It’s taken me a few days now to get to a point where I could write this blog .. or more accurately write a collection of words that tried to explain how I’ve got to this point and how I feel about the selfless actions of somewhere over 1,000 people who gave their own time and effort, to answer a simple question, and to stand, for many, in a strange street, in a strange town, at the same time; to think about and honour two girls they had never met, never would, and had no idea of the slightest thing about them, but knew that at this time and in this place, they simply had to be there for them.
Not wanted to be there, but HAD to be there.
In my whole life, I’ve probably visited the centre of Manchester about half a dozen times. And if I’m honest, I’d have to say my impressions had never been that good.
Many moons ago I was a ‘white van man’, and often ventured into industrial areas and ‘back street’ offices as well as parts of the city centre making deliveries. My lasting memories were of grime, of deprivation and in some cases, the sort of place I certainly wouldn’t want to walk in broad daylight, never mind after dark.
Other than that, my visits to the city centre have been no more than the quick in and out whilst going to a concert at the MEN Arena. And again, my thoughts rarely got out of the negative as wherever I seemed to go; whichever corner I seemed to turn, I was met with visions of a place that was litter strewn; unclean; grubby; past its sell by date
Perhaps I just never had the opportunity to visit the ‘good side’ of town – or maybe I just let my stereotypes win over me. All of that however, changed this week …..
I had, on the 19th September, sent out a tweet, the content of which said “Calling all cars … would you work a day in GMP so their officers can attend funerals for Fiona & Nicola #CoverForGMP”, a simple request which it’s fair to say has changed the perception of the relationship between the Police and Social Media for ever.
The origin of the #CoverForGMP hashtag was, as I have said on numerous times before, not mine. It arrived with me via a tweet from @ResponseSgt, like me, shocked and astounded at what had happened on the streets of Manchester on the 18th September and wondering what we, as fellow police officers could do at this awful time.
And this is what we could do. Get as many police officers into Manchester as was possible. To cover the cars so GMP officers could pay their respects to their fallen officers, and the line the route of the funeral procession, showing the world aloud that British Police Officer’s cared for each other …. completely. The rest really is, as they say, history …
I arrived in the city sometime before 8.00am on Wednesday 3rd October. The funeral of PC Nicola Hughes was not for a good five hours but I wanted to be there as early as possible; to slowly wander around with my own thoughts; to see where everywhere was; to know where everything was going to happen.
To be honest, I was also in panic mode. “What if no-one came”, “What if no-one turned up”, “What if everything had just been that typical online ‘Yes I’ll do it’ when whoever has no intention of keeping their promise”. After all, people retweet all sorts of stuff on Twitter every singe day. Was my ‘Calling all cars …’ message really going to be any different to all the rest ?
I had however convinced myself over the previous two weeks that people would come; that police officers, police staff, members of the other emergency services and member of the general public would want to be there – that they would feel compelled to be drawn to this place, at these times, to stand with hundreds, maybe thousands of complete strangers, possibly in the cold and rain, just to say goodbye to a couple of coppers.
The last few nights had been sleepless. The guys and girls on my shift were starting to say ‘you’re looking tired and stressed’ and were rallying round to do whatever they could (which mainly involved lots of cups of tea), but this was crunch time. What also niggled me was the knowledge that people I had been in contact with here in Greater Manchester Police had also been told by ‘those that know these things’ that it wasn’t going to happen, a couple of hundred local police might turn up, but this Twitter thing was just a myth, Luckily, my contacts also had faith.
I walked up from the old Boddington’s car park, past the MEN, one of the few places in this city I had ever seen before – there’s a bloomin’ great railway station next door you know, but I’ve never even noticed that until this day !!
Something WAS different this morning. The sun was shining down upon us in the chill of the morning air as I walked along, towards the front of Manchester Cathedral, and then onwards towards Deansgate and the hotel where I was due to meet the people from GMP Federation in a couple of hours time.
The place looked cleaner, brighter, more vibrant. Could me previous impressions of this city really have been so wrong. Was it right that I was thinking of this place in such a positive light, bearing in might what was to come over the next two days ?
TV outside broadcast vans were everywhere. I saw the familiar faces of more than one national TV reporter milling around; talking to their crews; working out where their best location would be.
I caught sight of Ian Hanson, the GMP Federation Chairman, being interviewed by the BBC in front of a satellite truck, doing a piece on the days forthcoming events for the breakfast news. I didn’t want to wander over and introduce myself there and then – he was busy.
Above this I knew that the BBC and others knew I was there, and I knew they were very keen to find out who I was, and try and get some sort of comment or interview about the whole #CoverForGMP effort. Much as I would probably have loved to shout from the rooftops about how amazingly great the whole British police service and others had been about supporting #CoverForGMP, that needed to be left to somebody else.
I’d been pre-warned about being careful who I spoke to or who I knew that was there who might accidentally slip out the wrong thing for fear of being ‘outed’. It really was a bizarre scenario during an awful set of circumstances – almost having to sneak around like a naughty child for fear of being caught.
As I walked on, there seemed to be hardly anyone else around. And then, an elderly lady walked towards me. Directly over to me. And spoke. “It’s a horrible thing you having to come here today, not everyone in Manchester is like that you know” she said. At this time I was dressed, not in tunic and helmet, but in an open necked white shirt with an old nondescript green fleece over the top and yes, my uniform trousers and boots. But she knew I was a copper, and just wanted to welcome a stranger into her town.
And so it carried on as I walked past the Cathedral and wandered slowly along Deansgate, catching glimpses of the Arndale Centre, passing Harvey Nics, working out where that horrible previous atrocity, the IRA bombing had happened. As I stopped to take in the sights around me, and even when I hadn’t stopped, people spoke, they thanked me for coming, as I’m sure they thanked every single other police officer they saw that morning.
I still had much time to spend before my arranged meeting with the GMP Fed people so wandered further down Deansgate, idly nosing in shop windows as I passed. There were a few bobbies about, but not many. The ones I saw were all kitted in ‘normal’ street uniform so I rationed that they were the normal shift strength. Again the panic started to happen. “No one’s going to come” I thought.
But I had little time to think anything else as I glanced and saw a chap approaching me through the corner of my eye. The guy was different to those who had stopped and spoken to me in the previous minutes – this was a guy with a purpose, and a guy with the tattoos to match …
And so that was how I came to be stood with one of Manchester’s most illustrious characters. Was he a wanted man ? – very probably, but I had no way of checking. Was he, for want of a better phrase, a ‘career criminal’ ? – most definitely. he was certainly the sort of chap I wouldn’t want to come across working the Public Order shift on a Friday night.
He came towards me with the obligatory ‘swagger’ – arms braced to the sides in the standard cavemen style; no doubt the effect of many too many steroids on the human body.
“Mate” he said. ‘I doubt it’ I thought. “Listen, I got no time for your lot; wouldn’t bother to take a few of you out but what he did was wrong, proper wrong. It won’t happen again trust me”.
That was the obligatory toned down with all the expletives removed version of what he said, but the sentiment is there. Quite plainly, he was making sure we knew that those that ‘professionally’ spend much of their life on the wrong side of the law, were equally as shocked at what has happened as we were.
And the “It won’t happen again” ?? – there was something in the way he said it that made me believe him. Or at least want to believe him.
And so it continued. People stopped to ask questions “Where are you from ?”, “How long did it take to get here”, “Did you know the officers that were killed ?”, and so on … Almost without exception, people thanked us all for taking the time and effort to come to their city on this very sad occasion.
There still didn’t seem to be too many obvious officers in uniform about as I made my way to the hotel where the Federation had based themselves, but after a short discussion with the Fed Reps and fellow Twitterer @NathanConstable, I stepped back outside to a sight that I simply could not believe. In less than 30 minutes, Deansgate had gone from a bustling city centre thoroughfare, to the beginnings of a long, almost silent line of black uniforms on both sides of the road; already reaching from the entrance to the Cathedral for several hundred metres.
