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From City to Coast 3

June 29, 2017

This is the third and final “Letter from France” written after a recent short stay.

Writing about Paris is in some ways like writing a love song: it has been done so many times that the temptation is to ask: why bother?

The answer to both, of course, is that every relationship is unique, and, on that basis, should be celebrated. It depends what is brought to the partnership by each side, and how the writer choses to portray it.

My relationship with Paris is as a tourist – I can claim no more than that. However, even that relationship matures through time. After the frenetic activities of the first few visits, when every tourist box has to be ticked, every site seen, there comes a time when just being there is enough.

Strangely, the less organised your itinerary, the more you may discover, and the better you are able to appreciate the place.

With just over 24 hours in town and in temperatures forecast to be in the high nineties, there was no way we would be racing about the place, but we are staying on the Ile de St Louis for the first time, a few hundred yards from Notre Dame, and even that gives us a new perspective on the city.

I love the architecture of Paris, Haussmann’s boulevards, the elegant stonework and the myriad side streets all over the city. Most of all, however, I love the people who throng the streets and the Seine as it flows through the centre, drawing the eye with its constant movement: along with its bridges, very much a part of the city itself.

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It performs the same role as the Liffey, the Potomac, the Clyde, and the Thames and other rivers with cities built around them and through which they flow. Though the East and Hudson rivers are crucial to New York, the Charles forever associated with Boston, and the Spree with Berlin –it is possible to spend time in these cities without being overly aware of their rivers;  in Paris, nobody escapes the notice of the Seine. The two are synonymous – and this is not just a tourist thing. What fascinates me is the way in which the Parisiens embrace their river, make it a part of their daily lives, eschew the idea that it is for looking at, or photographing, and incorporate it into so many aspects of their routine.

Basically on this visit we follow the Seine from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries by the Louvre. As it happens, that’s not a bad tourist route, but our eyes are on people rather than buildings, sights rather than sites.

Although since 2002 the Paris-Plages scheme has converted parts of the banks of the Seine into “beaches” every Summer, this scheme has been extended and now large lengths of the banks, formerly expressways for traffic through the city centre, have been closed to cars altogether.

The transformation, which we are experiencing for the first time, is quite stunning in its impact, and we have not been expecting this – nor have we predicted the calm atmosphere in the city overall.

After the terrorist atrocities that Paris has suffered, and the continuing French State of Emergency, I suppose we wondered if that would be manifested  as we moved round the city. We see soldiers twice, I think – once in the gardens by Notre Dame, and once on patrol  in the courtyard at the Louvre. I’m sure there may be signs of increased security in other places, but in general, the people and the police seem much as usual.

To be fair, Paris, and France in general, have always had  a fairly   militarised police structure: officers bearing arms, CRS vans in side streets, a variety of sirens and flashing blue lights are part of the normal streetscape.

As it happens, there is a ‘contained’ terrorist incident while we are in the city. A car rams a police convoy on the Champs Elysée and the driver is shot dead. We are a mile or two away from the scene and vaguely aware of a number of police vehicles speeding by, but nothing which suggests a serious incident. French phlegm, I suspect, is a potent defence.

The car free river banks are a revelation. Pedestrians and cyclists seem to coexist amiably and small open-air cafes have sprung up at intervals. There are fitness machines, a climbing wall, flowers, hammocks,  and benches – everything you might want to attract folk to the riverside.

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We made our way, slowly in the heat from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries, stopping regularly to shelter from the sun and to take in our surroundings. Paris is as impressive as ever – crossing the bridges and going down to the river bank we catch glimpses of familiar sights: the Hotel de Ville, Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Rue de Rivoli before arriving at Les Tuileries to seek some shade and some rest.

At the side of the pond a heron lands and settles not ten feet away – maybe too hot to be wary, or maybe displaying some Parisien sang-froid. The trees provide the shade for which they were planted and in the quiet of the gardens we can look around at Les Invalides, the Eifel Tower, the Pyramid at the Louvre, but what still holds my attention most is the parade of people we saw on the banks of the Seine.

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Young and old, trendy and business like, relaxing and busy, moving and still. They are a cross section of Paris life – portraits against a busy background of tourist boats and commercial vessels. Some are active – cycling, boarding, or trying out the fitness machines or climbing-wall fitments. Some listen to music and a few play – a guitarist, an accordion, and a distant saxophone blowing jazz over the water. Remarkably, a bagpiper on the bridge above us. What takes the eye – and the ear – most of all –  are the conversations, people talking and listening, facing each other with intent, reflecting and positing, hearing and replying.

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There is something glorious about all this human interaction at the heart of one of the world’s great cities. It something we often miss in the hurry and scurry – this ability of humanity to talk and listen in the midst of bustle and movement, the willingness, even the need, to communicate, exchange views, pass comment and hear our neighbour’s voice.

Despite popular belief, personal music players are quite scarce; drink tends to be soft or a discreet glass of wine, pizza boxes are completely absent, and most rubbish is neatly stacked in litter bins. It is like an assertion of sophisticated behavior, a choice to be the best and not the worst, a celebration of togetherness rather than divisiveness – and all colours and races are represented – when you think of all the Seine has flowed past down the centuries, how could it be otherwise – and why on earth would you want it to be?

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I’m well aware I could seek, and find, a very different Paris, were I  willing to look, but I don’t feel in any way that reduces the impact of these river banks and their city dweller inhabitants

Later on in the evening, the streets still busy, the air still stifling, we take a  walk back to the riverside, and find a quite remarkable number of people sitting in twos and threes, seldom bigger groups, more wine bottles – usually with glasses – on show, musicians, cyclists, skaters, sometimes solitary  thinkers, but mostly talkers and listeners, a coming together of citizens, the babbling conversation of the Seine flowing past, mixing with the interaction between its people.

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It’s a sight which is strangely moving – as if the people are taking over the city from the buildings. It is most obvious, of course, on the parts of the river bank which had been the “Pompidou Expressways”, once  a steady line of hurtling vehicles, now moving to a gentler beat of evening walks, casual chats, and gentle exercise.

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However, as has long been the case, the older parts of the banks, always accessible to the city’s residents, are thronged tonight as well. Benches, steps, ledges hewn out of the river walls, tree stumps, the gunwales of barges and houseboats and smaller craft tied to the quays,– they all serve as a place to sit or lean and contemplate the Seine, Paris, and life in general. The groups of people form patterns, dark against the light stone, disappearing off into the distance, with the occasional movement seeming to fade into the general stillness.

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There are still boats moving on the water, but, generally, the Seine is a quiet river rather than a centre of noise. It means that car horns, police and ambulance sirens, and the music of the buskers all seem to exist individually and distinctively, rather than form a carpet of noise. It gives this bustling city an intimacy – which of course is one of its great attractions, be it by the river, in the gardens, or in the squares and alleyways of Le Marais or Montmartre.

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A setting sun lends drama to the scene, as the water flames and the people become shadows.

It brings our short stay in France to a perfect end, an impressionist message from the Seine and its people.

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Tomorrow we will fly out over those northern green fields and we’ll be thankful for a France that is diverse, thoughtful, vibrant, and very much its own person.

An Auld Alliance indeed.

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From City to Coast 2

June 29, 2017

This is the second of three letters from France, based on a short stay in June 2017

The stretch of seaside promenade from Lion sur Mer to the port of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast is around six kilometres long. It is well maintained and provides good space for pedestrian and cyclist alike, running alongside a beach of gently sloping sand, fringed by peaceful rolling waves. The locals call it “La Digue” or sea wall.

Overlooking the promenade is a mixture of old Norman houses with that familiar half  timbered appearance, no doubt holiday retreats built by prosperous Paris merchants in the later 19th century, and more modern seaside homes with architected smoked glass, balconies, and modern versions of Calvados design. The older houses predominate, and create a unique atmosphere, close as they are to the beach.

 

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Every few hundred yards, an alleyway leads between the seafront houses back to the small villes behind –  Lion itself, Hermanville, Colleville – villages in every sense, narrow streets, hotel de ville, boulangerie, town square and tall thin buildings. The alleyways provide access to and from the beach, but also allow the promenaders a snapshot of everyday life behind the glorious escape of sea and sand, and the workers in the villages the promise of that blue and gold relaxation.

I am brought here because my niece and her family live in Lion, but others have been here before me for reasons not of their choosing.

As it happens, this  stretch of coastline between Lion sur Mer and Ouistreham, coincides almost exactly with the area designated “Sword” on June 6th 1944 – D-Day, as it is known. At this spot,  British troops, along with French commandos, stormed the beaches, as part of the attempt to secure Caen.

The official histories will tell you that around 29,000 men landed in this area and there were between 600 and 1000 casualties. The landings started around 7.25am and the beaches had largely been secured by 9.30am. German defences were lighter here than in other areas, though Lion was the scene of one of the German counter attacks with Panzer tanks. The main problems were caused by the narrowness of the beach and the speed of the rising tide, which increasingly minimised the space for the assault troops, given  the detritus of machinery, bodies, and beach defences.

Official histories are fine catalogues of warfare – with their sweeping arrows, their unit titles, their order of battle, their timelines, and their glossaries – but they seldom capture the humanity – or the inhumanity –  of the fighting. The reports from Sword Beach rightly point out that, comparatively, losses were light in this section of the coastline, but, of course, to the people who were here on Sword, British, German or French, that statistic is rather meaningless.

Walking that stretch of seaside today can prove a conflicting experience. How should one react to what have become known as “The D Day beaches”?

It is a quiet June weekday, and there  is a sense that those young men who fought and died and fell and survived here in  1944 were doing so for peace: so that the old man walking his dog, the speedy cyclist, the teenagers in the sea pretending to revise for their exams, the women snatching a moment to chat in an unseasonably hot sun, could use this place for relaxation and re-creation. This achingly blue sky and spotless bright sand should be accepted for what they are today – a tiny piece of paradise, rather than what they were then, a huge part of Hell.

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Well, yes – I can understand that argument, but it’s easier as an aspiration than the reality which is declared by bullet scarred stonework, houses refurbished or rebuilt because of shellfire, those alleyways –  which 70 years ago offered actual escape rather than relief from work or routine.

This is not seaside in the sense of Brighton or Blackpool – or even Deauville up the coast. It is quiet, and even at the busy height of summer is rarely raucous or overcrowded. Certainly away from Riva Bella – the beaches around Oiustreham – this a  seafront for relaxation and reflection. The occasional cafe or food outlet is understated and to scale. It feels, perhaps, as if the people here have taken the decision to welcome the tourist and the holidaymaker, but also to remain aware of their history, and the events which took place during the Liberation. It’s an approach which feels right.

Every three or four hundred yards there are interpretative noticeboards, showing the houses in front of you  as they appeared from the beach on that June morning – they are not intrusive or over elaborate and there are not too many of them, but they quietly make the point, and place you in the position – geographically if not emotionally – of those young men all those years ago.

And there are the memorials. Towards Ouistreham, they become larger and more imposing, matching the scale of the engagements: grass covered bunkers, carefully sculpted statues, and representations of courage and sacrifice, tributes to whole divisions or units of troops.

But it’s the smaller things which resonate.

There are sets of flags – British, American, Canadian and French – in so many windows – not just along the beaches, but in houses in the towns, a moving signal of gratitude by a generation mostly unborn in 1944. It’s a symbolism which casts a bitter shadow over the mean spirited, isolationist, Brexit voters, so desperate to be “non-Europeans” and to cast themselves adrift from a centuries old relationship – and with it to take Scots, whose Auld Alliance with France stretches back even further. There are many arguments to be had over the reason why the allies fought, but the simple gesture of these flags in so many windows makes the point about  mutual support with great, if silent, eloquence.

And then there are the names and individuals.

About half way along the beach is a small, almost private, memorial, no more than waist high. It faces inland, so, reading its inscription you are facing the beach on which these three young French commandos landed on D-Day morning. The “Kiefer Commandos” were given the honour of being first ashore here, these three never made it off the beach, their pictures on the stone reveal their youth – 32, 24 and 26. They came ashore like so many thousands that early morning, with heads filled with plans and hearts filled with dreams. How happy they must have been to step once more on a French  beach, and how sad it is  that they would not survive to see children flourish or grandchildren grow.

It’s hard not to think about what spaces may have been filled by those children – in schools, on beaches, in sports teams, if these three – and thousands of others – had survived the maelstrom on these beaches. I’ll be haunted by these three soldiers  for days, and by the simple record of their bravery which encourages the young of today to remember the young of yesterday.

Most folk have never heard of Sgt Jim Mapham, yet, along with a half dozen colleagues of the Army Film and Photography Unit, he was responsible for the most outstanding picture taken of the landings on Sword Beach. The faces of the troops, pictured just yards from where I stand are vivid reminders of the reality of war – and the bravery of the photographer.

A more familiar name is that of Bill Millin – the piper to Lord Lovat – famous for walking Sword Beach playing the pipes as an encouragement to the troops as they landed. Some were encouraged, some thought him mad. The Germans certainly did, and ceased fire in amazement for a minute or so when they saw him, and the pipes rang out in the silence before death and destruction resumed. Lovat’s command to ignore War Office instructions and play during the landing was made on the basis that “That’s the English War Office, and we are Scottish!”

There is now a life sized statue of Bill opposite the point where his unit landed. He would have appreciated the fact that it is a solid sculpture, because looking  at it from ground level you would otherwise be able to see up his kilt! It is, I suppose, somehow, a sign of hope to remember that – even if only for seconds – the Piobaireachd was more  powerful than the might of the German defences. And, though the Germans said they withheld from targeting him because they thought he was mad, it would be nice to think that music reached deeper than military training.

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A quote from Bill lies on  the base of the statue:

If they remember the bagpiper then they won’t forget those who served and fell on the beaches.”

and, in a sense, that describes the feelings evoked by this stretch of beach. Too often these days, military commemorations are used for political purposes, by those too young to have experienced the realities of conflict, and come perilously close to glorifying war. That is no way to remember those who fall in battle or who are scarred for life by their experiences. We honour them best by remembering them as individuals – who lost their chance to live the lives that we have lived.

The piquancy of these beaches is that they cast the brutality of battle against the beauty of nature and the commonplace of everyday life. Troops talk of crouching for cover behind walls alongside hens pecking for food, or seeing children’s toys, of noticing hairbrushes and washstands through windows shattered by bullets – death in the midst of life.

War – all war – is a full stop for many. At least the memories on these beaches, carefully and quietly preserved, afford some lingering recognition of the men who came here, what they did and what they suffered – and a message which is as certain as the ebb and flow of the restless tides: that they will not be forgotten.

For them, and those who loved them, these sands of time will not run out.

 

 

 

From city to coast 1

June 29, 2017

This is the first of three “Letters from France”, based on a short stay in June 2017.

We fly into Paris across the  flat green  fields of northern France. Under a blue sky, with wisps of  cloud, they stretch on and on for miles. Ten minutes has us across them, it took armies fatal months  to cover the same ground.

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Trains are like veins in the insight they give to a country or a city’s nature. From the airport, the RER heads for Paris Gare du Nord through northern suburbs of upright French architecture interspersed with blocks of modern flats and all purpose industrial units: the old and the new, past and present, side by side, like the passengers around us: elegant suits and the hijab and jeans.

The graffiti is internationally incomprehensible and the weeds grow between the goods siding tracks like an attempt to ruralise the city.

Rusting lines branch off towards long forgotten sheds, dusty trains line up as if they are waiting to be called, whether permanently out of use or ready for tomorrow, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

In some ways the arrival at main line terminal stations is the same in all cities. The lines multiply, the buildings on either side grow taller, the expansive station roofs cast shadows, and travellers stumble to their feet, reaching for bags and coats  in a kind of hurried desperation.

The Gare du Nord is railway busy and commercially packed. Shops abound and arrows point all ways to various connections and exits. If you never escaped from this warren, you would think everybody in the world had an urgent mission.

After stairs and escalators, corridors and passageways, the metro slides into place like an obsequious servant, exactly on time and where it should be.

The short ride to Haussmann Lazare is followed by a break out into the Paris streetscape – which is so familiar  with its high and ornate stonework, its wrought iron balconies, and its huge wooden doors leading to hidden courtyards – that it feels like a film set.

Sainte Lazare is a commuter station for passengers heading towards the northern coasts – a manageable size and a familiar layout: platforms, departure boards, shopping mall, and people in suspense waiting for their platform number.

Shortly after the train leaves the station for Caen,  Paris pulls off its most famous and repeated stunt – and you cross the Seine without warning or preparation – with its wide waters, its high stone banks, the bridges, the barges and the houseboats. Like an ID flashed at a checkpoint it instantly validates your location – you could be  nowhere else,   but as soon as you’ve made your recognition the grand old river is gone, and the train flows over smaller streams and canals,  auxiliary vessels to the main artery.

To remind you of the country through which you are travelling, there is a huge Citroen-Peugeot plant by the side of the tracks, the cars in lines like soldiers waiting for battle, transporters holding them in double decked rows, thousands of tiny mass produced elements of trade and industry. Later there is a sprawling Renault site, massive barns of machinery,  and endless white vans and shining cars, even the signal box location named “Renault Poste 1”.

With greenery growing in every available space, the suburbs pass by: like the workers they house, there to do a job, half turned towards the countryside, pulled ever closer by the city’s power.

Then the fields take over – rolling and green and of good size – they are interrupted at intervals by solid farmhouses and buildings, the rubble of their domesticity scattered around them: machinery, cars, tractors, children’s toys, signs, and pylons, country and people carefully united, lives merging into the land.

Neat stations serving small and widely spaced communities don’t merit a stop from this inter city express, they are a blur of platforms, half full car parks, and the mismatched sheds of local industry and commerce,  till the fields reassert themselves. This is arable land –  no cattle, scarcely a person or car to be seen, just the greens and golden browns of growth, the reaping  and sowing of rural repetition.

Here the sky is bigger, the light less fraught, there is a sense of heading for somewhere, somewhere different. Approaching Lisieux the towering Basillica of Saint Thérèse, its dome shimmering in midday sunlight, is somehow a reminder of the connection between the country and the spiritual – be it pagan or theocratic, and the fields have changed again. Now we have the bocage for which Normandy is famous: the fields smaller, the hedges thicker and more like small trees, and the crops have given way to cattle – heavy, strong looking beasts, scattered about the fields, sheltering by hedges, reminders of the tough nature of this terrain.

