It was an exodus, a journey to the land of our forebears. And then I got there and I thought, “Why the bloody hell did we bother? I can see why my ancestors left.”
You see, I’m Australian, but my family and I lived in Manchester from 1991 to 1994. I completed my high schooling there.
For the first year, I was miserable, as miserable as I’d ever been in my life. The rain poured, and I never saw the sun. The clouds were so low it felt as if I could reach up and touch them. People had difficulty understanding my accent, and I couldn’t understand them. It didn’t help that my sister was hit and injured by a car outside school on our second day at our new school, and that I blamed myself for not looking after her better. Also, it’s pretty bloody hard to move countries and schools when you’re fourteen years old, I can tell you that now. Particularly when you go to a selective school and discover that you’re behind everyone else, when you’d been able to sail through with no effort and study in Australia. I studied hard and fast to catch up, and it was the making of me.
The turning point came when I went back to Australia. I made the classic expat mistake – told everyone I was coming back – and I spent the whole time booked up with catch ups. Me being me, I ended up exhausted, had an asthma attack and spent an evening in casualty. “This wouldn’t happen if I were back in Australia,” I thought. And then I realised I was back in Australia. I couldn’t blame everything bad that happened on Manchester. When I went back, I looked at my second home with new and appreciative eyes.
Yes, it had been hard to make friends, but they were friends for life, loyal and true. The warmth of Mancunians, the courage and the sheer bloody-mindedness. I loved them, and I still do. Manchester was where I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. I began to see a peculiar kind of beauty in the industrial landscapes, in the grey skies, in the bleak architecture. We drove through Moss Side, an inner city suburb of Manchester, and home to the infamous Hulme Crescents, a 1970s experiment in architecture which was demolished shortly after I arrived there.
One of the buildings in Moss Side had “This is the end” spraypainted on a wall. I was horrified, and looked back at the building.
Then I saw the punchline. “This is the other end”, the graffiti proclaimed.
That’s Manchester for you. Humour in the midst of desolation and urban decay. A certain cheek and creativity.
Manchester was also where I was first introduced to terrorism. In 1992, the Provisional IRA bombed the city centre. I was horrified. Everyone at school shrugged. “It’s just the IRA again.”
The next year, the Provisional IRA killed two children in Warrington, near Manchester, after they placed small bombs in rubbish bins outside McDonalds. The children were killed as they fled the first bomb, running into the path of the second. I was horrified by the cruelty of the deaths…but the fact that there was a bombing shocked me less now. I’d realised that this was how life went. Then the Provisional IRA bombed Bishopsgate in London. I don’t recall that I was particularly shocked by this point. I didn’t take special precautions, and I still went into the city and to London regardless. I felt fatalistic. If my time was up, it was up. You can’t let these people stop you from living a normal life. Of course, ironically, the Orange and the Green meets in me. It’s largely ceased to matter in Australia, although it still mattered when my Catholic grandmother married my Anglican grandfather many moons ago.
I left England in 1994, and missed the Provisional IRA’s last hurrah. They bombed the middle of Manchester in 1996 and blew the centre out of it (including the terribly ugly Arndale Centre). When I went back in 2013, I found a city transformed. The 1960s architecture had been destroyed, and replaced by a stylish modern city. Part of me was glad, but part of me was nostalgic as well – this wasn’t the place I knew.
But it still is the place I knew. Recent events have confirmed that. Terror has again touched the heart of Manchester, after a suicide bomber attacked concertgoers at Manchester Arena as they left an Ariana Grande concert. Many of the dead were teenagers, or parents waiting to pick up their children. I cannot imagine how someone could do this. But…local homeless men ran to assist the wounded children. Taxi drivers gave free rides, religious leaders offered food, hotels and residents opened their doors, people gave blood and emergency and medical services worked tirelessly. The generosity and spirit of Mancunians was astounding.
The bomber appears to have been born in Manchester (shortly after I left, so I’ve been gone a long time) to a family of Libyan origin, and to have been motivated by Islamism. I’m always disappointed by the debate which arises after an event like this. Whenever an act of terrorism occurs, one side of politics protest, “The perpetrator was mentally ill, a lone wolf!” and the other side of politics protest, “The perpetrator was motivated by a poisonous ideology, and others who espoused it!” And then, when the identity of the terrorist changes, each side of politics changes their tune. To be honest, I think that the answer is (c) all of the above, plus a bit more. The people who perpetrate such killings are people who look to harm others, as a way of venting their hatred. And they find the excuse for doing so in different places, depending on religion and politics. What worries me after an event like this (a school shooting, a terrorist incident, a rampage) is the way in which the person gains notoriety post mortem. I don’t want him to take up any space in my mind. For once, I agree with Donald Trump – this guy was a loser, a pathetic schmuck who struck out at children and teenagers to express his hatred of their joie de vivre.
I don’t want to think about this perpetrator any more, although I acknowledge that we will have to think about the way in which young men in particular find excuses for this kind of depraved act. I want to focus on the spirit of the city I love. Manchester, you’re my second home. I love your people, and you will survive, as you have survived before.