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This is the Place: how a poem gave voice to Manchester's grief

John Gardner | Updated on: 25 May 2017, 16:45 IST
Poet Tony Walsh speaks as members of the public gather at a vigil, to honour the victims of Monday evening's terror attack, at Albert Square on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England. Monday's explosion occurred at Manchester Arena as concert goers were leaving the venue after Ariana Grande had just finished performing. Greater Manchester Police are treating the explosion as a terrorist attack and have confirmed 22 fatalities and 59 injured. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In the midst of the pain, the capacity of poetry to connect with people was illustrated by Tony Walsh. Walsh’s poem “This is the Place”, which was recited to thousands of people attending a vigil for the victims of the massacre in Manchester, highlights the democratic power of poetry. Walsh’s poetry is something that can go directly to the ear and mind of listeners. The Conversation

Almost 200 years ago – when another atrocity, the Peterloo massacre, robbed Manchester of peaceful people who had gathered together in a protest, demanding the right to vote – poetry became a way of channelling the anger and grief that people felt. The compression of rage in Percy Shelley’s poem “England in 1819” where he sides with a “people starved and stabbed on the untilled field” is still rousing and, although without the searing anger, Walsh’s poem is also there with the people.

The place

Walsh begins with Manchester as “the place”. It has been a cultural and industrial centre since the 18th century.

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.

Manchester has world-famous football, world-changing music and it makes things too – “things from steel” and “things from cotton”. Manchester, a home for comedy is also a place where a poking sense of humour is alive: “We take the mick sommat rotten”. The welcome from Manchester people is a famous characteristic but now is the time to “make a brew” for those who have suffered and maybe “a record, a new number one”.

As Walsh says Manchester is a place that “helped shape the world”. Suffragettes such as “Emeline Pankhurst from the streets of Moss Side” fought for equal rights for women. Manchester is a place of innovation and social inclusion: “Libraries and health, education and unions and co-ops”. Manchester “invented computers”. It has its “own northern soul” in its essence and music. Manchester is a place of “business” and “dance” too. The legacy of past Mancunians has given us what exists today. The people who came to Manchester “built us a city” as they “coughed on the cobbles to the deafening sound to the steaming machines”.

Hard times

The poet reminds people that Manchester has come through “some hard times: "oppressions, recessions, depressions” in the past and it will again. It won’t “take defeat” or “pity” but armed with “Manchester Spirt”, northern grit, northern wit, and greater Manchester lyrics", the people will survive this and will be spurred onto greater things.

This is a place that helps people, not destroys them. Manchester is “a charity for people round here”. “We support local dreamers to work for their dreams.”

The city becomes a part of the human body at the close of the poem. It is a town that people built and where people were made. It is a place “that’s a part of our bones.” Manchester also never forgets and Walsh finishes by saying that it will endure “forever”. This poem is one for the Manchester canon. Wounded Manchester always sings back. Chants, songs, poetry – all speak of Manchester’s artistry and contribution to the world. In 1819 poets and songwriters wrote of a suffering Manchester people that is still powerful today. In his “Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” Shelley, like Walsh, highlights the strength of Mancunian people. “Science, Poetry and Thought” are the “lamps” of Manchester as are “Spirit, Patience, Gentleness”.

In the future Shelley wants the people of Manchester to “let deeds, not words, express/thine exceeding loveliness”. Ending with the words “forever Manchester”, Walsh’s poem continues the tradition of poetry and songs speaking to traumatic events because that is the “Mancunian way”. Manchester people cannot help but “make summat happen”. As Shelley says, remember: “Ye are many – they are few”.

Tony Walsh’s poem in full

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 summat rotten
And we make you at home
And we make you feel welcome and we make summat happen
And we can’t seem to help it
And if you’re looking from history, then yeah we’ve a wealth

But the Manchester way is to make it yourself.
And make us a record, a new number one
And make us a brew while you’re up, love, go on
And make us feel proud that you’re winning the league
And make us sing louder and make us believe that this is the place that has helped shape the world
And this is the place where a Manchester girl named Emmeline Pankhurst from the streets of Moss Side led a suffragette city with sisterhood pride
And this is the place with appliance of science, we’re on it, atomic, we struck with defiance, and in the face of a challenge, we always stand tall, Mancunians, in union, delivered it all
Such as housing and libraries and health, education and unions and co-ops and first railway stations
So we’re sorry, bear with us, we invented commuters. But we hope you forgive us, we invented computers.
And this is the place Henry Rice strolled with rolls, and we’ve rocked and we’ve rolled with our own northern soul
And so this is the place to do business then dance, where go-getters and goal-setters know they’ve a chance
And this is the place where we first played as kids. And me mum, lived and died here, she loved it, she did.

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.

And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity.
Because this is a place where we stand strong together, with a smile on our face, greater Manchester forever.
And we’ve got this place where a team with a dream can get funding and something to help with a scheme.
Because this is a place that understands your grand plans. We don’t do “no can do” we just stress “yes we can”
Forever Manchester’s a charity for people round here, you can fundraise, donate, you can be a volunteer. You can live local, give local, we can honestly say, we do charity different, that Mancunian way.
And we fund local kids, and we fund local teams. We support local dreamers to work for their dreams. We support local groups and the great work they do. So can you help us. help local people like you?
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.

John Gardner, Professor of English Literature, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

First published: 25 May 2017, 16:45 IST