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This feels like the Normandy you carry in your head, from distant geography and history lessons in school: the farming and the war, the richness of the ground and the impenetrable nature of the small, well surrounded fields.

But then you are reminded that you are headed to the coast as we approach Caen and the fields flatten, water towers appear – huge white concrete mushrooms across the landscape – you can see for miles across these featureless flatlands, to the city, its factories, its periphrique, and its strange confusion – of post war modern and middle ages ancient. Throughout its history, war has come to Caen and left its confusion, but continual rebuilding breeds a people adaptable to change, and on the platforms of the modestly sized station there is a vibrance.

Caen is a city of transition and opposites, destroyed by war and rebuilt by peace, far enough from Paris to be defiantly normal, close enough to the centre to be of some  importance.

The journey has been a definition of France, or, at least, a part of it; the old alongside the new,  commerce and agriculture, flatlands and bocage, country encroached upon by town, suburbs and cities, tiny towns and huge factories.

Through it all there runs a strong sense of where we are: this is France, this is how we look, diversity brings conflict but also strength.

Owen arrives at Dottyville

June 26, 2017

One hundred years ago today, three years into the Great War, a diffident young Second Lieutenant stepped off the overnight sleeper at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and emerged on to Princes St. He  had only sixteen months left to live of his short life, but what he achieved in that time would bring him fame, and create a powerful and important legacy.

He was going to Craiglockhart War Hospital because he was suffering from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was then described.  He was lucky because, for most of the Great War, such a condition was recognised in officers but not in other ranks, who were in danger of being shot at dawn for desertion if they exhibited signs of what was called “funk” in the “Poor Bloody Infantry”.

Though Wilfred Owen had only been a serving soldier for around a year, he had been involved in heavy fighting and some personally disabling incidents. He had spent a day and  night trapped in a shell hole next to the body of a dead comrade, and he had experienced the trauma of his batman, whom he had posted sentry at the top of the dug out stairs, blown up by a shell, blinded, blown down the steps, and reduced to a quivering wreck.

As he headed for Craiglockhart War Hospital, he was closing in on two relationships which would have long lasting ramifications, and would be a catalyst for him achieving his dream of being a published and respected poet. One was Dr Rivers, the innovative psychiatrist at the hospital, and the other, of course, was Owen’s much admired poetic hero, Siegfried Sassoon, who was at Craiglockhart largely as a means of silencing him after his “Declaration of a Soldier” embarrassed the Establishment in its forthright denunciation of the extended war.  Owen would gain poetic confidence and resolve from Sassoon in his time in the war hospital. He would be inspired to write as never before.

He would also change my life.

Wilfred Owen changed my life? That’s a bit of a large claim, is it not?

Well, maybe so – but it would be impossible for me to ignore his impact.

On a Thursday afternoon in 1968, my English teacher, Ernie Spencer, read Owen’s poem “The Send Off” to our English class. I was sixteen, loved reading, and was competent at English. In keeping with the times, our school was not an institution which encouraged self confidence, so the idea of having “flair” in any subject was rare. For all my liking for English, it never occurred to me that I might have ability, or, God forbid, some talent in the subject.

And then, Ernie started going through the poem. Line by line he deconstructed it: rhyme, rhythm, imagery, choice of vocabulary. Then, all of a sudden, I understood. It was a totally definable and unforgettable Eureka moment. From that moment on, I “got” poetry. Owen’s work spoke to me with a clarity which reduced lads like Keats, Shelley, and Byron to indistinct mumbling.

For the first time, poetry, and, by extension, novels and short stories, entered the part of my brain and heart which, until then, had been mostly reserved for rock music. This stuff meant something to me! There was a connection. I understood what he was saying it and how he was saying it. I could see the skill and talent, appreciate the craft.

It was an exciting moment – and I still recognise that it must be quite unusual to be able to identify such a crucial event so precisely. There’s huge credit to Ernie’s teaching as well, of course. I still wonder what might have happened had I had a different English teacher, or he’d chosen another poet or a different poem. Chances are I would have found my way to literature along some other, possibly less dramatic, path, but I’ll never know. Certainly, when I taught that same lesson to pupils through the years, I could see the impact it had on their attitude towards poetry – possibly due to my enthusiasm, but mostly due to Owen’s carefully crafted words.

That moment in class led to me deciding to study for an English degree and ultimately a career as an English teacher. By extension, the poetry of Sassoon,  other War Poets, and eventually a wider range of poetry came to be important to me, and eventually I took to writing myself.

At the start, I was unaware of Owen’s background. I soon learned of the connection to my birthplace of Edinburgh, and, much later, of his time spent in Southport, where I was living when I had my Eureka moment.

Over the years I have paid emotional visits to his grave in Ors cemetery in northern France, and the spot on the canal nearby where he lost his life leading his men, a week before the Armistice. I’ve walked the promenade at Scarborough past the hotel where he spent most of his last year, and wrote so much of his best poetry

Whether passing the New Club in Princes St, Summerside Place in Leith where he stayed with friends, the site of the old Tynecastle school annexe, where he taught briefly, or on the long hill up to Craiglockhart, I think about him often, his effect on my life, and that strange connection and its consequences.

Today I spent an hour at Craiglockhart remembering the shy young poet who arrived there a century ago. The campus was quiet – that lull between exams and graduation ceremonies – and it has changed in many ways since Owen and Sassoon noted the chilling, echoing moans of fellow officers suffering the “night terrors”,  in rooms off the long corridors.  Given all he had been through, it’s hard to recall that when Owen arrived at Craiglockhart he was of an age with many of those students who will be graduating here in the next few weeks. He was hugely attracted by academe and would have no doubt enjoyed the buzz of learning here on the Napier University campus.

 

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However, in some ways it is easy to recapture the atmosphere of that old Hydropathic institution, with the neatly trimmed lawns and tree lined views over Edinburgh, the crunch of feet on gravel. The War Poets Memorial Room is in the former entrance to the building, the corridor still retaining the checked back and white marble upon which Owen would have stepped on this arrival, none too impressed by what he found.

