Surreal atmosphere evident but city's spirit has not been broken

Students Matthew Calderbank and Tom George are part of the News Associates training course based in Manchester ...

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 1st June 2017, 3:47 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:14 pm
Police close to the Manchester Arena the morning after a suspected terrorist attack at the end of a concert by US star Ariana Grande left 22 dead
Police close to the Manchester Arena the morning after a suspected terrorist attack at the end of a concert by US star Ariana Grande left 22 dead

Having recently completed work placements with Johnston Press, we invited them to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences reporting in the city centre in the aftermath of last week’s horrific terrorist attack. Here’s Matthew’s account ...

The atmosphere on the train into Manchester was eerie. It was the morning after the worst terrorist attack in the city since the IRA levelled the Arndale Centre in 1996.

The old Northern Rail rolling-stock carriages were packed with passengers pressed against each other and the air was hot and sticky. The mood was quiet and contemplative.

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Police close to the Manchester Arena

There was no loud music bursting from headphones and the only sounds were barely audible whispers between friends.

People confided in their phones, no doubt keeping up with the latest developments on the appalling events of the night before.

Walking through the concourse at Piccadilly Station, the awful reality of the situation hit me.

Armed police dressed in black with automatic weapons were standing guard. If you were brave enough to look at them, they looked straight back at you.

Queueing for a Manchester Bee tattoo in Wigan

At first I felt alarmed. The rifles at their sides seemed unreal somehow. They resembled the toy guns we used to play with as children. They seemed somehow too big, as if made from shiny plastic.

I noticed their fingers clasped around the triggers. They were prepared to protect.

A nervous energy was palpable. People walked fast and with purpose. Nobody wasted any time getting from A to B. We kept our heads down and only looked up briefly if we heard a siren wailing in the distance.

I worked my way through the Northern Quarter and past the hipster hang-outs. I was touched to see that the bars and cafes had already registered their support.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese speak to the media outside Manchester Town Hall

The now iconic ‘I Love Manchester’ sign was already emblazoned across shop windows and advertisement boards.

I headed to the Arena but every approach was cordoned off. Police stood diligently on guard while journalists from across the globe mingled, speaking to each other in broken English.

Marco, an Italian reporter approached me and told me he had been visiting family in London before being despatched to Manchester in the middle of the night by his editor in Genoa. He looked lost and tired.

I walked down Market Street towards the Arndale Centre. The morning was taking on a surreal aspect. A man in a Super Mario costume was performing pop songs on a keyboard synthesiser. A video game version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face startled passers-by.

Police close to the Manchester Arena

I was curious to see how people responded. Initially, I thought this brazen act of showmanship was inappropriate and I was half-expecting someone to confront him and complain.

But after a brief moment of dazed confusion people began smiling and recording the bizarre scene on their phones. They were the first smiles I’d seen all morning and it proved contagious. For a few minutes, it felt like an ordinary morning in Manchester.

One couple in particular looked bemused. I asked them what they thought of the performance and whether they considered it disrespectful or not.

Stefanie Ku and Conrad Schuman happened to be musicians in an avant garde electronica band in San Francisco. They were on holiday in the UK and landed in Manchester direct from California the previous evening.

They agreed the off-beat performance was rather unusual for the circumstances but noted that people were responding to it in a positive way.

Mr Schuman shrugged his shoulders and in his distinctive California drawl, said: “We must keep calm and carry-on, right?”

Queueing for a Manchester Bee tattoo in Wigan

At St Mary’s Gate, near Marks and Spencer, the media set-up base. The scene was like a movie-set with satellite trucks and film crews scattered across the street.

The Sky News team were live on-air and just a foot away was CNN breaking the news of the Manchester terror attack to a still sleepy United States.

Slightly mesmerised by the sight and sound of the world’s media, I was soon thrust back to reality when people came rushing towards us in panic from the direction of the Arndale Centre.

Expressions of primal fear were etched in their faces as they sought shelter in the relative safety of St Ann’s Square.

