My last blog post was about comedy, but this one is about tragedy. Because as much as I’m committed to bliss, that doesn’t mean ignoring the pain and sadness related to events that produce international grieving. I’m referring, of course, to the May 22nd suicide bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena, England. As I write this, the bombing killed 22 (including the bomber himself) and injured at least 120 others. I don’t know the stats about the injuries, but among the deaths, they are mostly female, and mostly either tween/teen fans (although one was as young as 8) or their mothers, grandmothers, or other parents or parent-like friends who had come to pick up children at the end of the concert.
So when you have children of that age, or work with children of that age, what do you say? Do you avoid the topic? Do you assure them that nothing like that could happen here? Do you let them take the lead, and just answer their questions or respond to their fears or anger or perhaps seeming indifference?
I can’t tell you what to do. But I can share what I did.
I teach a middle school/early high school literature class with students about the age of many of the younger victims of this horrible attack. So in class, I asked them what they knew about what happened in Manchester this week. All of them knew about it, although some knew more facts than others did. So we talked about the the facts first.
I reaffirmed what I’d said to my students earlier in the year, which is that poems are necessary for occasions in which normal speech is not sufficient. If anyone can make sense of these ridiculous deaths, it must be the poets. Just two weeks ago, I showed them the video of Billy Joel playing “New York State of Mind” with a fireman’s helmet on his piano during one of the tributes to the 9/11 heroes, which became a post 9/11 anthem of solidarity after the terrorist attacks on our soil. The whole world supported us through our grief and confusion, and so now it was our turn to support others who had also suffered senseless violence. But whereas most of the world has some idea about New York City, I asked them what they knew about Manchester. About all they knew was that it was in England (which I suspect may be true of the majority of Americans).
So I gave them the text of a 2013 poem written by Manchester poet Tony Walsh, who also goes by the name of Longfella due to his 6’7″ height (copied at the end of this post). Then I showed them the video of him reading it during a peaceful vigil for the victims held in Manchester the day after the attack:
I explained some of the references to them. Manchester is considered the first industrialized city, because in the late 18th/early 19th century it became the center of the English textile trade, driven by new technology of the Industrial Revolution and the cotton imported from British colonies. The world’s first railroad was built between Manchester and the port city of Liverpool to transport the cotton to Manchester and the finished yarn or cloth back to Liverpool to be taken to markets around the globe. Like many Western industrialized towns, the city fell into bad times when international markets made its textiles economically uncompetitive, but found ways to bring new jobs back to the area. It had been long been a center of science and engineering, particular in nuclear physics. Such ground-breaking physicists as James Chadwick (who discovered the neutron), J.J. Thomson (who discovered the electron and isotopes), Niels Bohr (who modeled the atom), and Ernest Rutherford (who split the atom) worked in universities in Manchester. Another renowned Manchester visionary is Alan Turing, who is generally considered to be the inventor of the computer. The city also has a long history in music, launching numerous world-famous bands such as Oasis, as well as in sports, including the soccer (US)/football team Manchester United, the original team of the iconic David Beckham. However, even without understanding all of the allusions in the poem, it is easy to pick up the pride, the resilience, the toughness, and the forward-moving energy of the people of Manchester.
Then we moved on to the specific setting of the bombing, which took place in the lobby of an arena at the end of an Ariana Grande concert. Her tour was called “Dangerous Woman” after the title song of her latest album. That name actually came from a quote from Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi’s 1975 novel Woman at Point Zero:
“They said,’You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”
Ariana Grande has spoken about how she wanted her music to be empowering to her young female fans. So while we don’t know at this point, we suspect this was not a random choice, but that the bomber was sending a message about his views of self-proclaimed “dangerous women.” But truly strong women will not let violence intimidate them into giving up their power, just as truly strong men know that they are well served, rather than threatened, by women who are their equals.
Finally, we talked about how we move beyond an event like this. I said they would have to make up their own minds about how to process these things. But I told them my personal belief is that people are generally good at their core, and that acts like these come from fear and ignorance. So the more we can eliminate fear and ignorance, the more we can make the planet a safer and happier place.
