Twenty years ago, I was working for a firm of Solicitors in Prestwich, North Manchester. Surprisingly, I found that I could get from there to Old Trafford in just over twenty minutes, giving me time to get to the Ticket Office and back in my lunch hour. It was a Wednesday, and I was on my way over there to buy a ticket for some game, probably the FA Cup.
The radio was on. There were news bulletins coming through from a school in Scotland, a school where children had been held hostage by an armed man. Details were sketchy, they were only just ceasing to become rumours, but children had been shot, primary school children. Over here. I completed my drive with a cold feeling, got my ticket, drove back. Children were dead in a school in Dunblane. I broke the news in the office.
Twenty years ago today I was in that car.
Hiding under a desk in that school, held by his older brother Jamie, was a little boy named Andy Murray. Some people have criticised him for being grumpy: once I learned about his background, as far as I’m concerned he has a free pass for life.
The older I get, the easier I find tears coming at moments of pain, moments of horror and great disturbance, moments that make you question the very people around you, that you share existence with the kind of person who can do that. I won’t name him: suffice to say that if you are right and there is a God and a Heaven, a thing that I find called into the deepest question by the very fact of what he did, then the torments of Hell are the least that he deserves.
Nine months later, a charity single was recorded by local musicians, calling themselves Dunblane. Mark Knopfler guested on guitar, children whose brothers and sisters had died sung on its chorus. They chose Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ and Dylan authorised Ted Christopher to write an additional verse for this version. There was some muted criticism of the single, and truth to tell, the performance was not greatly distinctive.
The week before it was due to be released, it was premiered on Top of the Pops. I had long since abandoned watching the programme, but I put it on that night, a dark December evening, the alcove lights on, a stillness in the studio as the band began to sing. Like I said, they weren’t especial musicians, or singers, but the tears began to pour down my face because they were singing from a place I have never been and which I devoutly hope I will never have to go.
There was no applause. Instead, there was a light, plaintive acoustic guitar at the end, and the cameras turned to another stage, a young man singing a beautiful, unbelievably fitting song, with a yearning chorus of ‘Child, sweet child’ and the tears kept pouring.
I didn’t know what this was. For all I knew it could have been a part of the charity single, some unexpected long coda, a purer and more direct tribute. In fact, it was ages after that I learned that it was all coincidence, a segue that might have seemed mawkish if I’d understood what it was, which was Mark Owen, formerly of Take That, singing his first solo single, which had entered the chart that week at no. 3. In my ignorance, it was all one thing and it went through me like a hollowing pain.
I have never heard the Mark Owen song again.
Twenty years isn’t enough to forget. I keep away from such memories: there have only been too many more of moments when I’ve found the world too much to bear in stoic silence. A news story on a car radio, driving to buy a football ticket. We won the Double Double that year, and I celebrated loud and hard. But grief is always mixed in with what I recall of that year.