The shopping complex had been evacuated. Armed police had descended after reports of a suspect package in the food court. Panic ensued and people emptied onto the streets in fear and confusion.

Police vans hurtled past at high-speed and sirens rose steadily in pitch. At once, the atmosphere in the city transformed from subdued to tense and agitated. Our reserve finally broke and brave faces contorted with tears.

The heavy drone of helicopters filled the sky and Manchester began to feel like a city under siege.

But as the afternoon wore on, the city in some strange way felt safer than ever before. It became united. Fear was out-muscled by solidarity and defiance.

Francis Power, a young man from Todmorden, had caught the first train to the city that morning. He was wearing a t-shirt that read “free hugs”. He spoke of his fear that the attack would sow division and mistrust within our communities.

Any fear of division would soon be dispelled as the city’s cultural diversity became its signature source of strength.

The atmosphere had fluctuated throughout the day. A subdued morning had been abruptly disturbed by the Arndale evacuation. Now the early evening would belong to quiet reflection.

The vigil at Albert Square was a testament to the city and its core values of unity and diversity.

Bishop David Walker set the tone with a homily of hope and resilience, declaring: “You cannot defeat us because love, in the end, is always stronger than hate”.

But it was Mancunian poet Tony Walsh, with his fierce performance of ‘This is the Place’, that lifted the city’s spirits to new heights.

The poem, celebrating the singular achievements and character of Manchester, received thunderous applause and Albert Square suddenly felt like the Stretford End after a winning goal.

Matthew Calderbank

Moved by unity and Oasis tribute

Following the horrific events of the previous night, I wandered the streets of Manchester on Tuesday morning to see for myself how the city was coping.

Waking up that morning, to the news that 22 people had died and many others had been critically injured at a pop concert attended mostly by children, had left me with a numbness which I am sure many will be able to relate to.

Less than 12 hours after the attack, the streets were eerily quiet and it was immediately clear that there was a sombre tension in the air. As I walked through the Northern Quarter, I passed the Holiday Inn where press packs were interviewing some of the children who had reportedly been offered refuge there overnight.

I was at the vigil, in the incongruous glistening sunshine, to soak up the atmosphere. Like many who attended, watched on TV, or listened on the radio, I was immensely proud of how Greater Manchester came together to mourn the 22 people who died.

People from all walks of life were in attendance and it was truly heart-warming to see the solidarity shown by people from all ages and backgrounds. After a long day, I was particularly thankful of the representatives of Manchester’s Sikh community handing out free drinks to everyone.

Greater Manchester has always had a strong sense of identity and the events of last week have only strengthened that.

In Wigan, I covered the story of people queueing for hours at Alchemy Tattoo Studio on Wallgate to show their support for those affected by getting a Manchester worker bee tattoo. People there told me they wanted to do something to show their solidarity with the victims and their families. The fact that one tattoo studio has managed to raise £5,000 alone shows just how deeply this has affected us all.

The Manchester Arena is a venue that many of us will have attended on numerous occasions. That this has happened so close to home makes it all sting just that bit more.

I have lived in Greater Manchester all my life. To see something like this affect the place I call home hurts a lot. But that is nothing compared to what the families of those affected are going through right now.

A minute’s silence was impeccably observed in towns and cities on Thursday, but nowhere more so than in St Ann’s Square.

People had flocked from across the region to surround the ever-expanding sea of floral tributes and pay their respects.

The spontaneous applause that broke out immediately after the silence made me prouder than ever to live here. This was followed by yet another display of unity in the form of a spontaneous rendition of Oasis anthem Don’t Look Back in Anger that made my hairs stand on end.

As I write this, Greater Manchester is trying to regain some sort of normality.

We are all hurting right now but we are strong and will come back from this. There are a very small minority of people out there who want to use tragedies such as this to bring fear and division to our communities. From what I have witnessed around Greater Manchester over the past week, they will not succeed in doing so.

Tom George

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese speak to the media outside Manchester Town Hall