Over three years after the devastating terrorist attack in Manchester in May 2017, Tony Walsh’s electrifying poem, ‘This is the Place,’ is one that has remained with me ever since.
In 2012, Walsh, who performs as ‘Longfella’, was commissioned by the charity ‘Forever Manchester’ to write a poem which embodied and celebrated the spirit of Greater Manchester; from here, his poem ‘This is the Place’ was formed. Less than 24 hours after the attack in 2017, people gathered in Manchester’s Albert Square to attend a peaceful vigil which paid tribute to those who were killed and affected by the bombing. Among the speakers at the vigil was Walsh, whose performance of his Manchester-themed poem, ‘This is the Place,’ gave voice to an impenetrable silence. Where the fabric of the city was momentarily torn and filled with
mourning quiet, Walsh put words to our grief, and stitched this open wound with warmth, texture, and a powerful reminder of our strong community spirit.
As a proud Mancunian myself, I attached myself to the poem upon first hearing it at the vigil. I felt each and every word of it. Equally as moving as his words were Walsh’s pauses and silences, along with the cheers of approval from the crowd when he declared how “a Manchester girl named Emmeline / Pankhurst from the streets of Moss Side led a suffragette city with sisterhood pride”. The references to emblems and events that commemorate Manchester, such as the suffragette movement, the invention of the computer, and its status as the birthplace of ‘brilliant bands,’ effectively demonstrate the city’s rich cultural history with a passionate and celebratory tone. However, later on in the poem, Walsh takes a more personal stance, allowing his dialect to shine through, telling of how “me mum, lived / and died here, she loved it, she did”. The Mancunian twang and the reference to his personal connections with the city were things I felt everyone could relate to as residents of Greater Manchester. As much as we commute in and out of the city centre in a mechanical, perfunctory way for work and leisure, we cannot deny our own intrinsic, personal connections with its lively and vibrant atmosphere.
In what I think is my favourite line of the poem, Walsh writes that “they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat / all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets.” Reminiscent of the “worker bee” symbol associated with Manchester, this line reflects the ‘Northern grit’ Walsh speaks of: our determination to stand strong together in pursuit of our dreams and ambitions. Capturing the dynamism of the city through his upbeat rhyme scheme, Walsh’s rhythmic and lyrical spoken-word performance united the city in poetic form, which further embodies Manchester’s rich and diverse cultural arts scene. The reception of the poem in 2017 also demonstrates how powerful poetry is as both a written and a spoken form. When we think of poetry, we often associate it with words on a page, but sometimes we forget how important it is for poetry to also be read aloud.
The term ‘performance’ doesn’t seem a fitting description for Walsh’s reading of his poem at the vigil, as this implies an element of playing a part, of putting on a show. Indeed, Walsh moved us with his lyrical verse and prowess in spoken word. However, his recital was authentic and passionate, rather than a rehearsed catalogue of verse. While Walsh should be rightly credited for his flair as a performance poet, this should not take away from his status as a renowned poet within his own right, publishing a multitude of moving poetry both before and after ‘This is the Place’ received global attention. Since its performance at the vigil in May 2017, the poem has been used and licensed to raise almost two-hundred-thousand pounds for families of those who were killed in the attack, survivors of the attack, and various Manchester charities.
In the final line of his poem, Walsh writes: “Always remember, never forget, forever Manchester.”
Since the attack, these words have become almost proverbial in the city: we can still see them incorporated into artwork on tote-bags, spray-painted onto walls, zooming past us on the sides of buses on Oxford Road. But most of all, we can still feel them in our hearts.
Image: williammchugh via unsplash