Three things I remember; the bridge, the warnings and the bomb.
The bridge was located in the city-centre over Deansgate; in fact it’s still there, polygonal and filthy, scrabby bushes sheltering tin cans from the cleaning machines crammed up against it. I remember we used to walk past it every time we went to my Dads favourite city-centre restaurant, the Chicago Pizza Pie company. My dad was living on top of the Arndale Centre, one of the few city-centre dwellers left in urban Manchester back then. Course, now it’s full of the posh and wealthy and the suburbs are fast becoming the horror of the trend-setters, the suburbs that were the ideal of the ’50s and ’70s.
The bridge was pretty futile, even then, as it was easier to cross the empty road underneath than walk up all those steps. I guess on the plans in the ’60s it had looked like a space-flyover, and heralded an upwardly-mobile, year-2000 city of soaring steel and glass (if only those architects had realised that steel and glass age like ballet toes.) Anyway, me and my little bro, gambolling up there to waste irrepressible energy, noticed that the side of the bridge behind the bushes was all burnt up, so we asked Dad. “That was where the IRA planted the bomb”, he said. ”Someone found it and got killed.”
Now, this was way before the proper bomb, and I’ve never heard of that explosion before or since. If I did my research I’m sure I’d dig it up, but I didn’t so I haven’t. It didn’t scare me back then, and it doesn’t now; I just spent my time trying to spot a Bugs Bunny style charred silhouette on the wall and found it perverse that the council didnt clean up the carbonised man.
Well, the months went by, and Chicago became Henry J Beans and the clientele dropped off until it was just us going there; pretty soon it was remodelled as a sports bar. The Mancunian conception of a sports bar back then was pretty young girls serving low cut drinks, which seemed to be okay by my dad, so we kept going there as the regulars shifted from red-faced men in business suits to red-faced men in tracksuits and jeans.
Meanwhile, the warnings increased in frequency. The Arndale flats were leafy and green, but they were located in the city centre, right near Strangeways (and the Cathedral, and the magnificent Brunelian train station of Victoria but this is a murder mystery, kids), so we were used to helicopters flying over, screams, shouts, and sirens going off; yet our weaning on movies meant we were more scared of night horror, of Jaws and American Werewolves, than of prisoners or of the daft thugs that roamed the streets. I never got mugged while I lived in Manchester and I think it was down to adopting an aggressive posture and wearing the biggest scabbiest coats I had, just in the hope of scaring off those werewolves and bears that I knew were living in the alleys behind Marks and Sparks, lurking in Shambles Square disguised as tramps.
The warnings came in the form of yellowjackets and policemen, early in the morning, late at night, banging on the door to tell us of bomb calls. It happened a good few times, and it always meant we’d pull on our dressing gowns and wander down the concrete spiral stairs to Withy Grove, where we waited for the all-clear. Well, we were meant to. A lot of the time we just got dressed, or popped across the road to the Book Exchange, or just stayed in bed, cos, hey, we hadnt been blown up yet, so it wasnt going to happen.
I wasn’t there the day the bomb went off. I must have been at school, or staying with my mum in the leafy suburbs of Didsbury, but we sure heard about it. It was a busy shopping weekend I think, and by all accounts the shopping precincts were packed, people fulfilling the modern categorical imperative; if you live, then you must shop. Our cunning friends from across the sea thought the best way to liberate their homeland was to interfere with the life-urge to shop, so had bought themselves large quantities of fertiliser and glucose, and stirred them (not shook em) in a big white transit van. They parked it on the busiest corner in town, the intersection of Cross street and Market street, pretty near to the old Irish quarter of Manchester;
I’ll emphasise that again, you have to remember that Manchester is an Irish town, formed by immigrants shipped over to work in the dark, satanic mills. Where the BBC headquarters are now, on Oxford Road, was an unrivalled slum where 300 families lived in about the area of a large detached house nowadays. The IRA were targeting that day relatives, fellow catholics and probably a lot of traditional Manchester liberals sympathetic to their cause, having been sympathetic since Parnell’s day. But then you have to be dumb, desperate and vicious to even consider bombing civilians a good way of getting your message across.
A warning was put out to the police and to their eternal credit they quickly spotted the van; there’s footage of the policemen moving people away in great running packs, shepherding the screaming shoppers away from the blast area. There’s also quiet footage of the van, sitting silently surrounded by the abandoned detritus of the living just before it blasted off, a terrified traffic light feeling abandoned next to it; then the blast tearing the van to pieces and then the smoking hole with that lucky traffic light still standing, astonished.
Everything I’d known in that area, a substantial portion of my childhood, was wiped out by garden products, sugar and twisted chunks of a motor vehicle. The wide streets eventually helped the blast dissipate but initially the urban canyons channelled it, ripping the glass off the new buildings and sending a storm of shards down the street. Thanks to the police, most people were a long way away when the blast went off, but several were still shredded by the flying blades. Thankfully, no lives were lost.
The Corn Exchange was gutted, its homely shops evicted while it was repaired and a dull mall dropped into the hole. The Royal Exchange building suffered severe structural damage, and the Hallé Orchestra was forced beyond the police lines where the city was shut off (fortuitously they ended up in Castlefield, right next to my dads restaurant, which made him wealthy for a short time.)
My dad, Dimitri, the Welsh-Greek, was so incensed at this, at the basic stupidity of it, that he made up a terrible joke and told it to everyone he met. Including Sinn Fein No. 2 Martin McGuiness (A.K.A. The IRA’s Butcher of Belfast). He was on Question Time, and Dimitri actually travelled all the way down to London to tell him the joke. It went “Why did the potato famine happen? Cos the IRA nicked all the fucking fertiliser.” (The swearing was necessary to get it anywhere near working.) After he told Mr McGuiness, Martin smiled easily and moved on with his four burly bouncers surrounding him. My dad, suddenly terrified and probably drunk, fled; he spent the rest of the night changing trains and buses, and trying to shake off imagined shadows.
(I think my dad was actually as angry at himself as at the IRA; he knew about the easy availability of the detonation ingredients because at school he’d used his chemistry knowledge to make himself bombs out of common household ingredients, and set them off on Welsh bridges for kicks. Dark horse doesn’t approach it.)
Of course, patriotic Americans kept funding the IRA, and supporting it, donating millions at St Patrick Day fundraisers and keeping it in brand spanking new weapons supplied by various international arms suppliers. And we kept selling weapons to Tamils and Afghans and and anybody else who wanted to buy our special pacifying water cannons and pacifying rubber bullets and pacifying tanks. And then 9/11 came along and it all became just more history.