‘That’s the Mancunian Way’

There’s a poem by Lemn Sissay written on the side of a takeaway on Oxford Road in Manchester.

I took a photo of it the day I moved into my student halls 12 years ago. The sky was a brilliant blue – unusual, given it was early September; ironic, given the words painted on the wall.

Today, its prose seems more poignant.

Manchester is a city often mocked for its inclement weather, its reputation wrapped up in near-constant drizzle and Morrissey-like misery. But there’s more to the heart of the North than stereotypes of swaggering scallies and 24-hour party people, as last night’s events have shown.

In the wake of yet another cowardly attack, Mancunians have responded in the way only they know how – with strength, with solidarity and with the no-nonsense attitude borne of living where it’s “grim”.

When a suicide attacker targeted an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, killing 22 people – some of them as young as 8 – taxi drivers took gig-goers to safety. Hotels and strangers opened their doors and homes. People rescued children who had become separated from their grown-ups.

The outpouring of support on social media has pulled us together, both in terms of love for the city and in the thousands of pounds already raised to help those caught up in the attack.

I live in Leeds now, but my heart is in Manchester. The five years I spent in Rusholme, in Fallowfield, in Victoria Park and in the Northern Quarter, were some of my happiest. I think back to that day in 2005 when I arrived at Whitworth Park with a kettle, a crap laptop and a box of cornflakes and feel the same excitement I did then every time my train pulls into Piccadilly station now. This one feels personal.

When I woke up this morning, I had no words. I can think of a few choice ones now that it’s sunk in, but I’ll leave the talking to Lemn Sissay:

“When the rain falls, they talk of Manchester. But when the triumphant rain falls, we think of rainbows. That’s the Mancunian Way”.

Community and coal: Why I feel for Big K’s workers


Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in the subject, you’d have to have been living under a rock – or perhaps more fittingly, a pile of coal – to have missed the news that the UK’s last deep pit closed last week.

Unsurprisingly, given the landslide of eulogies in the media on the subject over the last few days, Kellingley Colliery has been on my mind.

Apart from the fact it brings centuries of deep coal mining in Britain to an end; setting aside the hundreds of people it has put out of work; forgetting the millions of pounds worth of machinery now buried underground – it’s the communities of the Five Towns – Pontefract, Castleford, Knottingley, Featherstone, and Normanton – I feel for.

I spent three years writing for the Pontefract and Castleford Express and for at least one of those, didn’t really understand what local news was about or why it mattered.

It took me a year to really “get it” and almost two to build the contacts and earn the trust of the paper’s readers. I was an outsider, with a strange haircut, and my youth meant I didn’t have any real appreciation of the unhealed wounds these ex-mining towns suffered. The day I really started to understand the bond between community and coal was the night miner Gerry Gibson died.

We had just put that week’s paper to bed and were packing up for the day when the phone rang.  The person on the other end told my editor there had been an accident at the pit and as she put the phone down, I saw Rebecca exchange a glance with the news editor, Julie, and then proceed to have some sort of wordless exchange about sending the most inexperienced reporter out to what turned out to be the year’s biggest story.

Rebecca eventually said to me: “I think you should go out there,” and I can still remember the feeling of dread that washed over me. Within half an hour I was stood at the gates of the pit not really knowing what to do.

I had underestimated the height of emotions felt by those nervously waiting for news – some of them equally in fear of what word would bring but desperate to know all the same. The first girl I approached screamed in my face: “Fuck off, this is people’s families you’re asking about!”

I ended up speaking to a man stood a little off to the side on his own. He was a former Kellingley miner – retired, but so concerned for his friends underground that he’d driven over for his own peace of mind, even though he knew there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know who was trapped but it didn’t matter- regardless of who was down there, the feelings were still the same: helplessness, fear, concern.

That deep-rooted camaraderie was never more evident to me than the day I spent down Big K. A year after the horrific incident which killed Mr Gibson, UK Coal invited me to travel the nine miles to the coalface to see for myself what mining was all about.

I wrote about it in detail at the time and even now still find it hard to articulate the obvious affinity between those men, perhaps because it’s so rarely observed in the average workplace. Maybe digging far below the earth’s surface for a living is one of the only places you can expect to form that sort of extraordinary bond.

coalface

Shortly after I surfaced from my time down the pit

I remember once interviewing a man about something completely unrelated to coal when he began to tell me about his life down the pit. What was memorable about this exchange was how deeply sad he was at the loss of what seemed, at least to me, a highly undesirable way to spend your life. I wouldn’t even come close to understanding it until I saw for myself what he had been forced to give up.

He was from Featherstone, which was part of my patch – a town which in many ways never really recovered from the closure of its own pit in the mid-1980s. Its housing estates are full  of men like him, who have been on the dole since Thatcher’s reign, put out to pasture long before their time. Some made a career of hopping from one doomed pit to another, but many felt let down and demoralised – never to return to another job, let alone another coalface.

After I joined the BBC, I was well-placed to talk about the impact it would have on the communities it would affect. But now, as it becomes a reality for those who have never known anything but coal, I wonder how they will ever move on. All that’s really left to say is it’s a damn shame it happened at all.