I was surprised to find, this morning, that the news still has the power to reduce me to tears. The vision of parents struggling through Manchester in search of missing children after the bomb there is particularly gruelling for other parents like me. It hardly needs saying that one’s heart goes out to them, because it has become an over-used cliche – but it does.
It may be that the immediate legacy of the bomb is to cement Theresa May’s general election victory. I don’t know. It may be that the next best thing to having someone strong and stable in adversity is to have someone who claims to be. I don’t know that either.
Yet I have a feeling that the long-term impact on the nation may also be some pride in itself. The taxi drivers who converged on Manchester without being asked. The photograph of the empty water cups on the police car roof. The people who brought blankets. They are all testament to the kind of nation we are, and the way human beings are too – this is a patriotic point, not a nationalist one.
It reminds me of Ken Worpole’s recent description of the East Anglian reaction to the disastrous floods of January 1953 which sank the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, when every local organisation came out to help in a tide of volunteer effort.
This was partly the result of the war, which had finished only eight years before, that all these small organisations were still active and effective. Ten members of the South Benfleet Yacht Club alone saved over 60 people from Canvey Island.
Back then (2013) I wrote rather depressingly: “The difference now is not that these small organisations have disappeared, or that they are somehow less effective – quite the reverse – but their existence is somehow taken for granted by the authorities.”
This may be so, but the reaction of ordinary people in Manchester last night shows that this doesn’t matter. It may be premature to say that anything else matters compares to the brute fact of the blast, but I draw some comfort from the reaction and I believe we will do so when the immediate pain has settled a little.
Big changes can happen as a result of small shifts in perception like this. The earthquakes in Christchurch and Kyoto kickstarted a whole new kind of voluntary sector in those cities. Earthquakes and fires a century ago in Jacksonville in Florida gave it the kind of voluntary ethos that makes it such an inclusive city today.
These considerations may not outweigh the horror, but they are not unimportant. When William Blake talked about “Joy and woe are woven fine”, I believe this is what he meant.