Outside the woodpigeons are beginning to coo on the still-warm asphalt of the garage roof. The Clematis is coming into flower, and the neighbour is tending to his hanging baskets. I can see fret beginning to cluster on the horizon, past the docks and high-rises in the city, but for now the sun punctures the firmament, the tap still gushes clean water and the grapes are ripe in the bowl. Soon the shutters will come down on the shop below, my fiancé will be back from work, I’ll post this online, we’ll make some sandwiches and drive down to the beach. Hand-in-hand, we’ll walk the sands of Seaburn or Marsden, collecting pebbles for decoration at our wedding next spring, and before too long mention Monday again: shaking our heads, we’ll hope the sea has some answers to offer us.
Monday rattled us. It was too close to home. Even though, and I count every single hallowed one of my blessings, I personally know nobody caught up in the events of half past ten at the Manchester Evening News arena, I felt – and feel – sickened, shocked and confused.
If my own words don’t feel apt or appropriate – and they don’t – then I’m at least comforted by those of another, the poet George Szirtes. Here he is (on Facebook) trying to find the lexicon for this devastation:
“And like any writer - since words are my business - I will be seeking the right words for what has just happened, because what use are words if they cannot address our situation? I don’t mean publishable words, merely the vocabulary inside me, inside the language.”
Next, he articulates so plainly how we are surely all feeling, which I will deploy as surrogate for my brain’s inability to conceive any more nuanced or respectable words of my own:
“My own feelings count for little. They are everything you’d expect. An uncomprehending sorrow, a rush of fury. Why target little girls and their parents in particular? What ‘strategic aims’ are thought by anyone to be worth those lives? I know my fury is part of the strategy, as are the divisions such fury is intended to exacerbate. But I can’t help the fury. Then there will be the pictures of the missing and the victims. They are already starting to appear.”
Like everyone, my timelines on Tuesday morning began immediately with the beginnings of pleas for help in finding lost loved ones: social media shares of pre-concert photos; local newspaper images of kids with Mams and Dads or boyfriends or girlfriends or pals from school and college, smiling forever into a smartphone camera, praying to come back to Manchester, Scotland, Gateshead.
Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry, two teenage lovers from South Shields, were killed on Monday. I don’t want to disrespect their families and friends by ‘latching on’ to them in this way, but when the news filters down from the abstractions of Twitter, as it began doing so late on Monday evening, and begins cascading outwards from a close-but-still-distant city towards your own region, and finally down to the particular case of a couple from your hometown, their whole lives glinting ahead of them, things begin to feel more real. The fury rises more steadily. You feel your fists begin to curl. Your heart might be beating a bit faster, your tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth. You are in the red mist.
I see the video-reel of this past week rewinding. It’s Friday, 19th May, about 3pm, and I’ve just arrived in Manchester. Me and Kate have parked the car up near Oxford Road and are in a bar grabbing a coffee while we wait for our friend Matt getting in from Norwich. Later, the three of us will take a short stroll to Sound Control, an intimate venue beneath the railway arches, where we’ll watch the Canadian singer John K Samson, along with his wife Christine Fellows, play indie/folk-punk songs to a room of about 300 diehard fans. “Solidarity forever!” John will exclaim at the end of one song, before launching into another. We will, as the customary phrase goes, ‘rock out’ for another hour and a bit, grins plastered all over our faces, while one of our lifelong-favourite musicians plays a spread of hits from his twenty-plus year career. The room will grow increasingly stifling, voices beginning to break. John will tell us he’s got a few more, and that after that he’ll about-face to the side and have a chat, maybe a cup of tea. Everyone is loving it, and at the merch stand at the end, our hero waits diligently to sign posters and records, posing cheerily for countless photos. It is, in short, the epitome of why people converge on venues like this, be they small or large, headlined by international megastars or little-known DIY musicians: to feel connected to the rhythms and pulses of not just bass, drums and guitar, but to become part of the wave of the crowd; the hairs on its collective neck shivering as that one line is bellowed around the cavities of the room; to feel that, when the singer looks your way, the song is for you, and outside these walls, nothing else matters; and on the best evenings, you leave feeling that something urgent and vital has just taken place, and you might write a song of your own, or pick up that dusty guitar once again, and change someone’s life.
On Tuesday evening, watching rolling coverage of the Manchester bombing, we will both reflect on where we were stood in the venue – stage right, in a gap beneath the stairs, about as far away from the exit as possible – and note that, in a Bataclan-style situation, we would, the three of us, have been, to use another customary phrase, ‘totally fucked’.
And the tape spools forward: it’s Saturday and I’ve just arrived at London Euston. A post on Facebook, from one of my oldest friends, announces that, after a painfully-long labour, her son has just entered the world. We all smile from ear-to-ear at the photo and pints are raised in his honour: to the brother from another mother, exactly 29 years my junior—here’s to you, little fella! What an amazing, weird, wild world you’ve found; it’s fantastic having you along for the ride. And the night goes on long into the morning in Covent Garden, thousands of folk from Shields singing and dancing the night away in a bar called Mason’s, ran by an expat manageress from the provinces. And we gather outside, chanting our daft chants, making a human tunnel for the passing taxis and bikes, no doubt on their way home from the theatres, wondering what on Earth is going on in this historic square, bedecked in maroon and sky-blue shirts, pints of lager overflowing, spirits raised higher than Nelson’s Column.
Just over fourteen hours later, they’ll all gather at Wembley Stadium, and I’ll be there in their midst, to cheer on an historic 4-0 win against poor Cleethorpes Town – bless them – as the team celebrate a fourth trophy, the final, elegant piece of plumage in a truly exceptional cap of a season. There will be no animosity: no punch-ups, no goading the rival fans, no smashing up street lights or shop fronts. There will just be fifteen-thousand Sanddancers, partying into the night and the following week, thinking, ‘How did our little non-league football team manage this?!’
Let me tell you that there were some sore heeds on Monday morning. King’s Cross ran out of Anadin and Tesco’s at the Nook ordered in extra Alka Seltzer in anticipation.
And it all feels so irrelevant right now: this celebrating a sporting victory when something so wicked and desolate has just happened. When it has snatched our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. When it has set fire to joy and put a dagger through the heart of shamanic celebration.
But the taxi drivers and homeless heroes and blood donors and overworked nurses doctors police officers St John’s ambulance drivers and the I-just-wanted-to-come-down-and-offer-a-cup-of-teas are saying nar mate, not now mate, we’re not having this like: we are Manchester, North West England, Northern England, we won’t tolerate this bullshit. So dance on, friends, and hold your lighters and fists to the air. Put your arms round the stranger at the gig as they put their arms round the frantic kids. Dig that pound from your beer fund and give it, two-handed, with a smile, to the woman with the scruffy dog on the corner. Keep the beat going and keep the people knowing that we can be so much more.
The sun is cracking the flags the way it only can in May in northern England. The beach last night was paradise on Earth: the tide out beyond Whitburn Steel, a few rowing boats hunkered on the surf and the whole of the foreshore rippled with families walking dogs relationships blossoming joggers jogging surfers paddling and life going on with ice creams Foster’s and the lapping seabirds making fine evening music in the sea holly the scene something Lowry would have traded every one of his paintings for to see again just for a moment.
William Martin was one of the finest poets this country ever produced and his body of work is a catalogue of largely-unrecognised genius. Born in 1925 in New Silksworth, a mining community to the south of Sunderland synonymous with the great Northern coalfields of the latter two hundred years of the last millennium, he understood what Theresa May and her cronies and antecedents forgot or never knew: that if you keep cutting the branches, eventually the whole tree will sicken. The design, purpose and feel of places like Silksworth, constructed out of necessity for an inward-bound migrant labour population leaving places like Ireland to start lives afresh in a largely-untapped northern frontier circa the 18th century, was replicated up and down this coast to cope with the demands of an exponentially carbon-dependent world—one that, as a species, we have not yet found the intellect and emotion to move beyond, even while it slowly presses the pillow further into our face. Silksworth, and places like it, have since been battered by sequentially terrible political decisions. Infrastructure, economies and tertiary civic services – not to mention the much less assailable assets of community value hinted at in Martin’s phrase and celebrated in his verse – have for so long been shorn, from both their roots in folk memory and their position in operational discourse, that a point has been reached where we no longer whimsically wonder ‘when might we be next?’ but actively project into rolling news of terrorist attacks the no-longer-irrational fear that it would only take a disillusioned ‘hoody’ from Horden or a stigmatised member of the Muslim community in Jarrow to travel down the coast in July to the Sunderland air show, stand on Roker beach amid nostalgic flag-wavers saluting Hurricanes and Lancasters, and tug a cord on a rucksack to blow himself and several hundred bairns onto the front pages of The S*n.
