Manchester reflections

Love is stronger than hate.

St Annes Square

How to make sense of the tragic suicide bombing of a teenage pop concert in the Manchester Arena, by a young person himself born and brought up in Manchester?

So many people, touched in countless ways. Twenty two souls lost, lives ended prematurely. Dozens others injured, many in ‘life-changing’ ways. Families and friends bereaved.  Young people and parents at the concert left with memories of sights, sounds, smells that no one should have to endure.

Local communities waking up for days on end to news of the latest arrest, or dawn raid, on a house, a street, not a stones throw from our own.  The strangeness of finding Whalley Range, my own neighbourhood of 25 years, at the centre of the latest episode in the global ‘War on Terror.’

A whole city traumatised by the terrible truth that this was inflicted by one of our own.  Salman Abedi was not some distant figure, but a Mancunian himself.  Some of his school friends attended the same school as my children. One boy, captured on camera sat on a bench next to Abedi somewhere in Manchester a few years ago – innocent youths then – recognised by my middle daughter as being in her own year group.

Mancunians are not the first to experience such senseless pain, nor sadly, will they be the last. As the Psalmist said “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.”

The shock and the suffering will not easily be diluted by time.  But alongside suffering there is also hope.

To be present at the vigil in Albert Square in the heart of the city, the day after the bombing, with thousands of other Mancunians will live in my memory a long time.  An overwhelming sense, not of anger nor of revenge, but of solidarity, and yes, even defiance.

To spend an hour in St Annes Square, silently sharing a collective sense of grief and loss alongside the myriad of blossoms and bouquets, poems and balloons, whilst a small army of busy Mancunian bees buzzed their way from bloom to bloom.

Much has been said and written about the Mancunian spirit.  I’ve no way of knowing how other cities might fare in the face of such an experience, and I hope and pray that we never have to find out.  But it has made me proud to be a Mancunian.

Proud of a city that celebrates its diversity, and one that Mancunians of all creeds and colours, gay and straight, young and old, can call home.

Proud of a city that is a living testament to the fact that love is stronger than hate.

And it somehow seems appropriate that all of that has been best captured not by the worthy words of a politician, prelate or priest (good though many of their words have been) but in the words of a poet.  Tony Walsh, aka Longfella.  Mancunian born and bred – and brother too to my good friend and URC minister Mike.

And so it was a poet – in the manner of poets and psalmists down the generations – who gave shape to our feelings when we did not know what to feel, and who put into words what we did not know what to say, at that Tuesday evening vigil in Albert Square:

“And this is the place where our folks came to work, where they struggled in puddles, they hurt in the dirt and they built us a city, they built us these towns and they coughed on the cobbles to the deafening sound to the steaming machines and the screaming of slaves, they were scheming for greatness, they dreamed to their graves.

And they left us a spirit. They left us a vibe. That Mancunian way to survive and to thrive and to work and to build, to connect, and create and Greater Manchester’s greatness is keeping it great.

And so this is the place now with kids of our own. Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home.

And they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat, all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets.

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.…

Because this is the place in our hearts, in our homes, because this is the place that’s a part of our bones.

Because Greater Manchester gives us such strength from the fact that this is the place, we should give something back.

Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester.

Choose love.”

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