The life and death of Manchester Arena bombing victim Martyn Hett

Martyn Hett

Martyn Hett – a young man with so much to live for - Credit: Figen Murray

An ITV documentary, Worlds Collide: The Manchester Bombing, tells the story of the night terrorist Salman Abedi detonated a device killing 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert. Since the tragedy, the mother of Martyn Hett, one of those who died has dedicated her life to working with counter-terrorism organisations, talking to schoolchildren about safety and radicalisation, and campaigning for new laws on security in public places.

Mother and son: Figen Murray and Martyn Hett

Mother and son withy a special bond: Figen Murray and Martyn Hett - Credit: Figen Murray

This is her story

What do you say about a 29-year-old man who died? That he was beautiful. And brilliant. 
That he loved Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande and Coronation Street. And his family and friends and colleagues. And his mum. 

The young man was Martyn Hett. His mum, Figen Murray – wife, mother, grandmother. Campaigner and international voice on security and counter-terrorism. 
The Ariana Grande connection? The singer’s Manchester Arena concert, on Monday, May 22, 2017, where Martyn Hett lost his life. 

It was a life experienced to the full; one on the cusp of even bigger adventures. This month, almost five years after the atrocity when 22 concert-goers died and more than 1,000 were injured, Martyn Hett’s legacy lives on through his mother and her tireless campaigning: work that is influencing security and counter-terrorism strategies on a global scale. 

Figen’s achievements – what she describes as her duties to her son – include a master’s degree in counter-terrorism, her talks to thousands of schoolchildren about the effects of radicalisation, an OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours and a place in the statute book.  

Martyn’s Law, aimed at introducing a legal requirement for some public places to ensure preparedness for and protection from terrorist attacks, is expected to become part of the government’s Protect Duty legislation.

From September 7, 2020 to January 2022, Figen spent up to three days a week at Manchester Magistrates’ Court – less than a mile away from Manchester Arena – listening and giving evidence to the public inquiry into the bombing.

‘It was very arduous, very traumatic at times, but it was important because it was my last duty to Martyn – to hear what happened, how he died, everything that went wrong – and the inquiry made me realise there is so much work to be done out there with Martyn’s Law,’ she says.
That innate sense of responsibility to her second-born ‘chaotic’ child Martyn began on December 15, 1987. 

‘Martyn was one of a kind from the start,’ says Figen. His brother, Daniel (born two years earlier), was very well behaved, slept well and was easy to look after. Martyn was a different kettle of fish, altogether chaotic from start.

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‘He was the boy who always tried that very high slide; always the daredevil who went on all rides at an amusement park. Always the spokesperson, always standing up for the underdog and always befriending the people no one else wanted to befriend. He was a very kind soul but incredibly funny also.’

Figen’s relationship with the second eldest of her family of two boys and three girls – she counts her second husband’s daughter, Emma, as her own – was, and still is, a ceaseless commitment. Martyn would suffer sporadic bouts of depression; he could be disorganised and always high-maintenance, says Figen.

He was convinced he would die before the age of 30. ‘I was always there for him but he was always there for me as well. If there were any family squabbles I would ring him, sometimes in tears, and by the end of the phone call, we were always laughing. He had a good way of cheering me up; we were very similar personality-wise.

‘At 16 he came out. It was the summer holidays and one day he said: “Mum, can I talk to you about something?” We made a cup of tea, sat down and he started to shake and said: “I’m scared. I don’t know how you are going to react,” and I said: “Don’t worry, Martyn, I’ll tell you what you are going to tell me. 

You are going to tell me you are gay. I’ve known since you were about seven or eight.”
‘Throughout his childhood he loved dance; he was constantly performing and putting little shows together for us and visitors. He loved dressing up. He was full of joy and life-embracing, and as he got older, he developed the most incredible sense of humour. He was also very talented. He started a choir at his high school – Priestnall in Heaton Mersey. He played the clarinet, and piano to grade 8.’

Martyn grew up at the family home in Heaton Moor, Stockport, with his mother, stepfather Stuart Murray, brother Daniel Hett, stepsister Emma Murray and sisters, Louise and Nikita Murray. ‘They are a very close set of siblings,’ says Figen. ‘Emma was only six months younger than Martyn, so they were always in the same class and the same friendship circle, and were often mistaken for twins. They were inseparable and always looked out for each other.’