Martin is somebody who I ought not mention right now (just as I ought not mention football, politics, or victims of a terrorist attack when I did not know them), but feel unable not to discuss, for one very specific reason which I feel – and I only have words to feel my way from my head, on to this screen and back out of it into yours – is absolutely critical.
He coined the neologism ‘marradharma’. A portmanteau of ‘marra’, a North-East dialect term for comrade, friend or equal and ‘dharma’, broadly interpreted in Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism as meaning ‘the way’. ‘Marradharma’ was for Bill the unwritten rule and guiding principles of the marras: his fellow miners, shipbuilders, farmers, family and friends from Sunderland and Durham who helped each other to help each other. For the people, by the people. In his own words:
“Poetry should be concerned with more than personal, domestic and confessional themes. Being [part of] creation, we are involved in the continuing search for a collective sanctus... if we reject elitism and ego-economic notions, we will find that ‘marradharma’ under our noses. Art is not a programme, neither is a poem a tract, but it is surely rooted in dharma.”
That same spirit has resurfaced, but it is in bother. The long-time friend and champion of Martin’s work, the poet Roger Garfitt, wrote, reminiscing on his time spent adjusting to life in the North-East, ruminations on Martin’s poetry and his position as a ‘remembrancer’:
“Bill suspected that the pithead lay under the artificial ski-slope of the new Sports Complex. When he talked, the landscaped areas around the ring road recovered their contours and I began to make sense of the names on the signposts, glimpsing the intricate pattern the pit villages had made in the days when each had its own band and marched behind its own banner at the Big Meeting [...] Below this history lay the other, the monastic settlements of the seventh century that had left St Peter’s church there on the riverbank, in the shadow of the Boilermakers’ Social Club, and its sister monastery at Jarrow under the bright blue necks of the shipyard cranes. The monasteries came first and the towns grew up around them, a process of development preserved in Sunderland’s very name: the sundered land, cut-off, outside the monastery wall, on the other side of the river. But to Bill there was no division: the primitive Christianity of the monasteries had surfaced again in the close community of the pit villages and their long political struggle [...] Such moments become images for the sense of community we need to develop, intimations that ‘Here and here is the Kingdom’.”
We are all of us now outside the monastery wall. Cut-off, sundered: the very word close to surrendered.
I don’t agree with Theresa May on much, but I do have a sense that, in a twisted way, her much-repeated phrase ‘citizen(s) of nowhere’ is about apt for the age we’re living through. My friend Chris Ogden, a staunch advocate of the type of progressive, left-wing thinking we could all do with a bit more of, lives but two miles from the Manchester arena. I contacted him immediately, knowing that if I had been shaken by the events of Monday evening, he must have been entirely pummelled. In correspondence that we have shared in the old-fashioned way, via our distorted but still-laudable Royal Mail, we have both echoed similar sentiments: that Ms May may have unintentionally tapped into the zeitgeist. Up or un-rooted from our communities and sense of kinship and municipal duty, forced to eat or heat, bow to the wage masters dangling another ten hours this week, is it any wonder that we want a piece of the wedge? Those on the other side are closer to you than you might know. They may have been forced into exile because of political persecution, ‘strategic’ drone strikes, rape, pillage, torture, climate change or genocide, and have braved perilous sea journeys in laughably small inflatables, but they are closer to you than you might know.
There is, as Miss Mayhem keeps telling us, a choice facing this country in two week’s time: me or Jeremy Corbyn. As the list of deceased tots up to the final twenty-two, and as minutes of silence add up to hours and days, we likely face the prospect of the fury turning to policy, and the policy turning on the old buggered knee of the warlords.
If William Martin was here, he’d be asking me, you, all of us, to employ something of the spirit of marradharma right now. So I ask you, please, take a few hours out of your social media feeds this evening, switch off the six o’clock news, and walk through your estate or in your local woods or along the coast and listen for how the leaves rustle, how the foam settles, and what people are saying. The dead are in our hearts and we must take the time to mourn them, but in the morning there will be work to do. They’ll be watching from somewhere above that shattered arena, hoping that, together, we follow the track of peace, comradeship and love.
Yours in the spirit of marradharma,