I moved to Manchester when I was 11 and a lot of my growing up took place in the Manchester Arena. My first memory was of it being called The NYNEX, way back when there was a huge multiplex cinema attached to it, and getting the tram from Victoria to Bury seemed wildly exotic. In the late 90s, my friends and I went there every Saturday to watch Titanic, Armageddon and The Wedding Singer over and over and over again. We bought popcorn and buckets of Coke with our pocket money, and memorised the correct birthdate that would get us into a rated 15 movie. When someone suggested ‘hanging out’ at the weekend, it was always the cinema - because what else do you do when you're 12 or 13 or 14? There was nowhere else to go.
The walls of that place, if they could talk, could narrate the metamorphosis of millions of young people - from beautifully awkward teenagers into the security of adulthood. For me, that venue was a place where my musical tastes were shaped and formed. It was a place to grow, to express my identity and my freedom.
I was there in my Mark One jeans and my Kappa jacket to watch Hear’Say (remember them?) and the Spice Girls. I was there in clothes I’d ‘borrowed’ from my sister to watch the Counting Crows. I was there in my skate shorts and Doc Marten boots, with plastic bracelets up my arm and bright pink hair, to watch Avril Lavigne and Greenday and the Foo Fighters. And later on, to watch The Killers and The Kings of Leon, finally comfortable in my own bloody skin, buying beer with an actual salary instead of my weekly spends.
And there were plenty more in between. Gigs with my sister, gigs with friends, gigs with first boyfriends and last boyfriends and boys I wished at the time were my boyfriends. I fell in love there and had my heart broken there. I danced and moshed and crowd surfed there. I damaged my ears and got tinnitus there. I shared that electric feeling of pouring out into the cold night air when it was all over, still sweating and singing and dancing and reeling, drunk on overpriced booze and the sheer wondrousness of it all. It was a feeling of euphoria, of being part of something bigger than you, of belonging.
I also have memories of being in Victoria station. Catching the tram or the train out to see friends in Bury or Prestwich or Mosley or Heaton Park. For a girl from South Manchester, this was uncharted territory to be venturing so far north. And again when I was training to be a teacher, I took the train from Victoria out to New Moston and spent many bleak and early mornings clutching a hot cup of tea, trying to muster up the energy for another day of feeling completely out of my depth.
I’m not in Manchester anymore, so when I heard the devastating news that someone had tried to rip the heart out of this great city, all I could do was watch the disaster unfold through a screen. But as much as it broke my heart to see the death-count rise and the devastation ripple across the nation, I also saw the deep rooted goodness amongst all the chaos. I wasn’t surprised to hear about the taxi drivers who switched off their meters and drove stranded people home for free; that hotels opened their doors to hysterical teenagers and gave them shelter for the night; that a homeless man dived in to rescue a young girl and pulled shrapnel from her face; that people of all faiths and from all backgrounds held hands and stood united – the backbone of the North. The sense of community feels stronger than ever - despite that being the very thing these terror groups set out to destroy. And, yes, people are scared – we’re all scared – but they’re standing together to face the fear head on.
Because Manchester is a city that fights hate with love; with sunset vigils, floral tributes, Smiths lyrics and poetry about how the city itself is in people’s bones. It's a city whose anthems are There is a light that never goes out, I am the resurrection and Live Forever. It's a city of fighters and survivors and doers and grafters. It’s a city that says, "Do one, you terrorist bastards" and then has their mate round for a brew. This is what makes Manchester great. This is the fire deep within its belly that will never be extinguished.
I’ve always been an honorary Manc – I came from the south, and after sixteen years up North, I’m back here again – but in the last couple of days, that honorary title has never been more of a privilege. You can’t not love the place. They do things differently there.