For the last ten years, I thought that radical fundamentalist terrorists were amateur hour. Every single death is a tragedy; every single loss breaks someone’s heart. But if you are trying to bring down Western civilisation, I thought, you’ve got to try a bit harder than this. After every outrage, every cruel, pointless killing spree, everyone went back to normal. They did not throw up their hands and say: you were right, bring on the Caliphate. They did not shroud themselves in yards of cloth and stop sending their girls to school.
It’s not quite normal, of course For some people, for the bereaved, for the wounded, for the traumatised, there will never again be normal. But France and America and Britain and Belgium and all the other seats of Satan went on shopping and squabbling and voting and joking and working. People still got drunk on a Saturday night and weeded the garden and felt the jolting miracle of new life when a baby was born.
And then there was Manchester. For a moment, this did not feel like amateur hour. But then the voice of rage in me said that was exactly what it was. The furious voice said: it was the act of the craven, the howl of the already defeated, the addled shout of the lost argument. You want to tear down Britain, for whatever crazed reason, and you kill our children. You choose the softest, most innocent target. Is that what you call the big league? Do you really think that is going to work?
Whoever did this has broken human hearts into a hundred smashed pieces. They have engendered shock and grief and perhaps fear. They have disrupted ordinary life on the streets of an ordinary city on an ordinary Monday night. But they have achieved nothing. I don’t know whether they do this truly in the name of some notion of religion, in the shadow of some great god, or whether it’s just the spasm of a nihilist death cult. I don’t know what it is they really want. Perhaps their spirits are so curdled with hate that they simply want hate to win. Hate never wins.
I got to the feed shed this morning, on a quiet sunny day in Scotland, and found my friend already there, making the horses their breakfast. It seemed impossible that there was death and destruction out there in dear old Blighty. We looked at each other with tears glittering in our eyes and then we exploded with rage. We were so furious we were shaking.
My friend has a daughter who adores Ariana Grande. ‘They are killing the children,’ we said, in fury. Those daughters were my friend’s daughter. Those daughters were my little Isla who comes to ride the red mare every Sunday. We don’t know those children but they are our children. We swore and stomped our feet and could not stand still. Some stupid fuck thought it was a good idea to blow himself up and take undefended innocents with him.
We talked of Manchester. There is something about Manchester. You don’t mess with Manchester. Its people did not cower behind closed doors, but came out onto the streets, to help. Mancunians were opening their houses to the stranded, giving blood, offering lifts, guiding lost people through the cordoned-off streets. Taxi drivers from Liverpool drove over to give free rides to those who needed them. The Luftwaffe tried to bomb Manchester into submission and that did not work. The IRA gave it a go, with even less success. This new attack will not work any more than those others did. Hope, cussedness, life itself, will rise again.
The dealers in death can kill. That is all they can do. They don’t build anything up or make anything better or leave any enduring legacy. If they want to bring Blighty to its knees they will have to get every single school dinner lady, every farmer, every nurse. They will have to get the beekeepers and the physicists and the poets. They will have to take out the studio managers who keep Radio Four on the air, and the people who save endangered species, and the vets. They will have to smash the Chelsea pensioners and the buskers and the bobbies on the beat. They will have to destroy every single one of Shakespeare’s plays, and every one of Churchill’s speeches, and every line Jane Austen ever wrote. They will have to cut down the old oak trees and demolish Stonehenge and reduce the Tower of London to rubble. They will have to crush the indomitable spirit of the people of these rocky, rainy islands, and I don’t like their chances.
I am so angry I am shaking. I can write these defiant words, and I do feel defiant. I do believe, in my deepest heart, that love will always conquer hate. But that does not bring back the dead. Four hundred miles south, there is a parent whose life will always have a piece missing. I think of those mothers, those fathers, those sisters, those brothers, those friends. Their lives just got torn up, like a piece of paper. And for what? For some twisted idea that the haters hardly even understand themselves? It’s so much waste: wasted lives, wasted tears, wasted, aching hearts.
Britain is a tough old bird. It is an ancient country, and it’s taken its blows and survived. I read a lot about the Second World War and I’m reading yet another book about Churchill at this very moment. Every time I trace that part of our island story, I can’t quite believe that Blighty came through that darkest hour. I don’t know how the people of London survived the Blitz, or the citizens of Coventry came through their firestorm, or daily life reasserted itself in the beleaguered cities and ports. I don’t know how those young boys went out on no sleep to fight off the swarming Messerschmitts on mockingly sunny days in 1940. I don’t know how Britons dealt with the daily fear of invasion, when it seemed that nothing stood between them and the unleashed fury of the Third Reich.
They must have been angry too, and tired, and frightened. Somehow, they stood together, and prevailed. Hate, I think, does not, must not, will not win.
(The picture is of the Manchester Blitz, and is from the collection of the Imperial War Museum. Sadly, no photographer is credited, but someone was out there on the streets, doing sterling work.)