When I was 18, I left Scotland and headed south to Manchester. Home of New Order and the Haçienda, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, Alex Ferguson (another Scottish ex-pat) and Manchester United. And my own home for fifteen formative years; the closest I have to a home in England.
‘Have you heard of Ariana Grande ?’ I ask my eleven-year-old daughter, the morning after the bomb. ‘Of course!’ She looks at me as if I were stupid. ‘Everyone’s heard of her.’ The maliciousness of targeting a concert aimed at children and teenage girls hits home.
I sit at my screen in London, watching the news, seizing on every background detail. Too much is familiar.
The bomber lived in Withington, they say. The heart of student territory in South Manchester. I watch pictures of a raid on the family home, and recognise the streets: the bleak housing and deprivation of the estate where I served my first curacy.
He worshipped at a mosque in Didsbury, it is claimed. A former Methodist church converted by Syrian immigrants. It stood at the end of the road in my second parish. We organised visits there from my church: exchanges to promote mutual understanding and community cohesion. Mosque leaders are photographed in shock.
I remember again the dull thud of the IRA bomb in 1996, heard across the city centre; and the ability of Manchester to turn even this into a chance for renewal and regeneration.
I see my former vicar, now Dean of Manchester Cathedral, leading prayers on the news. An immigrant to Manchester; a South African priest of Asian background. We worked together after 9/11. I send him an email of support. He will have work cut out for him in the weeks to come.
An arrest elsewhere in South Manchester, they say. They provide the district; incongruously they even provide the name of the supermarket car park. It is opposite the home of two close friends, godparents to my children. Their daughter was not at the concert.
We text friends and old colleagues.
I am moved to tears by poet Tony Walsh as he performs ‘This is the place’ before thousands in front of Manchester town hall. ‘There’s hard times again,’ he proclaims. ‘There’s hard times again, in these streets of our city.’
And by pupils of Chetham’s School, across the road from the centre of the attack. Unable to leave, from behind a cordon, they sing ‘Don’t look back in anger’: an anthem from another great Manchester band, Oasis.
In the midst of it all, it makes me smile. I think of Liam and Noel Gallagher: the two brothers from Burnage at the heart of the band who embodied all the swagger and attitude of Mancunion scallywags.
Not the polite refinement of the south. But the city that says ‘Fuck you’ in the face of terrorism: we stand for peace.
‘It’s funny’, people say to me when I tell them where I’m from. ‘You don’t sound Scottish. If anything, you have a slight northern twang to your accent.’
They’re right. It’s the sound of Manchester.
Salaam alaikum. Peace be with you, my friends.