all were.
Now, this film I had written was shot on location in Manchester, a few miles from the bombing, with a largely Mancunian cast and crew. The film is about Manchester horrors involving young children—here, in the implicit context of gangland poverty, as well as the satanic ritual abuse scare, which crossed the Atlantic in the late eighties. The nine-year-old girl who starred in our film had flown over with her mum for its premiere. She had classmates at the Ariana Grande concert. For some time, the safety and whereabouts of these children were unknown to us.
The program coordinator of Semaine de la Critique made a special announcement before introducing our film and wore his New Order T-shirt in solidarity with our city.
Several people told us how sorry they were, how they understood what it felt like. One French woman pointed at her heart and said, “We know. We’ve been there.” Their kindness made me feel guiltier and farther from home.
I will remember where I wasn’t. I will remember that I had the luxury of being somewhere else; of being dazed and smiling, uncomfortable as our film became unexpectedly politicized. I was here, not there. I heard only our director, on stage in the Palais Miramar, proudly dedicating our film to the people of Manchester.
We had shot the film on the east fringe of the M60, the city’s ring road, on two redbrick terrace streets in Oldham: a once-teeming textile hub, a decommissioned engine of the past, now only powering another lost future. Oldham was also the shooting location for Bryan Forbes’s Oscar-nominated The Whisperers (1967), which had used the baleful landscape of its decline to reflect the social isolation and social horrors affecting its most vulnerable postwar residents: children, women, the elderly.
Filming in those houses, decked out with period details—some, such as the analog TV, imported by our production designer; others already there—felt like we were resurrecting the northern interiors of my childhood, my nanas’ front rooms.
Oldham was once the embodiment of the industrious and industrial worker bee. In the wake of the attack, the bee took off on social media, a symbol of Mancunian toil and our city’s indomitable spirit.
Bees buzz. “Having a buzz” and “buzzing” are perfect examples of Mancunian dialect. Our city’s buzz is our communal mongrel blood, coursing through veins ever-expanding, ever-connecting, to offer and strengthen our city’s energy, our joy, our release. There’s a reason Manchester was and is a global innovator of both Western work and play. We have the best parties, the best DJs, the best bands in the best venues. You know this because we invite you. We buzz our wings and gift each other.
And I heard those buzzing wings when we made our film. Waving children watched from top-room windows, standing on furniture to better see our endless takes in their street. Without notice, working residents gave us keys to their homes to help us shoot. At night, when the cold got to us and hunger had us flagging, they fed us oven chips.
One morning, I spent two hours bothering the doorstep of a magnanimous tenant, listening to juicy stories about his street, his Manchester. He offered me mugs of tea and asked me more about the film.
“It’s set in 1990,” I said.
“Here?” he said, pleased.
“Here,” I said.
At Cannes, we were his representatives; through our film we represented the streets, the time and the city, as much as the work represented ourselves.
Alice, the troubled protagonist in the film, features as an absent presence in three of my novels, which follow a local criminal, Henry Bane, through a nineties Manchester underworld. She is Bane’s first love, and she is dead before my first novel begins; but her life is retraced by those who cared for her. Alice is last seen alive right before the ’96 bombing. Now she lies across the loneliest hearts and liminal zones of the city. She is another lost future.
But in the film, we find her present. She is there, a drug addict, but ready to sacrifice her own desperate needs to shield two children from violent forces—social, economic, maybe supernatural—forces which deny kindness and singular comprehension. However, these forces, with their cruelty and complexity, can wound her but can’t defeat her. Not yet.
From Cannes, my wife and I flew back home on the Wednesday morning, a day and a night after the attack. Our flight was delayed. We worried. It was fine.
I went to work the next day. I hugged a colleague who had lived in Manchester, just over the road from the arena. She remembers watching crowds of young girls with their mothers, going to see pop stars every week. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “I know how young they are.”
After work, I said, “Have you seen the new Twin Peaks?”
She nodded, smiled. A scene in the opening two-parter reintroduces Margaret, aka the Log Lady, played bravely by the late Catherine E. Coulson, who was in the throes of a terminal illness during filming. Frail and full of feeling, Margaret phones the aged deputy police chief, Hawk, and delivers a typically cryptic message before telling him to watch carefully. These two words are said with such clarity and wrenching compassion. Watch carefully. They’re not a warning but a plea for his wellbeing. Caring words from a now-dead woman who lived just long enough to share them as Our Lady of the Log. They’re a light of hope for Hawk, and for us.
Finally, I could cry.
Tom Benn is an author and screenwriter from Stockport, England. He has donated his honorarium for this article to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund.