“...AND ON THE SIXTH DAY, GOD CREATED MANchester.”
Saunter down to Affleck’s Palace, that longstanding quirky shopping mall nestled between Manchester’s bustling Piccadilly Gardens and bohemian Northern Quarter, and you’ll see the same oft-quoted line. Coined by local Affleck’s shop owner Leo Stanley to flog a few T-shirts in the ‘80s, it’s now inscribed permanently by mosaic artist Mark Kennedy, who in doing so not only hammered a neat little display into the wall, but hammered home the city’s very mantra with it.
Manchester, you see, isn’t just a place, it’s much bigger than that. Even on the drizzliest days (of which there are many) you’ll find something spiritual in the air, a general feeling when walking its streets, taking in the sounds, the smells, the sights, the rich history of the industrial revolution rubbing up against modern shiny spires to make it seem as if the very architecture itself is breathing, it’s hard not to feel part of something larger. And on the day proceeding the terror attack that killed 22 and injured 59 – Britain’s worst in the last decade – these words ring truer than ever.
Where terrorists sought to divide us in their attack following Ariana Grande’s show, they fucked up: they picked the one city which is arguably the most accepting, the most together and the most multiculturally forward thinking of any in the UK.
This is the city in which I first saw two men affectionately hold hands; the city in which I first became friends with more than three religions; the city in which I first fell in love; the city in which hugging complete strangers to the throbbing sound of The Doves mid-’00s banger ‘Pounding’ while £2.50 vodka and energy drink swilled down my grey Topman cardigan was the only way to finish an evening in 42nd Street, teaching me that nights out were not about aggro but celebration.
Not for nothing did Eric Cantona once claim he loved the city for its “insane love of football, of celebration, of music.” Divided in football but bonded by partying, Manchester has long revelled in its status as a place of entertainment. How saddening then, that one of the strongest fabrics of the city’s identity was cruelly exploited against it.
I grew up in Merseyside, less than a 40-minute drive away down the East Lancs road. The Manchester Arena (or the M.E.N as it'll always be known to me) was actually the closest major music venue I had as a youngster, giving me a chance to see big name US artists who often didn’t come to Liverpool. As a result, I visited Manchester frequently and enjoyed it so much I chose to go to university there, spending three years studying before staying on for an extra year to work in a bar.
On the basis of my experiences, I genuinely cannot picture another British city where multiculturalism works as well as it does as Manchester. London has it in abundance, of course, born out of overflowing communities having to live on top of each other thanks to poor housing options, and I’d be lying if I said the North West isn’t without issues in regards to racial division. Only in Manchester, however, did the mix of religions and culture feel properly integrated to me.
And is there a more hospitable city? You’d be hard pressed to find one. Speaking to a stranger on public transport is not seen as creepy but positively encouraged, and you can always be sure of someone giving you directions, even if they’re not exactly sure of the route themselves. One Mancunian comic who has mined this topic more than most is Jason Manford, who even found himself bearing his emotions on Facebook Live in the early hours of this morning, the father of five (some of them Ariana Grande fans themselves) going through the gamut of emotions: disbelief; tears; anger – all the while remaining positive, hopeful and hugely appreciative of the spirit showed by his fellow Mancunians under such cruel circumstances.
When times are tough – and this is genuine – I often wonder what Elbow’s Guy Garvey would do. Born in Bury but a long-time Manchester resident, he’s arguably the pinnacle of well-known men you’d want to go for a pint with. Wry, sage, one of the foremost talents of his generation and delightfully northern, his wispy tones enthralling me on his Sunday show on then-Manchester’s XFM, championing local bands to go and see in the week ahead.
According to those in the know, he remains as humble as ever (I have fond memories of seeing him in an Abdul’s kebab shop), buying rounds in the sorts of quaint backstreet boozers you only get down the cobbled backstreets of Manchester’s urban sprawl. When you’ve residents like Garvey in your manor, you must be doing something right.
As I watched last night’s footage unfolding though, more homesick than ever, my mind was drawn elsewhere, wondering what the people caught up in that sheer horror all must have been thinking. Despite the chaos, I was also reminded of what makes Manchester such a beacon of hope, bullishness and defiance; the metropolitan embodiment of a Liam Gallagher swagger. Taxi drivers gave free fares to whisk people to safety, local residents offered beds for the night to displaced concert-goers, and ordinary everyday men and women in extraordinary circumstances rushed to help the injured and vulnerable. Music is the city’s soul, no doubt, but the personality of the great people is its lifeblood.
Forget the images of terror and debris – turn instead to the images of police officers, alert, terrified themselves, many unarmed and unsure of what was happening as they ran to help. Think too of the dedication shown by the first-responders and medical staff tasked with saving lives. Granted, the professionalism of the emergency services may have been the same in any other city, but I suspect not with quite the same personable care of those in Manchester. So, amid all the social media messages you’re sure to read that aren’t so positive about the aftermath, let’s not allow hate to breed hate and Katie Hopkins to have a new extension built. No, let’s spare our thoughts for the victims and focus on the heroes of the hour:
On a grim day for Manchester... all around there's humanity and kindness pic.twitter.com/w3G7cTApB4— clare fallon (@clarefallon) May 23, 2017
Evil will come and go. Manchester will always be Manchester.
(Images: Rex, Getty, Marcus JB)