24 May 2017

A city of Northern grit, Northern wit – and undefeatable spirit


However I tried, I couldn’t find a way to raise my spirits on Tuesday. I spent the day, like so many others, in a state of profound sadness. Also: hollow, angry, unsettled, damp-eyed.

After waking up to the big shock, there were the aftershocks: that some of my 12-year-old daughter’s classmates had travelled down from Scotland for the concert and been caught up in the terror; the image of beautiful Saffie-Rose Roussos, just eight years old; those soul-searing tweets from friends and parents desperately trying to make contact with missing loved ones.

In the end, on Tuesday night, it was Tony Walsh who lifted me. A 6’7” council worker and performance poet known, wonderfully, as Longfella, Walsh read out one of his pieces, This is the Place, to a crowd in Albert Square. The subject was Manchester, and with every line I felt my heart quicken.

This is the place

In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

And we make things from steel

And we make things from cotton

And we make people laugh, take the mick sommat rotten

Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times.

But we keep fighting back with greater Manchester spirit. Northern grit, northern wit, and greater Manchester’s lyrics.

And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity.

Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester.

I was nine when I left my small-town Scottish library clutching a book about the Busby Babes. I devoured it, and that was me hooked – for the past 34 years I have followed Manchester United, my team, through bad times and extraordinary times, thrilling to goals that made souls leap from seats in the stands. On the morning of my 12th birthday, my dad took me on a train journey, refusing to reveal our destination until it became all too obvious and he produced my team scarf. Manchester. Old Trafford. Bryan Robson. A 3-0 win over QPR. A memory embedded for life.

I was 15 when the Stone Roses released their first album. Madchester consumed me – the Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans, The High, World of Twist, Paris Angels, even bloody Northside – I hunted down every rare single, every 12”. From there I went back in time – to early New Order, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, Buzzcocks. If Liverpool had the Beatles, then Manchester, it seemed to me, had everyone else.

I had a Saturday job in my uncle’s clothes store in a small, unfashionable, central Scotland town called Denny. By then I was in deep – shoulder-length hair in a middle parting, garishly patterned hooded tops, flared jeans and desert boots, t-shirts bearing band logos and legends such as “And on the sixth day, God created Madchester”.

One day, we travelled south in a rusty Mini Metro to the Baggy mecca – the Joe Bloggs warehouse. We met Shami Ahmed, the Bloggs kingpin, and were talked into five pairs of 30” flares for the shop – the widest, most ludicrous trousers ever to exist. I bought a pair, of course, only daring to wear them once, to the Stone Roses concert at Glasgow Green. The rest hung in the store in Denny, resolutely unsold and a source of confusion to our mostly elderly customers who were only after a pair of tartan socks.

What’s the point of all this? Well, as I listened to Longfella it struck me just how much I owe to Manchester, how much it has made me. I love the city: its sass and swagger, its relentless self-reinvention, its pitch-perfect architectural mix of Victorian industrial brickwork and modern, shining glass and steel, its cool restaurants, its cultural confidence, its plain talking, its self-possession and uncompromising, slightly chippy non-Londonness. And, of course, I love Manchester United.

The relationship has shaped the adult. My belief in the United Kingdom, in the union of our nations, stems in significant part from a lifetime steeped in Mancunian culture. My Britishness – shaken as it is by Brexit and Labour’s decline – automatically recoils from the idea that there could be a border between us, when there is such natural, unforced empathy, when we are the same people, when it feels like home.

Our response, as one, to this terrible massacre – which was inflicted on us – proves the point. I don’t mean to make a political point, or to denigrate the views and instincts of others, so much as to express an authentic, personal, emotional reaction.

In the midst of this unbearable grief, we are reconnected to love and comity, to each other, good and hard. That’s something to lift the spirits. Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester.

Chris Deerin is a political commentator