After school, Martyn started university in Liverpool. He quit the first course, then started another, which lasted six weeks. Eventually he left Liverpool for London and a media studies course. ‘From 18 he suffered occasionally from depression and he always came to me for support. He always confided in me; we had a very close relationship.’ 

'During his last year studying in London, Martyn decided he needed to come home and moved into a flat owned by his stepfather and mother in Heaton Moor. Figen says: ‘It worked well because he kept his independence and he was close enough for us to look after him. But his depression worsened and his university work slid to the point where Martyn was told, after several extensions, that unless he completed his dissertation, he would fail the course in a month.’

At the time, Figen was working from the family home in her private practice as a therapist. Over the next month, she would drop off her younger children at school, pick up Martyn from his flat and sit him down at the kitchen table with his university notes. ‘In between each client I would go into the kitchen and say “just write something, anything...” I literally dragged him through that dissertation. But he finished it and passed. It was a really hard month but we got through it together.’

Martyn then got a job as digital manager at Rumpus PR in Altrincham. ‘He loved it there; loved his two bosses and his colleagues,’ says Figen. ‘He would organise the music for the office – from September he would play Christmas music to tease everybody.  
‘When important clients were due in the office Martyn would arrive in shorts and a tight T-shirt and sunglasses, which certainly wouldn’t have gone down well in the meeting. Then he would go and get changed into a suit and look very respectable.

‘After his death, we had to go and collect his things from his work and he had a toothbrush there, and all the lotions and potions he needed to look the part 
and not let his bosses down. That was a difficult thing for us to do.’

Martyn’s death came two days before he was due to take two months off work to go on his holiday of a lifetime, travelling across the United States and stopping off to see people he had met through his prolific social media channels. The family said goodbye at a leaving party on May 20 at the family home, which Stuart and Figen had just sold ready for a move into Cheshire.

Martyn Hett and his family

The last picture of Martyn and his family, taken two days before he died in the Manchester Arena bombing - Credit: Figen Murray

‘Because we were going to be in the new house by the time Martyn would have returned from the States, we all got together and we took a picture together outside the old house. Unbeknown to us it was the last family photo. As he was leaving, he gave us all a hug and then he got out of the taxi again and went up to my husband – his stepfather – with whom he had a really close relationship and gave him another hug, and said he just wanted to do it again.

'Stuart said it was almost as if he knew it would be the last time. ‘I saw Martyn for the final time the next morning (May 21) when we went to buy supplies for his cat, Emily Bishop (named after a character in Martyn’s beloved Coronation Street). His ashes are here in my office at home, says Figen. ‘Next to a smaller urn for the ashes of Emily Bishop, who died exactly three weeks after he died.’

‘Martyn was hoping for a promotion when he came back from his trip and he said: “Mum, I think it is time I became a property owner, do you think you and Stuart would sell me the flat?” I kissed him goodbye that Sunday morning and said, “see you Wednesday,” when I was taking him to the airport. Of course, that never happened. He died on the 22nd. On the 24th he would have gone to America.

‘We found funeral arrangements on Martyn’s laptop. He always said he was going to die young, and that he was going to have a spectacular death and was not going to see his 30th birthday. He died when he was 29 and a half. It has left a massive Martyn-shaped hole in all our lives.’

On the night of the Ariana Grande concert, Figen had gone to bed early after a busy day with clients and was only woken when her daughter, Louise, who was watching the news unfold on television, came into the bedroom to look at her mother’s phone to see if there were any messages from Martyn.

‘I didn’t even know who Ariana Grande was, I didn’t know Martyn was going to the concert, I assumed he was at home packing,’ she says. ‘Louise woke me, messing with my phone to see if Martyn had called me because his friends were messaging her. She was reluctant to say but told me he had gone with around 12 friends and there had been an explosion.

'I flew downstairs and the news was all over the television. I said to Stuart that Martyn was there with his mates and my husband said: “Figen, that’s a big arena, he will have left and be in the gay village enjoying himself. He will ring you in the morning.”
‘Louise and I stayed up to watch television and his friends were constantly calling and crying and worried, and I was trying to pacify them. I kept ringing his phone but, of course, he didn’t answer. When they found it, there were 30 to 40 calls from me...

'The bombing happened at 10.31pm and at 11.15pm I had the strangest feeling and turned to Louise and said: “You know what, Louise, he’s gone.” She was horrified. 
I had a sense of nothingness; I had a feeling that someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut him off; that he wasn’t even on the planet. And very sadly, 
24 hours later, we were told it was true.’