Along the length of Deansgate, police officers in bright yellow fluorescent jackets stood at regular intervals; the ‘#CoverForGMP officers, who had been nominated, two from each police force around the country, to represent their forces at these solemn occasions, and offer the ‘symbolic’ aid to Greater Manchester Police that the original tweets had requested.
I had arranged to meet some friends travelling in by train at Victoria Station, so quickly I made my way back through the increasing numbers of smartly dressed; for those that had managed to beg, borrow or otherwise acquire, tunics were the order of the day, boots were polished and trousers pressed; coppers were walking from all directions towards the Cathedral area.
At the railway station a train had just arrived. Almost without exception, every person that got off that train was in uniform; I saw police, ambulance, prison service and probably a few others I didn’t recognise, but they were all here for one thing – to #CoverForGMP.
I met my friends, and we walked back, amongst the growing numbers towards the Cathedral and Deansgate. And with every passing minute, the numbers grew. From every possible direction, not one, not two, but groups of uniformed people walked sombrely along the line until they reached the end where, without direction or consultation from above, they simply took their place.
And of course, it wasn’t just the uniformed services. Hundreds of members of the public had also joined the lines; united in grief and wanting to pay their respects to the memories of two young ladies who had given their lives trying to make those of the people of Manchester just that little bit easier.
And then the silence fell.
A normally busy, bustling metropolitan centre of commerce fell quiet. And I don’t mean a reduction in the everyday noise around you; the roar of engines, the music blaring from the shops; the people engrossed in conversation as they hurried along, too busy to notice what was going on three feet away.
This was different. Everyone had stopped. The traffic had stopped. The shops had stopped. The offices had stopped. There was no noise.
Until, from a distance, a strange ‘tapping sound’ could be heard. It was out of sight for those of us near to the Cathedral, and so not immediately identifiable as to what the source of the noise was. But no one moved. No one left their place.
And then, moments later, the first sight of what was to follow became apparent. Two riders from the Greater Manchester Mounted Division rode their horses, slowly but purposefully, along the length of the street. The strange noise we had all heard being the echoing sound of horseshoes on tarmac. But that really was the only sound that could be heard !
The whole scenario was surreal. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, as I’m sure they did for every single other person present. The tolling of a single Cathedral bell followed. Slowly. Rhythmically. In sorrow.
And then the sounds again of horseshoes on tarmac. Only this time, behind the mounted officers followed a hearse. The carriage carrying PC Nicola Hughes on her final journey.
Along the line, which now stretched further, much further than I could see, heads bowed in respect. As the funeral cortege passed, flowers were thrown; flowers handed out on the spur of the moment by a local store. And the public clapped. The public showed their appreciation by sending our fallen colleague off with a round of applause for a beat well walked.
And so, as the coffin carrying PC Nicola Hughes was carried, by her colleagues, into the Cathedral, the line of people outside, made their way, still almost silently, to the Cathedral Gardens, where the service was relayed via a large screen, allowing many more people to take an active part in the service being carried on inside.
And shortly before the service drew to an end, whispers began to ripple through the amassed crowds. Tunics were tugged and beckoning fingers called. Again, there had been no formal or official call, but everyone present knew what needed to be done.
As the committal took place within the Cathedral, those of us outside again filed into line, this time to provide a guard of honour as for the final time, Nicola left the city centre to be carried away to places new.
The rest of the afternoon became a bit of a blur. A reception was held at GMP Headquarters for all the officers that had travelled from around the country to assist on the day. I was also, honoured to be invited back, and introduced to many of the senior personnel present. It was a chance for me to thank the Senior ranks for the support they had given to the idea of #CoverForGMP and progressing our ideas into a workable, manageable format with the necessary dignity of the occasion, and also for the same senior officers to offer their gratitude for the support they had received from around the UK.
The next morning, Thursday 4th October, I returned again to the streets of Manchester City Centre. I had arranged to meet up with a fellow blogger @TheCustodySgt. We met on a strange street corner, in a town where neither of us lived or worked, but with a common purpose – to stand together and support the people of Manchester through the second of two of their darkest days.
