It was probably the first time many people had ever heard of Ariana Grande. That in itself is horribly significant, this perverted generational dimension to the plan. Manchester throbs and pounds to the sound of music every night. Most evenings of the week, I have a choice of gigs or concerts I can go to in the city. Some nights I make several in succession – “double dropping”, as we say in a term borrowed from drum’n’bass and drug culture. You probably wouldn’t find me at an Ariana Grande concert; her brand of slick teen, YouTube-friendly R’n’B is not really my thing, nor is it meant to be. But it is very much the thing of a very great many 14-year-old girls.
Targeting that Manchester show, picking the MEN Arena that night, choosing that as the place where you would detonate a nail-filled explosive in a crowded, teeming foyer as the suicide bomber did, seems to be an attack not just on Manchester, not just on pop culture, not just on youth even, but – unbelievable as this would seem – a specific, bitter, nihilistic attack on children, girls, young women and their freedom to have fun in the way they want.
There are some who say that modern Manchester began with a bomb blast. In 1996, in one of their final, almost desultory and wilful acts of valedictory violence, the IRA set off an explosion in the city centre, down on Corporation Street by the weary and unlovely Arndale Centre, that squat retail edifice of 1970s brutalism. There, on Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA triggered a truck bomb that was the largest explosive device detonated in Britain since the Second World War. No one was killed but more than 200 people were injured. The structural damage was enormous. Many buildings, shabby and smart alike, were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The city was a building site for years.
Most of the work was done in time for the new millennium, though, at a cost of an estimated £1.2bn. Out of the rubble (literally) the modern Manchester of sleek trams, hipster bars, street food and chic hotels emerged. Until then, for all its vigour and self-belief, Manchester still looked like a postwar city of faded grandeur and former magnificence; rough around the edges, its heart still pockmarked with strewn bricks and boarded entries, its fringes often empty and desolate. The city felt like the music of Joy Division, the Smiths and Happy Mondays sounded: rain-lashed, bleak, sardonic, hedonistic but in a bug-eyed, low-rent, faintly menacing way. The jokes and myths were of rain and drugs and guns. Now they are of beard barbers and vintage bicycles, of Chorlton luvvies, the Northern Quarter, MediaCity and millionaire footballers.
To the people of Manchester and beyond, there is no credible comparison between the events of 21 years ago and this week. Five days after the 1996 blast, the IRA issued a statement in which it claimed responsibility, but regretted any injury to “civilians”. Wreaking injury and death on the innocent is precisely what atrocities such as the MEN Arena attack are about. Indeed, it is all they are about when viewed through anything other than the warped, distorting lens of fanaticism and barbarism. Whatever your feelings about Irish republicanism, and however feebly the right-wing press tries to kindle that old demonology to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, Manchester, like all north-western cities in England, has huge Irish and Catholic populations. These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.
By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want, beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.
“I have no words,” Ariana Grande posted after the attack. Others in fact had quite a few words, to which I am, of course, now adding. At times like this we reach first for cliché, but irritation at social media feeds soon softened when one realised that people mostly meant well and, God knows, meaning well was something to cherish and value in the aftermath of such violence.
A few people invoked the Manchester of laddish rock culture, of Oasis, Factory Records and being “mad for it”. They talked of the fact that Manchester “rocked hard”; and, well-intentioned as this was, it somewhat misunderstands what had happened. The bomb was, as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on “boyfs” and “bezzies” and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.
We held our breath when we heard the president of the United States had shared his thoughts on the tragedy. His comment on the bombers (“I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them . . . losers, because that’s what they are – they’re losers”) was as crassly expressed as usual and drew the usual sniggering. But, in its casual bullishness, Trump’s was a strangely Mancunian response. This is not a city that shrinks and frets and wrings its hands. This is city that is used to winning and will happily call its rivals “losers”. As my friend John Niven tweeted with characteristic gusto: “To the sordid animals making nail bombs: in 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 443 tons of high explosive on Manchester in 48 hrs. You’ll lose too.”
In the endless, repetitive rolling news after the bombing, I heard another well-intentioned voice, this time a media-friendly psychologist, saying tremulously that “Manchester will never be the same again”. Well, to use the local argot: sorry, chuck, but that’s bobbins. Manchester will mourn and weep but it will come through and get on and it will continue to be Manchester, to the delight of its citizens and the amused exasperation of nearly every other British city.
To not be the same, to change, would be to let the victims down. It may be a little harder to get into gigs for a while; the evenings may be a little more awkward and inconvenient, as air travel has become – but that is a small cost compared to what those kids and their families paid. As a great man once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be the price of victory.
This article appears in the 24 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain