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Murder in Manchester?

The British Isles were the scene of one of the most important periods in human history: the Industrial Revolution, when clever inventors created machines that could weave, pump water, hammer iron and do many other things with much greater speed, power and precision than the humans or animals who used to do those jobs.

But it wasn’t just machines that were essential in the Industrial Revolution: so was transport. It’s little use making goods faster and cheaper if there’s no way to get them to your customers. And you can’t make goods in the first place if you can’t get the raw materials. Today we have a rail network and a good system of smooth, hard-surfaced roads to transport goods and raw materials. When the Industrial Revolution began, there were no railways and roads were slow and unreliable. So another form of transport became important: canals. A vast network of them was built to link manufacturers, suppliers and customers.

Those canals are still with us, but today they’re important for recreation, not for industry and transport. They provide a haven for wildlife and a good place for people to walk, fish, sail boats and get back in touch with nature. Great industrial cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield have many miles of canals, and countless people visit them every year. But is something sinister happening on the canals of another great industrial city? In recent years, there have been rumours that a serial killer is at work in Manchester. But he uses an unusual method of dispatching his victims: he pushes them into the canal that runs through Manchester city centre.

That’s where he gets his nickname: The Pusher. It might sound like a joke, and some people do treat it like that, but there’s something serious behind the story. In the past few years, nearly a hundred people have drowned in the canal or in one of the other waterways that run through the Manchester area. That is a lot of drownings and every one represents a bereaved family and a life cut short, in some cases by many years. One student who died was only 18; another was only 21. They were young and fit, so how did they end up drowning in the calm water of a canal? Something suspicious must be going on, mustn’t it?

Not according to the police in Manchester. The important question is whether there’s anything unusual in the statistics: are more people drowning than you would expect? After all, there are millions of people in the Manchester area and accidents are happening all the time. Even young fit people can drown if they accidentally fall into deep water when they’re drunk or under the influence of drugs. The police don’t think the number of deaths is suspicious, given the size of Manchester and the number of waterways that run through it. And if a serial killer is at work, pushing unsuspecting people into the water, why haven’t survivors of his attacks come forward?

It seems, then, that The Pusher may just be an urban legend, even though some of the deaths may be due to mugging or other violent crime. But the mere existence of the story says something important and interesting about human psychology. Death is both disturbing and fascinating to us, particularly when it happens in an unusual or unexpected way. A family that suddenly loses a loved one by drowning is naturally reluctant to think that it might have been only an unlucky accident or that the loved one was incapacitated by drink or drugs. It seems meaningless and futile for someone to die like that. But if someone has died at the hands of a serial killer, there is a meaning, even if it’s a dark one. There’s also a chance to do something in response: bring the killer to justice and stop him destroying any more lives.

Whatever the truth about the drownings in Manchester, there was one consolation for the bereaved families. Their loved ones didn’t disappear, which meant that they could say goodbye at a funeral. It is a sad and terrible thing to lose someone and have no chance to bury or cremate them in the proper way and with the proper ceremony. Funerals are a way to restore dignity and calm after the often ugly and random way in which our loved ones are taken from us. That’s why the funeral business provides an essential service to countless people every year. Dozens of drownings in Manchester might seem a lot, but many thousands of people die in Britain every year. The funeral business has to be there not just to put the dead to rest, but also to help grieving friends and relatives find consolation and begin their return to normal life.