How a poem gave a voice to Manchester’s grief

Published: 24 May 2017 at 16:00

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VIEWPOINT: Anglia Ruskin expert on how people united through the power of poetry

by Professor John Gardner, Anglia Ruskin University

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”.

To read the poem in full, visit

John Gardner, Professor of English Literature, Anglia Ruskin University

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

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