Martyn had been in the foyer at the arena when the bomb was detonated. He had gone to get drinks and stopped to talk with other concert-goers. By the time he tried to get back into the main hall, the concert was drawing to an end and other people were leaving so he was asked to stay in the reception area, where minutes later the bomb exploded.

Martyn’s funeral and the memorial service for the victims were attended by members of the cast and crew of Coronation Street – something the avid Corrie fan, who had a full-colour tattoo of Deirdre on his leg, would have loved, says Figen.

‘He was a massive Coronation Street follower and loved Deirdre. When Anne Kirkbride, the actress who played her, passed away, Martyn said it was like losing a favourite aunt. A lot of the cast knew him personally and at his funeral I had to apologise to Helen Worth, who plays Gail, and warn her that her face was on the side of Martyn’s coffin. Martyn was a big fan of female personalities and divas, so we had a full-size picture of Mariah Carey on the coffin lid and all around the sides we had other pictures, including Helen Worth.’

In the first few weeks after the tragedy, Figen’s home was busy with visits from family, friends, undertakers and the media. ‘About three weeks after the attack my relatives went back home, the newspapers finally stopped coming, my husband went back to 
work, the kids to school and uni, and I found myself on my own,’ says Figen.

Two newspaper photographs then changed the course of Figen Murray’s bereavement. One was of the Manchester bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi; the other of an incident at the Finsbury Mosque, showing five men, including the Imam, protecting Darren Osborne, who had driven a van into pedestrians. The Imam prevented the crowd from beating the terrorist and was commended by the judge at Osborne’s trial for choosing to respond to evil with good.

Figen Murray

Figen Murray with her peace bears - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

‘When I saw the photo of the arena bomber for the first time I froze, and then thought, “gee, you are so young, why would such a young person throw his life away, why would you do that, you stupid, foolish boy”. After I saw the Finsbury picture, I thought about it all day and when my husband came home that evening, I said I wanted to go on national TV and to forgive the Manchester terrorist.

‘Somebody had to break the circle of hatred and anger and calm the situation down. My husband thought I was mad but I did it anyway. I got a bit of trolling on Twitter but I strongly believe anger and bitterness don’t solve problems like terrorism, they just make things worse. I felt I needed to work towards a better world, so not for a single moment have I been angry about what happened.

'Often, when I go into schools to talk, I say 23 people died that night, 22 of them were murdered, 23 of them lost their lives, because I don’t feel that terrorists are born as terrorists and therefore the forgiveness element is really important to me.’

Despite her time attending the public inquiry and the constraints imposed by the pandemic, Figen has reached about 14,000 young people across the country with her talks. This year she aims to increase that figure to 100,000. ‘Wherever schools want me, I go,’ she says.  

The master’s degree came about because she wanted a greater understanding of terrorism and the motivations behind it. 
‘Until the attack happened, I was totally oblivious to terrorism, ignorant to it. I thought that sort of thing didn’t happen in my world and it made me want to know more: what motivates people to do it, what is the ideology, is it a social problem and the big question was: do I have Martyn’s blood on my hands? I thought, am I partly to blame for terrorism as part of today’s society? By that time, I had started school talks and in colleges and universities.

‘I was asked by the University of Central Lancashire in Preston to talk to two counter-terrorism course classes and in between, they made me a coffee in the staff room and I said that I’d love to learn what these students are learning; I have so many questions but I’m not clever enough.

‘While I was talking one of the tutors printed off the syllabus and I thought, “oh my God, there are all the things I am wondering about”, and they looked at each other and they said, “why don’t you come on the course in September?” 

‘So, I did and it gave me all the answers and so much more and I now recognise terrorism as a societal problem created by societal issues and government policies. We are part of the society that elects those politicians who go on to make those decisions internationally, nationally, regionally and enter into treaties.’

Figen Murray

Figen Murray at her home in Cheshire - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

Figen is now a respected voice at national and international security and counter-terrorism firms and exhibitions, and while she has no political aspirations, she has been the driving force behind Martyn’s Law. ‘Martyn’s Law is something I do as a mother; I want the government to introduce legislation to mandate security and defence at venues.

‘The legislation won’t be called Martyn’s Law once it is passed, because that is not how it works in this country. It will come under the Protect Duty element of the four pillars of the government’s plan for counter-terrorism, Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare.’ 
The Protect Duty delivers on a manifesto commitment to improve the safety and security of public venues and spaces, drawing on lessons learned from previous terrorist incidents. Figen says: ‘I do it for Martyn and for all the people who died alongside him. My dissertation has been dedicated not just to Martyn but to all the others.

