A Song for Manchester: Rev Sean Robertshaw 24/05/17
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one
who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
I have asked before, why do we have psalms? In my opinion the Psalms are hard to read in our time because we are bound to engage with them and interpret them from at least two horizons: the first, the context in which they were originally written, and second through our own experience of life. The Psalms are borne out of individual and collective human experience and in that respect they are universal. Psalms articulate something which is difficult to capture even in perfect prose. They are lyrical and they cause us to reassess our thoughts and feelings in relation to what has happened. It could be argued that such poetic utterances enable their readers or hearers to make meaning from chaos and abandonment.
Psalm 137 is a lament – the Israelites are conquered by the Babylonians, they are taken away from their homes, ushered back into the slavery God freed them from. Sitting at the side of the river weeping the conquered Israelites remember their old lives, in the city, with their family members many of whom will have been murdered in the fighting. A people who were led to freedom in the Promised Land, a people who were chosen by God are utterly defeated by another nation.
The enemy demands a song and they ask, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” They are down-cast – there is no song in them, their suffering and shame is so great. What happened in this crisis is that the individual was pushed into the background in the psalm. A conquered nation equals a collective hurt. When normality breaks down and chaos threatens life the first thing ‘we’ often do is use a religious, spiritual or symbolic template as a reference point. This permits the changing of an unknown danger into one that is well known – for example, through stereotyping.
The psalmist says, “Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.” Remembering a known reference point is important, it chimes in with past known experience and acts as a moral compass allowing a route, or a ‘known way’ – however difficult it might be – back to what is ‘normal’. So for example my generation remembered Diana Princess of Wales in a particular way, which was a previously unprecedented public out-pouring of grief and love. In my own community I am now accustomed to and familiar with the times of year when flowers will appear at the side of a road, or school ties are hung at the Skate Park, or the massive act of remembrance takes place on Remembrance Sunday. Great public acts of repentance, demonstrations of solidarity and interdependence, utilise ‘new religious’ symbols reinterpreted by post-modern pilgrims: flowers, candles, messages on cards, ties, football scarves and shirts etc… all connect to those two horizons – past and present – to prevent bewilderment taking possession of the mind and paralysing the will. We simply recognise a situation by imposing a relevant pattern on it. Yesterday as the news of what had happened in the bomb blast in Manchester emerged what we saw were police, bishops and politicians standing side by side with the people of Manchester, decrying, forgiving and using ‘perfect prose’ to explain the inexplicable, to empathise with those most greatly wounded, to encourage ‘right attitudes’ towards the situation. They were all credible, and their message albeit institutional was heart felt. For me however, the words of Manchester Poet Tony Walsh provided the most adequate visceral and powerful moment of the day.
He didn’t say: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.” His reference point was not revenge, or bitterness. His reference point was love, and for me as a follower of Jesus love is made perfect in the relationship which exists in the Godhead. As the Christian bible states, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.” [1 John 4:16] The poet Tony Walsh’s reference point was to the normal goodness which exists in all communities and in all human life. His reference was to the incorruptibility of the collective human spirit. What he did was to articulate in his psalm what ‘normal is for Manchester’, what it means to be a citizen of that great city and therefore, a citizen of every city, whether in heaven or on earth.
Manchester! This is the place in the North West of England
It’s ace, it’s the best and the songs that we sing
From the stands, from our bands set the whole planet shaking
Our inventions are legends! There’s nowt we can’t make and
So we make brilliant music. We make brilliant bands
We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands
And we make things from steel and we make things from cotton
And we make people laugh, take the mick summat rotten
And we make you at home and we make you feel welcome
And we make summat happen, we can’t seem to help it
And if you’re looking for history then yes, we’ve a wealth
But the Manchester way is to make it yourself
And make us a record, a new number one
And make us a brew while you’re up, love. Go on!
And make us feel proud that you’re winning the league
And make us sing louder and make us believe it
that this is the place that has helped shape the world
And that this the place where a Manchester girl
Name of Emmeline Pankhurst from the streets of Moss Side
Led a Suffragette City with sisterhood pride
And this is the place with appliance of science
We’re on it, atomic, we strut with defiance
In the face of a challenge we always stand tall
Mancunians in union delivered it all
Such as housing and libraries, and health, education
And unions and co-ops, the first railway station
So we’re sorry! Bear with us! We invented commuters!
But we hope you forgive us – we invented computers!
And this is the place Henry Royce strolled with Rolls
And we’ve rocked and we’ve rolled with our own Northern Soul
And so this is the place to do business, then dance
Where go-getters and goal setters know they’ve a chance
And this is the place where we first played as kids
And me Mam lived and died here, she loved it she did
And this is the place where our folks came to work
Where they struggled in puddles, they hurt in the dirt
And they built us a city. They built us these towns
And they coughed on the cobbles to the deafening sound
Of the steaming machines and the screaming of slaves
They were scheming for greatness, they dreamed to their graves
And they left us a spirit, they left us a vibe
That Mancunian Way to survive and to thrive
And to work and to build, to connect and create and
Greater Manchester’s greatness is keeping it great
And so this is the place now we’ve kids of our own
Some are born here, some drawn here, but we all call it home
And they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat
All the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets
Because this is a place that has been through some hard times
Oppressions, recessions, depressions and dark times
But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit
Northern grit, northern wit in Greater Manchester’s lyrics
And there’s hard times again in these streets of our city
But we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity
Because this a place where we stand strong together
With a smile on our face, Mancunians Forever
Because this is the place in our hearts, in our homes
Because this is the place that’s a part of our bones
Because Manchester gives us such strength from the fact
That this is the place. We should give something back.
Always remember. Never forget. Forever Manchester.
Poem © Tony Walsh