 

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It occurs to me that the distress and disorder of the officers here,  a place Sassoon referred to as “Dottyville”, must have rankled against the peacefulness of its location – but perhaps no more than the madness of war on the farmlands of Belgium and northern France. Maybe conflict was the condition of the times.

 

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It’s still easy to imagine Owen walking these grounds, book in hand, deep in thought, searching for a phrase with which to impress Sassoon when he returned from the golf course. In some way it is a comforting thought, and makes him feel a lot nearer than 1917.

I hold him in great affection, as do countless others, and will always be grateful for the inspiration unconsciously provided by the poet whom Sassoon first described as that “funny little Welshman.”

A century later, Owen’s memory still walks in Edinburgh.

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Clark Gable and your Grandad

June 12, 2017

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                                                                                                                                                                                             (picture credit: Julia Urwin)

It’s a picture of a group of old men.

Except it’s not.

To me  they are all in their twenties – Spence scoring for fun, Alex with defence splitting passes, Big Red terrorising defences, and Colin Alty always doing all that was asked of him

This is the team, managed by Billy Bingham, in the centre, who, in 1967, won Southport FC. Promotion from the Fourth Division, for the first time in their history.

I was fifteen and hardly missed a match that season. Summer of love? You  could  stuff Haight Ashbury, I was at Haig Avenue, watching the Port.

In those days, it was not uncommon for players to spend 5-10 years at a club. If you went every Saturday (or sometimes in Southport’s case, Friday night) they became like family.

They mostly stayed in the town: Spencey taught your mate PE, Arthur Peat was someone’s next door neighbour, you saw Brian Reeves in his greengrocer shop, and Alex Russell was completing his Apprenticeship as a printer. They were accessible during the week, but, to us, at the weekend, they were as legendary as Law, Best and Charlton, plying their trade  down the road at Old Trafford.

There was hardly any football on television then. When a game was televised it was a special event – like Fireworks Night, or Gala Day – really good but made better by its rarity. The fun of football was going to the game, smelling the liniment, drinking sweet tea and laughing with your mates.

I’m sure the likes of Messi and Ronaldo will be remembered for decades to come – but their memory will be of ethereal genius flitting across a screen, rather than the flesh and blood of a Saturday afternoon or an evening under the lights. Everybody remembers Clark Gable because he is famous and appeared in the films, but he was an elusive fabrication; your grandad shines far more brightly in your memory because, though not famous, he was there, and accessible, and you could interact with him. That’s the difference between hero worship and human contact. That’s what watching Southport FC taught me.

Being there at the game was actually more important than the result. We had an understanding then that competitive sport meant that only very few teams could actually win anything – 4 division titles, 7 more promotion spots, and two cups:  13 opportunities for 92 clubs was not high odds. Most clubs had never won anything ever!

So a Cup run to round 4 or 5, a top ten position in your league, or even avoiding relegation,  were all celebrated. The idea that you would stop going because your team wasn’t winning would have been laughed to scorn. What did results have to do with support?  Long losing streaks would  make  you angry and belligerent towards players and manager,  of course, but largely because you knew you would be  back week after week to watch the team, irrespective of success or failure.

Maybe that was a sign of the post war times.

I remember the excitement building before the game, the nerves on the day of the match, the routine,  home and away, of getting to the game, the butterflies before kick off, and being utterly lost in the game for 90 minutes.

There’s no enthusiast like a teenage fan. I was totally hooked on Southport – even though I didn’t know I was establishing a lifelong commitment to watching live football. The essence of those games is still with me 50 years later – I only have to close my eyes to be there. And I often do.

On the 50th  anniversary of my first Southport game in 1963, I went with my son to Haig Ave to watch the Port and I was able to meet my heroes Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell.

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I’ve written about that meeting a few times – but I don’t really have the words for it. A 60 year old man hugging a pair of 70 year olds and saying thank you? What is that all about? How do you convey to someone that you’ve carried the happiness they brought you as a teenager through the whole of your life? Without coming over as a complete prat, that is?

Well, you don’t. You hug them and say thanks, and hope they can understand without getting too embarrassed.

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It’s a part of life that everybody believes that the music and sport of their youth was a golden age. You wouldn’t want it any other way. Maybe, just maybe, being a “child of the Sixties” I’ve got a good claim to that.

I saw three World Cup games at Goodison Park; Everton, Liverpool and Man Utd all had epoch defining teams, and I had Bingham’s  Boys at Haig Avenue.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world. They defined who I am as a football supporter, I measure everything against them. Their all gold kit still shines under the floodlights of my memory.

Looking at them in that picture, aged like me, but still the essence of that marvellous team that meant everything to me, I’m tempted to say I still love them.

But that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, it would be.

But it’s true.

If it’s broke – fix it.

June 7, 2017

I have scarcely blogged politically since the Independence Referendum because, to be honest, I don’t much like the online atmosphere.

This isn’t really to do with the ad hominem attacks from people who think name calling proves a political point – all areas of  life have  individuals seeking attention through poor behaviour. It is rather more to do with a political attitude that  has developed round the UK’s electoral and political system.

Much of the political landscape seems to have been cornered by folk who look at elections as if they were football matches – a goal for us, a penalty against you, a biased referee. There is much cheering and shouting and whataboutery, in the wake of which, the real essential of the political system – to make life better for the majority – can sometimes seem forgotten.

This week’s election in Scotland is a case in point. You can bet your bottom dollar that, should the SNP return 40 MPs, there will be gleeful shouts of “Peak SNP”, “No Indy2” etc.

In fact, in electoral terms, SNP will be still more than comfortably the majority party from Scotland in Westminster, and will still be able to continue its opposition just as it did with 50+ MPs. Electorally, at Westminster, little will have changed for Scotland – unless you think of seats as goals in a game of electoral football.

Ironically, many of the frustrations that lead to a demand for Independence have been highlighted in this election campaign. Not only have issues which are important in Scotland, notably, of course, Brexit, been trivialised or minimalised, but the unionist parties, aided and abetted by parts of the media, have sought to make this General Election about the SNP’s record at Holyrood. This may be due to the fact that many neutral observers have been impressed by the work rate and opposition of the SNP Group at Westminster, or it may be a refusal to tackle genuine Westminster issues. Either way, the voters are being short changed.

