It was the headline in The New York Times that finally brought the situation home to me. ‘UK Terror Attack.’ A phrase I’d heard plenty of times before. The London bombings of 7/7. Manchester. The nail-bomb in the bar of the Admiral Duncan in Soho. This one is different. This one strikes closer to home.
On Saturday 20th June, the eve of summer solstice, an individual who will remain un-named here walked into Forbury Gardens, the park in the centre of Reading, screamed something incomprehensible and began attacking people. As a result of his actions, three people are dead.
I find it difficult even now to describe the sick horror I felt as the news unfolded live on social networks. From the reports of police and air ambulance at the scene, to speculation as to the motives of the killer, to video unwisely and unthoughtfully shared. This would have been wrong anywhere. But it happened in my home town, in a place I know well. A place where people always gathered to enjoy a little quiet time in a peaceful green space.
How are you supposed to react when violence descends so suddenly? Anger, sadness, despair, helplessness—all of these are valid in the face of an act most of us would consider to be unthinkable. I went through the lot in the hours after the unnamed individual was arrested. We hear terrible news every day. Death in every costume is a part of the news cycle. We scroll through it and move on. It’s part of the pattern of modern life.
Then something happens in a local park and you can’t just scroll past. The pattern disrupts. The sense of order slides to the side and away from you. The place where you hung with friends in hazy summer sunshine is a crime scene—worse, the site of terrorist action. How do you find a way back from that?
Short answer—one day at a time, one step at a time. Right now, the people of Reading are grieving. We have lost people, friends and family. We’re in the news for all the wrong reasons. Today, we’re not the quiet, slightly eccentric Thames Valley town with the music festival and the reputation for biscuits. We’re a place of interest, somewhere of which Questions Are Being Asked and Lessons Are Being Learnt. There are, gods help us, agendas in play. Strange, flawed lenses are directed our way now, and the image they project is not one of a place I easily recognize.
Because this is my town. I wasn’t born here, I don’t have the burred Reddin’ accent. But I view it as my home, more so than I ever did of the corner of East London where I was born. It feels right to me, and has done since TLC and I first drove here to look at houses in 2004. We stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn just over Caversham Bridge. We had a drink at the Fox and Hounds back across Christchurch Meadows, my first beer in Reading. We have made friends and a life here.
I know my town. And I know how strong the people who live here can be. I already see the evidence, as we quietly come together (as best we can in these skewed, uncertain times) to find comfort and strength against a terrible moment, a mark in our calendar we will remember in our own way.
We have a symbol now, a muster point to gather when the time is right. Of course, it’s in Forbury Gardens, because no fucker takes that from us. The Maiwand Lion, that absurd and magnificent statue roaring at the world, has become the image of our stance against violence and terror. And of our town. The biggest in the country. Our warm and welcoming town. In Canada they call it the center of the world, because all the trains seem to come through us. That makes me smile, because in a way it’s true. The world comes through us, and some of it stays behind, adding another hint of colour. That’s part of our strength too.
All my heart goes out to the victims of Saturday’s awful events. I know nothing I can say can help, but I stand with you. For the rest of us, to my town, I know we have the spirit and character to mourn and carry this with us, to make it part of who are and what we stand for. The sun is still out, and we will soon be back in Forbury Gardens, every one of us a lion.
It would be a failure on my part not to include a link to the most thoughtful and nuanced piece on the events I’ve read to date. It’s a very Reading thing that it comes from a writer better known for snarky local pub reviews and general shit-stirring.
Correction: an earlier version of this post noted New Zealand considered Reading to be the centre of the world. According to our commentator ClareVision, it is Canada that views us as the UK transport hub. We apologise for the misinformation.