Manchester faces uncertainty after its darkest night

The Manchester Arena bombing will dwarf the legacy of the 1996 IRA attack in the city

At 10pm on Monday I walked out of the shadowy corridors of Manchester Town Hall, which had just been hosting a civic reception for Maria Balshaw, the visionary director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries, who is just about to take up work as director of the Tate.

It was a beautiful, bright, balmy evening – “Lucky this point in time and space/Is chosen as my working-place”, as Auden put it in A Summer Night – and so I went out of my way to walk around the Manchester Art Gallery before catching the 42 bus home.

I was thinking about the various speeches made in Maria’s honour and about her role in developing and, especially, diversifying Manchester’s “original modern” identity, putting art in parks, bringing parklife into the galleries.

It had been an interesting crowd – planners, property developers, writers, some academics, politicians and cultural benefactors. She had quoted Milton, "luck is the residue of design", talking about her happy experience of the city.


But that good design is about to be tested again in Manchester. By the time I got home, the first police cars had arrived at the Manchester Arena.

Over the last few months, the sense of threat had reached into new places

On Tuesday morning, I woke up and saw online an image of the council leader Sir Richard Leese, still in the same white shirt suit he had worn at the previous night's reception, talking calmly about the next steps the city's emergency services and police would be taking.

Pride of place

Leese set the event, the city's "darkest night" against other "dark nights", but did not mention by name the IRA bomb, which destroyed the city centre in 1996 on the eve of a Euro96 semi-final between Russia and Germany. That incident is part of the modern city's DNA, a story it has retold as it has become more and more diverse.

The bombing did lead, researchers say, to a spike in suspicion about the Irish community, but its most lasting effect may be the huge regeneration project which revitalised the city centre and which has led, among many other things, to a new pride of place among the Irish community, evident in the Irish World Heritage Centre on Cheetham Hill and its eclectic mix of Irish-language classes, sports nights, parties, academic conferences (including one last year on the after-effects of the 1996 bomb) and writing workshops.

The city’s restless nature is evident, of course, everywhere, and it is not so much planned as at the mercy of world affairs.

Of the places the Irish community used to occupy, many of them are now replaced by different immigrant populations: the last two Irish bars in Rusholme, the Clarence and the Whitworth, shut years ago – one is a curry house and the latter now a Christian cafe.

But Rusholme’s evolution from Irish community to “curry mile”, with Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants, has itself been subsequently taken over by Iraqi and Syrian and Afghan and Libyan cafes and shisha bars.

Unlikely demographic

Last year, the Dublin theatre company Anu devised a show for Manchester's Home theatre complex, On Corporation Street, which traced some of the IRA bomb's ripple effects on the diverse groups of workers and families whose lives were changed by their experience of that event.

It is no exaggeration, though, to say that bomb's effect will be dwarfed by last night's mayhem unleashed at the Manchester Arena, targeting the most unlikely demographic, tween fans of the visiting Nickelodeon star and singer Ariana Grande.

There is a growing sense that we are all of us learning how to wait

Over the last few months, the sense of threat had reached into new places. Security has been stepped up at football matches in Manchester, with bag searches and pat-downs now the norm. But the football venues are a little more isolated, and maybe easier to cordon off.

The Manchester Arena is at one corner of the city’s main downtown shopping district, near Victoria Station, and between Deansgate and Cheetham Hill.

Some 21,000 were in the audience, among them many children who attend our local schools, who will be processing their experience of the night for many years.

Powerless waiting

On Tuesday morning, on the radio, the mother of missing 15-year-old Olivia Campbell brought home how unimaginable last night's scene was, as groups of parents arrived to collect their children from a concert.

They were powerless as they waited, and as the news, about numbers first and then names, began to come through. The schools and universities, the buses and airports, the business of the city, have continued to run.

But there is a sense, as reports are filed about a man arrested outside the Morrison’s supermarket in Chorlton, or a front door being blown down in Fallowfield, that we are all of us learning how to wait. It is this abject waiting which will most of all test the design of the city.

In 1933, in that poem A Summer Night, WH Auden talks about the "pulse of nervous nations", imagining the terrors that would devour Europe. But he also asked his readers to balance them against the ordinary days of summer, to remember

“these evenings when

Fear gave his watch no look;

The lion griefs loped from the shade

And on our knees their muzzles laid,

And Death put down his book”.

John McAuliffe is a poet and professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Manchester