It’s the surreal juxtaposition between normality and exceptional circumstances that hits you like jet-lag. Outside the Old Trafford cricket ground, ‘Arianator’s have been camped outside in small tents from Friday evening to acquire tickets to see their idol. Police line the middle of the road, and armed officers patrol the pavements – yet rather than be intimidated, eager fans are good-naturedly posing with them for selfies. Solidarity – and even humour – is on display in the various queues which snake around the block. “Have you seen how terrifying my mum and her Take That friends are when they’re drunk?” one teenager questions to his friend. “Those armed police are gonna be needed to protect ISIS from THEM!”. They giggle in the way only best friends in the world can.
Inside the press area, the feeling of seeing moments of pure joy anchored by tragedy continues. The image of 50,000 fans streaming in – glitter-daubed faces, some in ubiquitous ‘I Heart MCR’ T-shirts – is accompanied by TV screens showing rolling news coverage of the London terror attack less than 24 hours before. Look in one direction, you see excited teens holding a banner claiming they’ve made a pilgrimage from Gibraltar to see Ariana; look in the other and you view a sobering casualty hotline.
Now 13 days after a suicide bomber attack at her Manchester Arena gig, claiming the lives of 22 people and injuring scores more, Ariana Grande’s benefit show felt like a life-affirming act of defiance – as well as a dignified tribute to those lost. Her manager, Scooter Braun’s, deceleration that One Love would “not only continue, but will do so with greater purpose” seemed to be taken up as a call-of-arms by fans today. The merchandise stall – where all proceeds, like those from ticket sales, have been donated to the Red Cross I Love Manchester appeal which raised over £2m for the bereaved and injured – includes a touching T-shirt of a black ribbon featuring Grande’s signature buddy ears.
Clad in a t-shirt emblazoned with the Manchester worker bee – which has symbolised the city’s resilience in the last few weeks – Orla Rooney arrived at 9am to jockey for a place in the front. “It’s a really nice atmosphere,” observes the 17-year-old. “Everyone in the line has all made friends with each other – we’ve been sharing each other’s food.” Did she worry about her safety in light of last night’s atrocity? “Not really,” she shrugs. “People have told us they’re nervous because of yesterday’s events in London, but the security is so tight here. The street is closed off and everywhere you look, there’s police. I feel safe.”
Some had turned up wearing t-shirts of relatives and friends lost in the attack. Among them was Rachel Carter, in a shirt with a picture of her friend Martyn Hett with the fitting description “ICONIC” underneath it. She knew him; his infectious, luminescent personality meant that millions – including Mariah Carey, and Olly Alexander – felt like they did. “Today has felt surreal but I’m sure it will be lovely,” she says, adding: “He would have loved it.”
Those who were at the arena gig on 22 May were invited to apply for free tickets, and placed in the inner circle in front of the stage. Some were children released from hospital. Wearing a Dangerous Woman tour T-shirt – and ‘We Stand Together’ sticker – Kirsten Anderson was initially hesitant about turning up.”I was worried about about coming because I haven’t been in a crowd…you know, since it happened,” says the 17-year-old from Ashton-under-Lyne. “Today feels half-joyous and half tinged with regret because of the reason it’s happened. It’s hard to describe.” “It’s helping to know how other people have coped with it and realising it’s not the end,” says Danny Levitt, 22, from Barnsley. “Things like this can go on.”
Caution seemed to turn to celebration when Take That blazed forth. It’s music that’s the equivalent of a Hallmark card – usually dismissed as cheesy, but devastatingly potent in times of emotional stock-taking. Just like onstage where moments of bizarre brilliance happened such as Liam Gallagher performing with Chris Martin (previously you’d have thought even António Guterres couldn’t have brokered peace between the pair) or Ariana slow-dancing to Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, in the audience there were moments of spontaneous unbridled euphoria. During Justin Bieber’s set, fans linked arms with police for a Hokey Cokey style dancing ring, while when Martin – who, live, is an effectively puppyish One-Man Campaign Against Cynicism – and Coldplay launch into their well-judged snippet of James’s ‘Sit Down’, fans and paramedics could be spotted sat down in a line recreating the Gap Band’s ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ routine.
Doubtless few could truly grasp the cluster-fuck of emotions Ariana must have gone through; it’s testament to her that she managed to negotiate a difficult high wire act with sensitivity and empathy. At every juncture, she made the show about Manchester, not her. When even human-shaped outrage vending machine Piers Morgan – who you imagine would have cheerfully body-shamed Gandhi had he been around – sings your praises, you haven’t put a heel wrong all night. “When Ariana Grande started crying, it honestly broke me,” says fan Callum Shaw, 18, from Manchester. “Tonight I’ve had the massive realisation that Manchester is one big community – and it’s the best.”
Kudos to Ariana’s family – her brother Frankie and mother Jean – who interacted with fans in the circle, providing words of comfort and selfies.
Counsellors were on-hand to offer support to those who were overwhelmed. As the media strives to highlight the resolve and bravery of those who were at the gig, it’s sometimes easy to forget the very real undertow of PTSD. “I barely eat at the moment, I can’t sleep because I keep replaying what I saw in the foyer,” explains Shannon Dagnall, 20, from Bolton, her face painted with the Manchester worker bee. “It’s not as easy as just saying ‘we won’t let the terrorists beat us’. But this concert has helped me more than I thought it would. It’s a way of working it out. I did cry at one point because there was a big bang when somebody dropped a mic and it scared me but after that, I was fine. It was a good night.”
As has been the case recently with gigs in Manchester, the concert continued long after the acts had disappeared. Walking out of the venue, one side of the stadium united in a roaring version of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (performed earlier by Ariana and Coldplay), while the other was belting out a heartfelt rendition of Robbie Williams’s ‘Strong’, replete with the changed lyric of “Manchester, we’re strong”. Pop music is escapism; at its best, it suggests another way of life is possible. As versions of ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Angels’ echo through the night air, it’s enough to make you forget the masked SWAT teams you pass.
And concentrate on the image of young children being met by parents at the gate – finally experiencing the vertiginous “first gig” high they were denied last month.