‘It is great that the government wants to bring in Martyn’s Law but that it is not sufficient. I am saying that society’s attitude needs to change because at the moment when a terrorist attack happens the public complain about the government, about counter-terrorism, the police, about MI5 not doing enough...

‘Now, lone terrorists are more often than not the perpetrators and as a society we need to educate ourselves and be more aware of our surroundings. For instance, I do not now sit in a street café if I feel a vehicle could mount the pavement. Or when I am in a restaurant I always sit where I can see the door, and if I walk into a shopping centre I check to see if there are counter-terrorist measures in place to protect pedestrians. I am far more security-aware and speak at security conferences and counter-terrorism and policing conferences and international expos.’

Figen did not return to her 23-year role as a counsellor, psychotherapist, life coach and clinical supervisor after Martyn’s death: ‘That stopped the night he died,’ she says. I can’t ethically justify it, because I would have to give the same amount of empathy to people with what I now consider minor problems; I would now be thinking, “for goodness sake, get yourself together, you are still alive, that is not a problem.’ It would not be fair for me to see clients any more. For that reason, I had to step down.’

During the public inquiry Figen was given dispensation by the judge to knit the peace bears she sells on her Imperfect Hearts site on Depop (depop.com/imperfecthearts). ‘I knitted before Martyn died to help with a hearing condition I have. My ears were my tools as a therapist and it got me down and I then thought, “you always tell your clients who are depressed to get creative, so get creative yourself to help your mood.”

Figen Murray

Figen Murray with her peace bears - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

‘I started making imperfectly shaped hearts to symbolise the individuality and imperfections of humans, then moved to knitting the bears and it was very therapeutic. In fact, during the last two years of the inquiry the judge very kindly allowed me to 
take knitting needles into the room, so every day I knitted one bear. They are meant for adults, not children – to get back to their inner child and bring back that playfulness to people when they grow up. 

'Martyn lived and died still with that childlike quality. He was a real Peter Pan and the bears are now symbolically peace bears. I have given them to Christchurch in New Zealand to the mosques where there were terrorist attacks in 2019, the prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern and the mayoress of Christchurch, as well as Kate and William and a lot of people in counter-terrorism and security. Andy Burnham and the whole inquiry team have a bear each and the judge has one.’

The idea of the bears is linked to the book Figen wrote – Bears Have Issues Too – a therapeutic short story for adults about 16 bears with mental health issues including health anxiety, self-harm, addiction to pornography, issues around food, exam stress, abandonment and relationships. 

‘My children volunteered their stories, including Martyn and his coming out, and there were my experiences from 23 years of private practice with clients. Martyn 
helped with the publicity for the book and Daniel with the publishing side.’ (amazon.co.uk/Bears-Have-Issues-Figen-Murray/dp/1544672594).
Figen and Stuart are ambassadors for Citizen Aid, a UK charity empowering the public to save lives. 

‘I didn’t realise until the inquiry that people can bleed to death within three to five minutes. With my legal team I arranged a life-saving training course for some of the bereaved families and some of the survivors of the attack to learn how to apply 
tourniquets and put on compression bandages if someone bleeds heavily.

‘I also work with Rapaid, which distributes bandages to taxi drivers, schools, universities, etc, so if someone has a heavy bleed they have compression bandages to curtail the bleeding and save lives. So, I can’t work as a therapist any longer but I try to use all the skills I have learned throughout my life in a positive way.

‘Because of my age now (Figen was 61 in February), I am not looking to get a big paid job in counter-terrorism. I feel the work in schools is very important; the work talking to the industry sector, counter-terrorism, policing, security is very important. All these agencies need to remember why they need to do their job in the best way they can because if something goes wrong it affects people in a life-changing way.  

‘As for Martyn’s life if he had not died, I think he would have settled down in a relationship, he would probably have got married to a young man, he would probably at some point have had a family. Definitely, he would have continued enjoying life and looking out for people who were underdogs.

'He would have been mega-active on social media, calling out bad practice. He wasn’t scared to cause a commotion if he felt very strongly about an issue. He would have been surrounded by friends and colleagues and family who loved him.

‘Occasions like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries are very difficult. It is what happens when people you love die; it changes things. Life is very different now. 
‘But I hope he would have been proud of me.’ 

Article first published in Cheshire Life magazine March 2022