While the SNP have focused, as is only correct, on Westminster issues such as WASPI, the Rape clause, austerity measures, welfare cuts, the other parties have tried, ironically, to make the election about Independence. Indeed the Scots Tories campaign literature has been almost exclusively about Indy Ref 2 with scarcely a mention of their party’s elitist agenda. It is this difficulty in squaring Scottish representation with the focus of politics at Westminster which highlights the need for autonomy: it is quite simply – as EVEL and the Brexit vote differential demonstrate – a system which doesn’t work – neither for England – which is dominated by the needs of London and the City, nor for Scotland and Wales, who are dominated by the needs of England.

This is the inevitable consequence of a state composed of countries with different needs and often conflicting geopolitcal views. The way to rid ourselves of internal division is to loosen the exterior, constricting,  bonds and allow each country to make its own relationship with the other, and with the rest of Europe. It’s not a case of “hating” anyone or “disrespecting a shared past”, merely acknowledging a broken system, and espousing a desire to move forward in a way which gives each of the countries of the UK the best form of Government to reflect its needs and people’s wishes.

To those who suggest that the UK provides the “best form of government”, the current election campaign proves challenging.

The “Better Together” catchphrase in the Independence Referendum was “Lead don’t leave”. Even before the votes had all been counted, David Cameron was gleefully announcing the move towards EVEL, making it patently clear that the Westminster parliament was not composed of “equals”.

After the Brexit “remain” vote in Scotland, of 62%, an assurance was given that the views of Scotland would be taken into account in negotiations. Although the Scottish Government was  the only British institution to put forward a detailed plan for negotiations, especially in regards to the single market, this was demonstrably ignored by the UK Government.

Whilst the “Yes” campaign in 2014 faced constant demands for “accurate” extrapolations of what would happen after independence as proof that they should be supported, the Brexit campaign before the Euro Referendum, and the Westminster Government prior to Leave negotiations,  refuse to give the slightest idea of plans or outcomes.

The “Vow” of stronger devolved powers for Scotland after a “No” vote, has actually been replaced by veiled threats that power will  be taken away from the Scottish Parliament.

These are, of course, points you would expect me to make as a supporter of independence, but, in fact, their effect is wider than just party political. All these issues weaken public trust in government from the centre; they demonstrate that the elite in Westminster feel no need to listen to Scotland or its voters, and, when voters feel they are not being listened to, they either disengage from the political process, or they vote with a knee jerk contempt for the status quo in all its guises – leading to votes for UKIP or Trump, as we have recently seen. Both these reactions are worrying for the democratic process.

In vox pops, in America and the UK, we  see numbers of voters admitting that they were either uninformed, ill informed, or just plain pissed off when they voted, and weren’t sure for what they were voting. Many of the 38% who still approve of Donald Trump are happy to admit he is failing to deliver on his promises, or that his policies are bad for the US, but are still supporting him “because he’s Trump and not Clinton, or the political elite.” Similarly, Leave voters, informed of the ill effects of such a vote on the country’s and their personal futures, are often unrepentant, seeing their vote as giving the fingers to the system.

In the current election campaign in the UK, we are seeing the inevitable apotheosis of developments over the past thirty years or so.

Thatcher was the first to establish a cult which said: “I don’t agree with her, but she sticks to her guns, so I’ll vote for her.”: an attitude which is manna from heaven to political operatives – you don’t have to convince people of your policies, just convince them you mean it.

We travelled farther down the highway to political marketing with New Labour and “Cool Britannia” in which political principles could be dumped in order to secure election, and then policies could be decided according to influential backers or focus groups composed of swing voters. This was a development which led to short term gain for Labour but, ultimately,  left them with a party whose policies were unclear to most voters, and many members.

The disengagement from politics, or its cousin, “dog whistle” voting, has been hastened by a media controlled by a narrow elite of oligarchs – each with their own money making philosophy and their access to senior politicians,  and an approach to reporting politics which, generally, is tailored round opinion rather than reportage and sound bites rather than analysis. The self fulfilling prophesy that “politics is boring” has led to a political coverage in our media which is often superficial, biased, agenda led, or misinformed. Voters are not engaged by reporters who operate with an obvious bias, nor by political pieces which are obviously based on a party’s press releases.

The agreed approach in many cases seems to be: “Tell them as little as possible, keep it short and snappy, get a sound bite, and a memorable picture.” The unspoken assumption is that the average voter is incapable or unwilling to assimilate anything more complicated or nuanced. Like a tube of Pringles, this approach goes down well at first but ultimately leaves you feeling sick.

Of course, for the career politicos, the situation is brilliant. Whilst the mass of voters  issue their own sound bites along the lines of: “They’re all the same” “I just ignore them” “They are all out for themselves”, the Campaign Manager and his team have a dream scenario. There are no awkward questions from members of the public, no public meetings to arrange, no challenging hustings, and, ultimately in Theresa May’s case, no contact with the public at all, not even by proxy in a televised debate.

Even better, pesky policies,  which might come back to bite you on the bum, can be eschewed entirely, and replaced by meaningless phrases: “We’re working on it” “The other lot can’t be trusted” “Brexit means Brexit” “Enough is enough” “Strong and Stable” “Do the day job”  “No to Indy 2”.

When I first became active in politics in the 1970s, the days of multiple local hustings were fast disappearing, but to suggest you could campaign without policies, without public meetings, without television debate and on a platform of “they are bad people” would have been laughed to scorn.

Now, when the UK Prime Minister “campaigns in Scotland” in a remote village hall or with a hundred activists in a shabby removal warehouse, hardly a media eye is blinked. You could call it CGI campaigning: it’s false, the public know it’s false, but they accept it because it’s supposed to look good.

All of this is to the ruination of the political system and its worth to the people it is supposed to serve. A Prime MInister who won’t debate, parties replacing policy justification with negativity, a media of limited resources and elitist owners – all of these things pervert democracy’s true aims of public service and community enhancement. A political system which, by rights, should serve the public in the common good, has become a plaything for the rich and a means of silencing the voice of the vulnerable. The fact that a Prime Minsiter can end an election campaign calling for the abandonment of human rights is a strong statement about where we have reached in the political process.

