One of my favourite photographs shows two handsome women, elegantly dressed in black, with mantillas draped over their heads. They’re talking animatedly to a smiling male figure dressed in white. He’s wearing a skull cap. A sense of warmth and ease radiates from the photograph. The three figures are clearly enjoying their conversation.
Visitors are drawn to this picture. ‘It’s the Pope,’ they say, ‘Pope John Paul’. ‘It’s the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Manchester’, I retort. ‘My Aunty Winnie and my Mum, Agnes´. And the Pope, of course. ‘It’s because of them’ I explain, ‘that the Pope came to Manchester in 1982.’ If you look at the picture carefully (yes, Aunty Winnie was the Lord Mayor), you can see that it would have been hard for the Pope to resist the petition of these two outgoing Mancunians – Agnes and Winnie, Winnie and Agnes – Manchester’s formidable delegation to Rome.
Like so many others, my family had left their distant homes and travelled to Manchester to find a new place for themselves. As a child of the Irish and Jewish Diasporas, the stories I grew up on were about journeys, finding a place to be. Manchester has always been a place for the poor, the disposessed, the displaced who stumbled into its damp but welcome blanket, seeking employment in the Manchester cotton mills of yesteryear, or in the surrounding clutter of towns that hedge their way across the Lancashire landscape.
As the horrific events at the Manchester arena unfolded, so many unanswered questions. How could someone born and bred in Manchester – and whose refugee family found a home there – perpetrate such an atrocity? In a city of strong, forthright women, had he deliberately chosen to target an event attended by so many girls and young women?
My work is on place, belonging and identity: how to make schools places where young people can be and become their best selves. I was touched by so many responses to the bomb attack, on television and on the radio, including the simple heart-felt comments of headteachers, as they stepped into the place-making space: one of the most important roles school leaders can take. In this world of ours, schools need to be places of safety, belonging – and possibilities. Eighteen thousand at the concert. So many schools touched. The children and staff who went to the concert. Those who knew someone who had been there. Those who knew someone who never came back.
And amid all of this is the grief and the quiet pride of my city. ‘How are you doing pal?’
Kathryn Riley is Professor of Urban Education. Her books include Leadership of Place: Stories for schools in the US, UK and South Africa and Place, Belonging and Leadership: Researching to make the difference, published by Bloomsbury in June 2017. Kathryn is currently writing Manchester Melodies, which is about her family.