But this morning, we managed to find humour together in all the sadness. This in no way detracted from the respect due, but n the way that police officers throughout the land learn to cope with the worst that life can throw at us, we know either to laugh or we will cry.
As the crowds gathered once again, and the not-so-thin-for-a-change blue line began once more to snake its way along both sides of Deansgate, we did our best to find and thank as many of our online followers as we could. To thank people for their support, and for making, in some cases, a considerable journey (my phone had started beeping at 4.30am with messages from people saying ‘We’re on the way, just leaving Swindon’ and the like !).
What people must have thought of these two, uniform clad bobbies, frantically tapping away at mobile phone screens, darting up and down the line, and waving mysteriously in the air I’ll never know.
Twitter conversations like “Where Are You”, “I’m by the Orange Sign”, “Can’t see you do a jig or something” and “Go stand by that big round pink thing” only served to break the ice and bring an already close police family that little bit even closer together.
But then the single bell began to toll again and everything came to a standstill once more. For the second day, Manchester became like a scene from one of those ‘Day After’ movies where nothing had survived; where nothing dared move; there was nothing but the silence itself.
And then …. again …. the tapping noise from afar. Even though this time I knew what it meant, it made it none the less a haunting sound.
And again, for the second day in a row, the only movement on Deansgate was that of a serial of mounted police officers, slowly but gracefully making their way along the street, again leading the unmistakeable sight of a black hearse carrying a fallen police officer, PC Fiona Bone, one one last patrol through the city centre of Manchester as she made her way to the Cathedral for a service to remember her life, cut short so violently.
And again, the heads of those lining the street; police and public alike, bowed in unison as the funeral procession made its way slowly past. And as again, Fiona was carried, by her colleagues, into the Cathedral, the sombre line of mourners from within the city and beyond, made their way once more to the Cathedral Gardens where they could take their part in the service being conducted within.
The sight of many hundreds of people from all walks of life, young and old, stood together in quiet reflection was a humbling one, which will stay with me for a very long time. And when Iona Fisher started to sing Ave Maria, I was not the only person there to shed more than a few tears. There was no embarrassment, as many wept together and stood together, proud. Proud to be there to support friends, family, colleagues and the good people of Manchester in their time of need.
As for the last time, the combined ranks of people lined the route to say their final farewell to Fiona as she left the Cathedral ready for a more private, secluded family service, I looked around me, and saw that amongst hundreds of complete strangers, I had suddenly gained the same number of new friends.
As people began to disperse, and go their separate ways, @TheCustodySgt and myself still had more to do, more people to say thank you to. Most notably, PC Amie Holland, who’s heartfelt poem had become a centrepiece of #CoverForGMP and who it was our honour and privilege to shake the hand of.
And then, joined by yet another fellow Tweeter, @SirIanBlair, we met up with one of Fiona’s colleagues and sat and talked in a local coffee shop. It was then I think we realised that things weren’t over and there was more we had to do.
Making the walk back to the car park with @SirIanBlair after this meeting seemed like the longest journey I’ve ever made. The thoughts going through my mind just would not stop. The culmination of two weeks preparations to support our GMP colleagues and the families of Nicola and Fiona had worked – against the odds, they had worked.
And when I finally sat down in my car and relaxed for a moment, the enormity of everything seemed to crash down on me like a flood. I’m not ashamed to say that I sat for twenty minute or more with tears streaming down my face. The sorrow I’d built up over the previous days had finally allowed itself to be released.
And so I made the journey home, alone, with only my thoughts for company; my thoughts that I hoped the families of the two murdered officers wouldn’t think that we had gone ‘overboard’; that we had only done all this for our own personal benefit, whatever that may be. But I don’t think they did. At least I hope they didn’t.
#CoverForGMP came to fruition as a unique idea brought about by a unique set of circumstances at a particular moment in time.
Could it be repeated ? Who knows. It is of course our lasting wish that no family ever again has to go through the pain and torment that now faces the relatives of Fiona and Nicola, but history suggests that someone, somewhere, sometime, will have to do just that.
And if again, the wider police family can help and support those in their time of grief, then yes we should, or rather, yes we must, for that is our duty.