I turned to a more eloquent person than myself in making this case: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, who took his experience of spending eight years in Russian prison camps because when he was a Russian soldier fighting World World II, he wrote some personal letter criticizing Joseph Stalin, and turned them into the magnificent novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In his Nobel Prize acceptance “lecture” (which he declined to deliver in person because he feared if he left Russia, the authorities wouldn’t let him back in again because he was considered to be such an agitator), Solzhenitsyn talks about how literature allows us to better understand each other and to combat authoritarianism and violence, which are ultimately based on untruths:
“I believe that world literature has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties. World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes.
We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.
And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world – but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art. And no sooner will falsehood be dispersed than the nakedness of violence will be revealed in all its ugliness — and violence, decrepit, will fall.
Proverbs about truth are well-loved in Russian. They give steady and sometimes striking expression to the not inconsiderable harsh national experience: ONE WORD OF TRUTH SHALL OUTWEIGH THE WHOLE WORLD. And it is here, on an imaginary fantasy, a breach of the principle of the conservation of mass and energy, that I base both my own activity and my appeal to the writers of the whole world. ”
These are tough conversations, I know. But I also know my students appreciated getting to talk about this, and being treated as if they were mature enough to handle what is true about what is showing up in their world. Most of all, I think they were glad to see there are ways we can find light even in the midst of such a dark event as this. And I don’t know a better way to do that but to turn to our poets, writers, and artists.
During his show on the evening of the attacks, James Corden gave a moving tribute to the people of Manchester, sending his love and support to all who had been effected by this terrible event, and ending with the thought, “We will all go to bed holding our little ones even tighter this evening.” And certainly, as a parent, as an educator, as a compassionate human being, that is my first inclination as well.
But once the dust settles, I believe our children need our words and our wisdom as well as our hugs and our reassurances. As Nawal El Saadawi said, the truth can be savage and dangerous. But as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, only the truth can set us–and our children–free.
This Is The Place (2013)
Tony Walsh/Longfella (1965 – present)
This is the place, In the north-west of England.
It’s ace, it’s the best
And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands
Set the whole planet shaking.
Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music We make brilliant bands
We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands
And we make things from steel
And we make things from cotton
And we make people laugh, take the mick summat rotten
And we make you at home
And we make you feel welcome and we make summat happen
And we can’t seem to help it
And if you’re looking from history, then yeah we’ve a wealth
But the Manchester way is to make it yourself.
And make us a record, a new number one
And make us a brew while you’re up, love, go on
And make us feel proud that you’re winning the league
And make us sing louder and make us believe that this is the place that has helped shape the world
And this is the place where a Manchester girl named Emmeline Pankhurst from the streets of Moss Side led a suffragette city with sisterhood pride
And this is the place with appliance of science, we’re on it, atomic, we struck with defiance, and in the face of a challenge, we always stand tall, Mancunians, in union, delivered it all
Such as housing and libraries and health, education and unions and co-ops and first railway stations
So we’re sorry, bear with us, we invented commuters.
But we hope you forgive us, we invented computers.
And this is the place Henry Rice strolled with rolls, and we’ve rocked and we’ve rolled with our own northern soul
And so this is the place to do business then dance, where go-getters and goal-setters know they’ve a chance
And this is the place where we first played as kids. And me mum, lived and died here, she loved it, she did.
And this is the place where our folks came to work, where they struggled in puddles, they hurt in the dirt and they built us a city, they built us these towns and they coughed on the cobbles to the deafening sound to the steaming machines and the screaming of slaves, they were scheming for greatness, they dreamed to their graves.
And they left us a spirit. They left us a vibe.
That Mancunian way to survive and to thrive and to work and to build, to connect, and create and Greater Manchester’s greatness is keeping it great.
And so this is the place now with kids of our own. Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home. And they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat, all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets.
Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times. But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit. Northern grit, Northern wit, and Greater Manchester’s lyrics.
And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Because this is a place where we stand strong together, with a smile on our face, greater Manchester forever.
And we’ve got this place where a team with a dream can get funding and something to help with a scheme.
Because this is a place that understands your grand plans. We don’t do “no can do” we just stress “yes we can”
Forever Manchester’s a charity for people round here, you can fundraise, donate, you can be a volunteer. You can live local, give local, we can honestly say, we do charity different, that Mancunian way.
And we fund local kids, and we fund local teams. We support local dreamers to work for their dreams. We support local groups and the great work they do. So can you help us. Help local people like you?
Because this is the place in our hearts, in our homes, because this is the place that’s a part of our bones.
Because Greater Manchester gives us such strength from the fact that this is the place, we should give something back.
Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester.