Louise Bolotin lives in Granby House, the city centre building where the Manchester bomber built his devastating device. Here she describes the police raid on her home and why she refuses to be cowed by the events in Manchester last week.
A year ago I stood in the pouring rain in the middle of Etihad stadium, my partner Adrian by my side, watching Bruce Springsteen perform. It was a gig full of joy – for us, for the other 60,000 fans and The Boss himself, the giant screens showing his beatific expression as his fingers flew over the frets of his guitar. The rain was irrelevant, the music exciting.
We were near the front, only one row back from an internal barrier that had been created with walkways for Bruce (he likes to get right into the crowd). Just on the other side of the fence was a young security guard in a hi-viz jacket, facing away from the stage, looking into the crowd behind us. Every so often he would squint, his expression puzzled, as if he wasn’t sure if he was seeing something problematic or not. Adrian noticed this too. Afterwards, as we walked back into the city centre, I told Adrian I’d been nervous every time I saw the guard squinting past us – someone could be in the crowd with a bomb. We imagined the carnage and remembered the perfunctory security on entering the stadium. I’d been asked to open my bag but not my overcoat.
Adrian and I go to live music a lot. I began my career as a music journalist in the 1970s, reviewing gigs and interviewing the punk bands of the day. Forty years on, live music is still my preferred entertainment and I probably go to around 50 or 60 gigs a year. After the Springsteen gig I continued to be troubled about a large stadium event being targeted and discussed it with Adrian regularly.
I felt safe though. It seemed there was no actual threat and I was just being unnecessarily anxious. So as we headed to bed last Monday night and saw the headlines about the unfolding horror at the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, it felt like my worst nightmare come true. I realised that could have been me – not at this particular gig, but at any gig, at any of Manchester’s many music venues. Me on my own, me with Adrian, me with friends. We read the developing news with horror and pain, as did many Mancunians. We didn’t sleep well – we knew that the death toll was likely to rise overnight and, sure enough, Tuesday morning’s headlines announced the dead now totalled 22.
In the evening we joined 10,000 people at the vigil in Albert Square for what turned out to be an incredibly moving and cathartic service after a day spent in tears and disbelief. Having Longfella, aka Tony Walsh, on the platform to perform This Is The Place, his iconic poem about our amazing city, was inspired. He struck exactly the right note. As people drifted away in the warm evening sunshine afterwards, we decided to eat out, have a few drinks and help show Manchester was still open – for business and fun. That’s what Manchester does.
But there was more horror to come. As I worked from home next morning, half an eye on the rolling news on Sky, the fire alarm went off in my block of flats. I listened to it for a bit, trying to decide if it was one of the regular false alarms. But 90 seconds in it was still ringing so I grabbed my phone and jacket and ran down six flights of stairs to exit the building. As I reached the front door of the now globally notorious Granby House, I struggled to understand why I was seeing an armed police officer clad in helmet, face mask and a large and scary sub-machine gun instead of the fire brigade or the caretaker. Somehow I managed to squeak “What’s happening?” and he barked back “Operations. OUT!”
Out on the street and around than a dozen of my neighbours trickled behind me. Most residents were at work or university. I suddenly twigged I was witnessing a live raid by an anti-terrorism unit and my reporter instincts kicked in. I shot a few pics of the action on my phone – armed police, military in camo shirts, UK Special Forces wielding jammer packs and other electronic kit. And everywhere more guns. Big, frightening sub-machine guns.
A neighbour told me that number 39, currently rented out Airbnb style, was the focus of the raid. I realised the fire alarm had been triggered when they blasted their way into that flat. I wondered what the hell had been going on in my beloved home.
As the first journalist on the scene and also a resident, I found myself becoming the story as the world’s media picked up my tweets and raced across town from the Arena to Granby House. I gave interviews to global TV, local radio and briefed a few colleagues from the newspapers too. And then exhaustion kicked in. My emotions started to surface but I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. I refused to talk to any more journalists and desperately wanted to go home. I had no money on me, my phone battery was fading fast and I realised I’d just been broadcast in dozens of countries without having even put a brush through my hair, never mind made up my face.
It was four hours before Granby House’s residents were allowed back in the building. I wanted to cry but instead tried to process the news that the bomb-maker had hired number 39 as a safe house to build his deadly device and that Salman Abedi had been in the flat at 7pm last Monday to collect it before heading to the Arena to commit mass murder. I didn’t get blown up at Springsteen’s gig, but I could have been in the place that is supposed to be your refuge – my home.
Somehow I have stayed buoyant. Buoyant because Mancunians are the best of the best and in the face of disaster and butchery have done amazing things: people opened their homes to concert-goers stranded after the attack, cabbies gave free lifts to anyone who needed them, hotel staff took in children who’d become separated from their parents.
It is acts like these that make me proud to call Manchester my home. And every time I’ve felt despair over the horrors of the Granby bomb-making factory, I remind myself that we – Mancunians – are many. The terrorists are few. We stand together and Manchester will emerge the stronger for this attack on us and our warm, welcoming and inclusive city.
Words and photos by Louise Bolotin