Waking up today to the news of the despicable bomb attack in Manchester I felt, like all but a tiny few degenerates, a sense of sorrow and disgust which has grown throughout the day as the particular pathos of the killing of young people at a pop concert has emerged.
I don’t want
to talk about the motivation for, or the ways of dealing with, such attacks,
and in any case I am not qualified to do so. Instead I want to talk about
Manchester, a city I know well and have a great love for because I was an
undergraduate and, then, PhD student there between 1984 and 1992, something I talk about in my book. When I
arrived, I knew almost nothing about it and found it quite alien, almost
frightening. I had grown up in the far suburbs of South London and knew nothing
about the North – I mean North London, let alone the North of England. Very
soon I loved it.
What did I
love? A kind of harsh but laid-back humour. A sense of by then fading but still
visible industry. Grand redbrick Victorian buildings like the Refuge Assurance,
alongside humble redbrick housing terraces, alongside the glorious neo-classical,
Tuscan and Corinthian melange of the City Library, alongside the brutalism of
the Mancunian Way. Still, a sense of swagger: ‘what Manchester thinks today,
the world does tomorrow’ had been said in its nineteenth century heyday, but
didn’t seem outlandish in the 1980s. The place associated with the discovery of
the atom by Dalton and its splitting by Rutherford; the place where the fly
shuttle that transformed the cotton industry was invented and the site of the
Peterloo massacre; the place that gave name to the Manchester Doctrine of free trade
that at the time was being re-invented as something called Thatcherism, but
which was abuzz with anarchist, feminist and alternative bookshops and where
the miners’ strike was the dominant issue of the day.
life where the Free Trade Hall hosted both the Halle Orchestra and The Smiths.
Futuristic nightclubs in post-industrial settings, most famously the Hacienda
(though I did not like that much), but also lineal descendants of the Palais de
Danse like the Ritz, and virtual speakeasys
like the PSV in Hulme. Sleek bars, the names of which I don’t now remember,
alongside street locals like The Peveril on the Peak. The legacy of the great intellectual
societies of nineteenth century Manchester, like the Natural History Society
and Geological Society, still visible in the Manchester Museum, alongside the
latest art house films in the Cornerhouse Cinema.
too, and that does not just mean races and religions although it does mean
that. Most visible, I suppose, in Rusholme’s curry mile and in Chinatown, it
was also a mingling – often uneasy, sometimes violent – of students and
Mancunians. The curry mile itself overlaid on an earlier generation of Irish
immigrants. Strange contrasts of, say, the prosperous, bourgeois food hall of
Kendall’s department store, the freakish counter culture of, say, Affleck’s
Palace, the packs of semi-savage dogs on, say, Claremont Road, the grand but
fading parks like, say, Platt Fields; the exuberance of the
emergent gay village cheek-by-jowl with the seediness of the well-established red light area
around Chorlton Street coach station. Chorlton Street coach station, itself;
the concrete monstrosity where you arrived in horror, yet which later became the
place you met or left your boyfriend or girlfriend or just friend and so it
became - more often than its architecture deserved - infused with joy, despair,
indifference or relief.
thinking about multi-culturalism today when some seek to blame that for what
has happened. Because if this attack is motivated by anything other than the
personal inadequacy of the perpetrator it will be the now familiar reasons of
those who stand, like those who make the most intemperate responses to what
they do, for a resentful, sullen, hate-filled and ultimately murderous mono-culturalism.
It is the same ‘logic’ that animated those Islamists who have slaughtered in
the bars of Paris and beaches in Tunisia, the ‘Christian conservative’ who
committed mass murder in Norway or Jo Cox’s ‘Britain First’ killer in this
country. They are all part of the same mono-cultural ideology and all draw
support from and grow out of those who espouse that ideology.
As for Manchester,
it has been the victim of a terrorist attack before, the IRA bombing of 1996. I
had left the city by then, but I remember well a comment made on the news by a
Mancunian at the time. I can’t recall the exact words but he said, laconically
(referring to the Nazi bombings of Britain during the Second World War),
something like: “Won’t bother us. We’ve been bombed by professionals, and that
didn’t bother us overly”.
think there is necessarily a particular ‘Manchester’ spirit in that – people in
Newcastle, Cardiff or Glasgow would probably respond much the same – but,
still, I think that something like that is at work in Manchester today. It’s
low-key, defiant and, like so much in Manchester, aware of and attentive to
history. But I know that it will be of no comfort at all to those families who
this evening are creased in mourning for someone who – perhaps young and
excited about the concert they were about to go to – yesterday sat at the tea table
but will never do so again.
Update (24 May 2017): See Tony Walsh read his poem This is the Place at a vigil held on Albert Square on 23 May 2017. Stunning.