The world is in shock. I write this less than forty eight hours since an audience of primarily young people attended an Ariana Grande gig in Manchester, hoping for an evening of unabashed excitement, but instead found themselves embroiled in a living nightmare.
No words can express the horror of this senseless atrocity, neither can words sum up the courage, strength and determination of the emergency services and Mancunians who extended a warm, welcome hand to so many at a time when their own hands would be trembling with confusion and fear. And it is these people who I dedicate this post – the victims of the attack, their families and the people of Manchester.
You see, Manchester meant the world to me as a child, and it still does. I grew up in Crewe, a working class railway town in the North-West of England thirty-five miles from the city’s centre. To most, Crewe was known only as a place to change trains en route to a more inspiring destination. It was a small (it’s much bigger now), insular, provincial town with narrow Victorian terraces and narrower minds. It had a wonderful theatre, a terrible football team, a fantastic independent record shop (Spin Inn) and not much else. I didn’t mind the town - it was my home and still is - but there was nothing remotely magical about it.
No, magic to me was to be found an hour away on a slow train.
Magic was to be found in Manchester.
As a small boy I was taken there every December to go Christmas shopping with my mum and my gran, a Chadderton woman who used to work as a tailoress in the city centre in the 1930s (the below picture is her, May Lowe, in 1936). We travelled there on the train (I was allowed a Marathon bar to stave off hunger) with free passes thanks to my Grandad’s job with the railways.
Now as I’ve grown older I’ve heard many Mancunians talk about how Manchester was a city in decay in the 1970s, a battered, grim metropolis, a toxic shadow of its grandiose former self as the first industrial city, stained with pollution and polluted dreams. But I didn't see any of that. It wasn’t grim to me. It wasn’t Ewan Maccoll’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ - I’m aware he wrote that about Salford - it was my Disneyland, albeit with a very different Main Street. I was a small kid from a small town, and every time I left Piccadilly station I was Gulliver in Brobdingnag, Captain Steve Burton in ‘Land of The Giants’. It was all so vast, so regal, so majestic.
So with my blue Parka pulled tightly around me, I’d be steered down London Road to Piccadilly where we headed to Lewis’s superstore on Market Street (sadly, it’s now a Primark). And it was Lewis’s department store where my Christmas began.
It was the grandest shop I’d ever seen. Colossal to my young eyes, it even had a full scale grand ballroom on the fifth floor. A Ballroom!
And here it is.
In Crewe we had a Woolworths, which was as big a shop as I’d seen, but Lewis’s was something else - vast, labyrinthine, towering, and it sold everything. And the toy department on the third floor – well, that was just the stuff from which boyhood dreams are forged.
But even more importantly than toys or ballrooms was the old chubby bearded guy camped out in the glittering golden grotto. Now even as a five year old I recognised Father Christmas was a busy and important chap, but it made absolute sense to me that such a busy and important chap would hang out at the busiest and most important department store.
A picture of me and the big fella (a rather creepy looking one, to be fair) in Lewis’s 1972
Again, me and a different Santa (considerably less scary, although his left hand is freakishly large and somewhat flat) in Lewis’s in 1973
For many years, the train journey, Lewis’s and that trip to see Santa were the highlight of my Christmas.
Manchester gave me that. It was a magical place to a child. Well, it was then.
I hope, even after recent events, it can be again.
As I grew, my love for the city matured and blossomed. No longer was I interested in toys and bearded men offering presses – no, I became interested in music, Marvel comics and movies. I was twelve in 1980 and I was suddenly a child of the post-punk scene. Punk terrified me (I was only eight in 1976 and seeing these spikey haired youths patrolling Crewe’s streets was like gaping at behemoths from another planet), but post punk and New Wave I understood. It intrigued me. I wanted a bit of it.