So I will be voting SNP because I want independence: the independence to institute a political system which serves the people.  The party’s continuing popularity after ten years of Holyrood Government suggests not that they are perfect or without blemish, but that people prefer their positivity to the negativity of the unionist parties, that they prefer a party which talks up Scotland’s potential rather than denigrating the country’s achievements, and which can take decisions in the interests of the people who live in Scotland, rather than making constant reference to what is good for the population south of the border,  or for UK election prospects.

In the terms by which this campaign has operated, I suppose you could say they prefer the party of a First Minister who is spontaneously hugged by children to that of a Prime MInister who is afraid to meet the public and campaigns in sheds, or party leaders whose day job appears to be angrily shouting at the Scottish Government while defending or abstaining on Westminster policies which have attacked women, the sick, public services, the poor, and  the most vulnerable in our society.

I have no idea what party will form the first Scottish Government after independence. What I do know is that it will have the opportunity to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the people it serves, it will have the responsibility for spending and prioritising all of the revenue it raises in Scotland in the interests of the country’s residents, its leaders will be accountable to the people in Scotland, rather than party organisations in London, and it will be able to present a Scotland internationally which is freed from the post imperial need to aspire to “world  power status” with all the consequent disadvantages to our social welfare capacities.

I find it hard to believe how anyone could not prefer this future to the current state of UK politics and its major players. Basically, the message to Scotland is: come and be part of a political system which is responsive to your needs and views, or maintain the status quo – of a country treated as a region, lucky to get even the 8% of attention it is entitled to demographically in the UK State, and prevented from forging an identity in Europe or the world.

Increasingly it seems that those who cling to the broken system in these islands are those members of the elite who have ordered things to their advantage – economically, socially, or politically.

I think people – in all the countries of these islands – deserve better.

Indeed, I know they do.

The Best People in the Best Place

May 24, 2017

After my dad died when I was 5, I moved from Edinburgh to west Lancashire  a year or so later. First we lived in a country village called Euxton; its nearest neighbours included, Croston, Chorley, and Tarleton. It was a perfect introduction to the north of England for a wee boy who had lost his dad, and I quickly acquired a suitably local accent whilst I explored the woods and lanes,  and made new friends.

Two years later we moved again, to Southport, on the coast, and, again, I was fortunate to live in a friendly, welcoming,  town, and to make lots of friends.

So from the age of  8 till 18, my nearest cities were Preston, Liverpool, and Manchester.

Thanks to Beeching’s cuts, there was no direct railway  line to Preston from Southport in the early sixties, so Liverpool became the most familiar of the three. I went to school in its suburbs, my mother’s family were there, and there we went on our earliest shopping expeditions – mostly for records, but eventually for clothes. The mid sixties wasn’t the worst of times to be a teenager in Liverpool! The Cavern, The Grapes pub, NEMS record shop, and Frank Hessy Music were still places we shopped in or passed,  rather than destinations on a heritatge tour. I travelled to school sports fixtures on the Wirral on the iconic Mersey Ferries – because they were cheaper than the underground or buses.

From the perspective of the 21st century, I suppose I got to know Liverpool just as its glorious mercantile history was finally disappearing. At primary school, the lads whose dads were dockers or shipping line employees could still tell us which big ships were due into the busy docks, and, exiting the long gone Exchange Station, there was a definite air of excitement and business,  the air heavy with the industrial tang of Tate and Lyle sugar refining, breweries, flour mills and engineering, and ships’ sirens floating over the buildings from the docks.

And what buildings they were!

Every bank, insurance company, and head office seemed to be a masterpiece of Victorian architecture. Outside they loomed over you, no decorative effect too expansive to be left off cornices, ballustrades or red stone masonry. The streets were canyons of commercial success, every building constructed to display its owner’s outrageous business acumen and financial probity.  Inside they were all long gloomy corridors, frosted glass doors, and dark wood partitions.

The Kardomah cafe, just along from Epstein’s NEMS shop was a kind of distillation of what the city was about. Fifty years before Starbucks and Costa, this was the place to go for a cup of tea or a coffee in their distinctive glass cups. The scent of coffee in the place was such that you could imagine them dumping bags of beans in the back shop, off wheelbarrows just pushed up the hill from the docks. The decor was mysteriously “eastern” and it was easy to remember you were sitting in one of the world’s major ports.

And, soon enough, Liverpool became the venue where we attended “pop concerts” as they were known. To celebrate my pal Steve’s 15th Birthday on November 1st 1967, we went to Livepool’s Empire Theatre to see a classic concert line up of the times: “The Who, Traffic, The Tremeloes, The Herd and Marmalade. It was a brilliant venue – long witness to variety, pantomime and musicals; the show was compered by Michael McIntyre’s dad, Ray Cameron, and, if you’d gone to the toilet you may have missed two groups and six top ten hits, such was the speed at which it passed, with two shows each evening on the tour.

We didn’t mind – it was our first concert, we were with our mates from school and we were finally part of “the sixties generation”, which we’d read so much about, but until that point had not managed to join. For all of us, it was the start of a lifetime of concert going and appreciating music. It was a special moment in our lives. Liverpool continued to be our venue for concerts and theatre productions throughout our school days, a comfortably  familiar place of entertainment.

Manchester was different. It was further away and not as easily accessed.

I first went there to see Lancashire play South Africa at Old Trafford cricket ground on September 1st 1965. It involved the excitement of a train from Southport and then the Altrincham bus from the city centre to the top of Warwick Rd, and going to Old Trafford to see international cricketers was a big thrill as well – it would be the South Africans last visit to England until 1994, though of course we were ignorant of that at the time. Still, Manchester had been visited and soon there were repeat visits for the cricket but also, via school, for drama, and we attended a number of events in the tiny and atmospheric Library Theatre. Again, we probably didn’t realise the part the basement theatre played in the 60s drama revolution, but it increased our familiarity with Manchester, as did occasional school trips to the huge fairground at Belle Vue.

Gradually as we approached school leaving age and some were able to drive, Manchester became a regular alternative venue  for our gigs. Steeleye Span, the Who, Tom Paxton, Fairport Convention and others were seen at the atmospheric Free Trade Hall. We didn’t know it had been built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, nor, I suspect, that it was the home of the Halle Orchestra, but we knew there were great concerts there.

