Colin Wilson reflects on the vigil in Manchester after the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert.
The Guardian reports from a vigil after the bombing in Manchester. The crowd had been standing in silence for a minute in St Anne’s Square when a woman began to sing an Oasis song. Others gradually joined in. By the time they got to the chorus, which everyone knew, most people were singing, especially the title of the song, Don’t Look Back in Anger.
The Guardian interviewed the woman who began the singing, Lydia Bernsmeier-Rullow, a black woman who speaks with a Manchester accent. She said that Oasis were part of her childhood, and that the song seemed appropriate. People shouldn’t look back and dwell on the horror. “We’re all gonna join together,” she said: “we’re all gonna get on with it, because that’s what Manchester does.”
A few days ago, Newsnight interviewed for the BBC a man in Manchester who had come to give blood. He told them that “We can react in a lot of ways. We can react in anger… This city is a community. I don’t care who you believe in, where you’re from, this city is for everybody and we all need to rally round today to show support because they want to divide us. They want us to turn on our neighbours and it will never happen. Not here.”
Both these people understand what one result of the bombing might be – that the Muslim community might be attacked. With Katy Hopkins talking of a “final solution” and Allison Pearson of the Telegraph calling for thousands of people to be interned, that’s an entirely realistic fear. Lydia and the man who came to give blood argue against that horrible possibility in the name of unity, in the name of Manchester.
“Manchester” can mean various things. One version of the city is a commodity produced for sale. The two football clubs with Manchester in their names are both multi-million pound global enterprises. The iconic Hacienda club of the 1990s has been demolished, but a block of flats built on the site bears its name. A flat there is available to rent “in a development synonymous with the heart beat of Manchester” with “all that the vibrant city has to offer you just a stroll away.” The rent is £288 a week.
I don’t think this is what Lydia Bernsmeier-Rullow, or the man who came to give blood, meant when they said “Manchester”. They may have been thinking of the people in the square, or the local people they knew, or the people they see in the streets. Those will have been women and men, of various ethnicities. And most of them will have been working-class people. The song Lydia sang was an Oasis song, and if Oasis were a Manchester band, they were also without doubt originally a working class band – the Gallagher brothers are obnoxious millionaires now, but people in Manchester know that they grew up on a Council estate in Burnage.
When people say “we’re all gonna join together” or “they want us to turn on our neighbours and it will never happen,” they are using a different kind of language from political activists who might call for “working class unity against racism”. What they are saying is not quite that, but it’s not a million miles away from it either. It certainly shows a clear understanding of how great the risk is, and how horrible it would be if people did turn on each other. It reflects life for ordinary people in a city where 1 in 3 people aren’t white – not the experience of life for people like Hopkins or Pearson, who can throw a match into a powder keg, take their pay cheques and then watch the results from the comfort of their affluent lives.
It’s also worth highlighting just how skilful a thing it was that Bernsmeier-Rullow did. She chose a song which had the right message and caught the mood. She was aware of a danger and acted to prevent it. She wanted to influence people and she succeeded. Of course, it might have fallen flat. But it was still thoughtful, courageous and intelligent.
The accounts you read in the press of northern working-class people do not stress thoughtfulness or intelligence. In particular, since the Brexit vote, we hear a lot about the racism and ignorance of the working-class people who voted Leave. This does not come, for the most part, from the right. Rather, it’s from the centre-left, the people who write Guardian columns, whose contempt for working people has become very clear. The behaviour of countless people in Manchester in the last few days demonstrates that this contempt is unmerited. The ambulance workers, the homeless man who held a woman while she died, the café that gave away free chicken biryani to emergency services staff, they all did these things because otherwise, as they put it, they could not live with themselves.
You can think, perhaps, of the forthcoming election as a small chance to share in that approach, to make a little shift in the balance towards common human decency and away from the endless pursuit of money and power. It’s a chance to side with working-class people, like these two people taking careful and intelligent action in defence of the places where they live. It’s a chance, as Jeremy Corbyn has highlighted yesterday, to finish the failed “war on terror” which has created chaos in many Muslim-majority countries, stoked Islamophobia here and put the army on our streets. The horror of the Manchester bombing reminds us of how much we need to change the world, and the responses of working-class people in Manchester should inspire us to do so.