And the very best of it came from Manchester: Joy Division, New Order, Magazine, and later The Smiths. Unlike many others my age, my interest in football was minimal, it was musicians that became my heroes: Curtis, Sumner, Morris, Gilbert, Hook, Marr and Morrissey. Manchester’s finest. And so once more I was making regular pilgrimages to the city. This time, however, (circa 1984) I would be making such trips alone. And that was just fine because much of the music I adored seemed to celebrate loneliness, disenchantment, and isolationism. As a stereotypically angst-ridden teen with a class-based chip on his shoulder (in fact, a bag of chips) I wallowed in it.
On countless weekends I’d jump on a train to Manchester and spend the day searching the record shops around Oldham Street looking for Smiths or New Order singles, or rifling through the many vintage boutiques in Affleck’s Palace looking for second hand Levi 501 jeans or old 1960s thin lapel suits. After this I would invariably go to the ABC Cinema at Deansgate or the Odeon on Oxford Road to watch Pale Rider, or Mad Max beyond Thunderdome or Heartbreak Ridge or whatever other film captured my attention. Manchester was my go to place for films, clothes and vinyl and I gravitated there willingly.
And then in my final year at Bournemouth University (1989/90) something wonderful happened: Madchester. And like so many other young men my age, I grew my fringe, traded in my dog-eared Hatful of Hollow T-shirt for a Happy Mondays one, and jumped on the train home to head for Manchester again and one nightclub in particular, the Hacienda. But with each visit I noted the city was changing, transforming, morphing into something else. The magic was definitely still there, but money seemed to be flowing into the city on a grand scale.
And this influx was escalated by another sickening act of terrorism in 1996 when a truck bomb planted by the IRA on Corporation Street exploded causing massive damage and injuring over two hundred people. On this occasion, thankfully, no one was killed, but the damage to the city’s infrastructure was immense.
This atrocity delivered a vicious body blow to Mancunians everywhere. Still, although they were battered, devastated, hurt, they came out of it stronger than ever; determined, undaunted by the prospect of rebuilding both literally and psychologically, Mancunians reconstructed their buildings alongside themselves.
And that’s why I know they’ll do it again.
Mancunians are a tough breed with a great sense of humour; unpretentious, welcoming of all cultures, grounded, down to earth, yet always looking upwards, at the stars. In my opinion, that’s why the city cultivates such vast numbers of artists, musicians, lyricists, poets, playwrights – they’re dreamers. Mancunians are strong-willed, defiant, courageous and it is precisely this strength of character that will help heal Manchester’s wounds after this latest violation… wounds wide open and bleeding from an act of appalling savagery by, quite unbelievably, one of their own.
I’m not under any illusion, it’ll take Manchester and its people time to heal from the events two nights ago… a great deal of time. Too many lives are now broken, shattered, ruined irreparably, for it to be any other way. But with that time I believe the city and its people will rebuild as it has done before with so many other tragedies. As Morrissey wrote, ‘There is a Light that Never Goes out’ – and that light is the irrefutable spirit of Manchester and its people.
On a personal note, when I wrote my first novel, The Time Hunters, there was only one place my heroes, Becky and Joe Mellor, could possibly come from. I wanted them to have courage, decency, humour, and integrity – well, with that in mind they simply had to come from Manchester. And so they did.
As for me, you’ll still find me visiting the city on a regular basis. I often frequent the Smiths Disco at the Star and Garter Pub or Fac251 or Fab Café or the Whitworth gallery and, just as I did as a five year old, I still feel that sense of excitement and magic every time I return to the city. I still continue the Ashmore tradition of Christmas shopping excursions and, although Lewis’s is long gone, I take my daughter, Alice (see below from 2012) to see Santa. Of course, now I take her to the House of Frasier, which, sadly, doesn’t have a grand ballroom. But then in this day and age… where does?
To conclude, my thoughts are with those that have died in this atrocity, those that have survived to see others lost, those that have lost and who grieve. My thoughts are with the people of Manchester and the very city itself...