It was where a fan shouted “Judas” at Dylan as he introduced his electric set, not a gig I was at myself, but a landmark in musical history, and, as the years passed, Tony Wilson, the Hacienda, and the whole Manchester scene blossomed to the joy of a later generation.

I had a  musical landmark of my own in the Free Trade Hall on July 11th 1971, when, again with Steve and the lads, I saw James Taylor and Carole King perform there. This was within months of them releasing the epoch making albums “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James”. It was one of those rare gigs where, even as we sat there,  everybody  just knew it would be a special moment in our lives, long remembered, and proudly mentioned in the years to come.

After I’d returned to Edinburgh and was teaching, we brought  pupil groups down on a number of occasions to do the “Granada Studios Tour”, and, while they walked in awe over the famous Coronation St cobbles, I was able to buy “World in Action” merchandise – imagine a time when investigative journalism was popular enough to sell its own merchandise!

Meanwhile, my pal Steve had become Editor of “World in Action” and moved to greater Manchester – more reasons to visit the city, and a chance to visit the WiA studios: more excitement in Manchester. His house became a place of great hospitality and we felt we had a “Manchester family” in the affection that had continued to grow through the years, and the joy of watching our children grow past the age we had been when we first became friends.

Another school pal and gig going mate, Mick, also ended up in Manchester, and it’s a joy to still be in touch with him, to have schoolday friendships affirmed.

I’ve never become familiar with Manchester in a geographical sense; I can’t find my way round without a map, and I would struggle to point to anywhere I could identify as “the city centre”, but it’s  become a part of my life.

And, when I heard the tragic news from the Manchester Arena on Monday night and watched the events unfold, it occurred to me that, in my whole life, and for the many reasons I had visited that city, I could not recall a single time when I had left the place feeling anything less than joyful; I realised I associated Manchester with happiness; it was not so much a geographical entity for me as an emotional venue, a place I went to and came away feeling good. And it was about the people as much as the place.

Such a realisation only added to the emotional reaction to the loss of so many young lives.

Just last month, Steve and I had attended a Who concert in Glasgow, in an informal but affectionate attempt to celebrate 50 years since that first Who gig at the Liverpool Empire. We’ve both continued to go to gigs ever since, occasionally together, more often separately, but part of our lifelong dialogue has been about who we’ve seen, what they were like, and how was the venue. Like millions of other friends, music, especially live music, has been part of the glue that has kept our relationship together, and reminded us at regular intervals of our shared and long history as mates.

At that recent concert, we were trying to remember the exact site of the “longest railway platform” in Britain, which, like the world’s first railway station, was in Manchester. It turns out that it  ran from Manchester Victoria Station to Exchange station –which closed in the seventies, and is now the site of part of the Manchester Arena complex.

Apart from the needless, pointless loss of life,  and the gut wrenching pain with which so many parents and children were going to have to meet their loss, I felt angry at what had been taken away from so many children – whether killed, injured, or traumatised on Monday night.

I thought of all the gigs, all the music, all the joy, all the shared memories. I thought of how the music provides a cocoon from the realities of life, that the best of live music transports you, takes you out of the every day, and into a place to which  you hope you will be able to return again and again. I thought of the innocence that is possible at live music concerts, the thrill of “actually being there”, the single minded attention, the tickets, the posters, the tee shirts, the programmes, the date circled on the calendar for months, the breathless retelling of the night to parents and friends, the humming in the ears – and in your heart.

Surely all this is part of life at its best: a kind of distillation of what it is to be young, which can carry you through the succeeding decades. What a thing to snatch from the young, what an ache to leave with the old.

As “Cottonopolis”, Manchester was a city  built ruthlessly on trade, slavery, exploitation of foreign and indigenous workforces, and it was an architectural monument to commerce and profit. Liverpool’s buildings were a testament to a working port, Manchester’s, on an even grander and more impressive scale, spoke of a world headquarters, a place of power and overwhelming wealth. And yet, for all that, Manchester somehow has always been about people –the Suffragettes, the Chartists, and all their descendants – people who refused to be crushed by enterprise or profit, and the modern day music, art and drama creators – who have transformed the city’s profile. I couldn’t help but also think of the late Victoria Wood’s representation of the city in that wonderful musical “That day we sang”, based on a true event in the Free Trade Hall in 1929, linking Manchester, music, and joy.

And there was some small comfort, even as the horror of Monday evening was growing in its random awfulness, in the knowledge that people will out; just as there is no manufacturing without creativity, there is no city without people, and no progress without humanity.

Those small towns near my first English home – Croston, Tarleton and Chorley –  were the places were the first two announced victims at the Arena, Saffie Roussos and Gina Callandar, lived and went to school;  the fact that so many at the concert should have been embarking, as Steve and I had done all those years ago, on a lifetime of gigs, and music, and sharing, added a further resonance.

On Tuesday, a number of people on social media, struggling for a reaction, posted John Maddon’s iconic picture of “Ena Sharples looking out over Manchester”. At first, it seemed like a strange choice. It was, after all, a fictitious character from a fictitious street, and there was nothing remotely fictitious about the horror of Monday night. But, somehow, it seemed to work – at least as a paradigm for a city.

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“Ena Sharples” and “Coronation St”, in the beginning, owed their popularity to  the humanity, brought into what might have been just another soap opera, by Violet Carson’s acting and Tony Warren’s writing. “The Street” portrayed not a city but its people – and it worked for the viewers because, despite its strong sense of place, it possessed a universality that transcended television and dramatic fiction  – much as Granada television  under Sidney Bernstein and The Guardian under  CP Scott  held a resonance for millions far beyond Manchester, because they dealt in recognisable humanity. Two more people who made Manchester definitively special. More opportunities for the humanity of the place to be displayed.

Tony Walsh – Longfella, whose poem “This is the Place” spoke so eloquently for Manchester at Tuesday’s memorial meeting, quoted Coleridge tonight, describing poetry as “The best words in the best order.”

The hope for Manchester, after Monday’s horror, is that history has always proved that,  in that city,  they seem to have the best people in the best place.