As my regular readers will know, I lived in Manchester between 1996 and 2003, with the first four years being spent at the university. I have no idea what it is like now – perhaps it’s improved – but I knew what it was like then. Any student living in Fallowfield, Withington, or Victoria Park would have quickly learned what Manchester was like, firstly when they applied for home and contents insurance and got told “we don’t cover M14 and M20”, and again when somebody broke into that home and made off with those contents. Everybody I knew in Manchester got burgled at some point, and it happened to me twice.
I went further than the average student in discovering Manchester, though. In the summer of 1998 I responded to an advert looking for a part-time car driver, ideally suited to somebody semi-retired. I’d recently passed my test but had no actual driving experience, but I didn’t let that stop me. I arrived for the interview in Old Trafford, conducted by a chap with a passing resemblance to Jaap Stam (who was playing just across the road at the time) and a thick Mancunion accent. I got the job immediately, learning afterwards it was because I “could string a sentence together”. This wasn’t the high-end of the Manchester job market, although looking back, perhaps it was.
My new boss Danny ran a car hire company which would lease a car to anyone who’d had an accident and claim it back from the insurance company of the person at fault. It was basically a branch of the ambulance-chasing industry, but I didn’t care. Some loophole in the law made it all possible and Danny made his living renting out cars, and I delivered and collected them. The only problem was we were serving the absolute bottom of the market. We weren’t hiring out Range Rovers in Alderley Edge, we were supplying Puntos and Fiestas to council estates. My job wasn’t only to deliver the cars, but get the customer/whiplash “victim” to sign the lease agreement. Most of them couldn’t read, and those that could wouldn’t have been able to understand it how the arrangement worked. I know I couldn’t.
My new job was a good one by student standards. I was provided with a bus pass (saving me £15 a week), a PAYG mobile phone (an unheard-of perk in those days), and at weekends I could sometimes take a car home with me. I would normally work afternoons, Danny fitting the deliveries around my timetable. For my efforts I’d get paid £10 per delivery, and if I did 4-5 in a week that was my beer money easily earned. At some point Danny realised I had a car park outside my flat and used to store cars there occasionally, leaving my neighbours to wonder why this student owned four identical cars with sequential number plates.
The downside of the job was that it would take me to the terrible areas of Manchester and into the absolute worst housing estates, where I would find my way there with an A to Z (no Google Maps or GPS in those days) and get home via public transport. I delivered cars to Openshaw, Rochdale, Oldham, Wythenshawe, Levenshulme, Middleton, Moston, Ancoats, Ashton-Under-Lyne, Dukinfield, Eccles, and other absolute shitholes whose names I’ve forgotten. North of Manchester city centre is a total dump with two exceptions: Prestwich, which is the Jewish area and has lots of nice, big houses in immaculate condition, and Bury which is a posh suburb.
I’d deliver the cars then walk the streets and ride the buses, trains, and trams through the most God-awful areas of Manchester, often after dark, usually in the rain. I visited a garage where the proprietor was jailed a short time later for kidnapping somebody who wouldn’t pay an illegal clamping fine. I stood on doorsteps of council houses with people reeking of alcohol, trying to get them to sign the blue-and-white form before handing over the keys. I sat on disgusting sofas, trying not to breath. I walked through filthy streets with a mosque at each end, which are nowadays referred to as no-go zones. For whatever reason, nothing ever happened to me. Whatever one says about the Mancs – and they are a dodgy bunch – the vast majority are good people. I remember feeling nervous, but was never in any danger even in the worst places. But they were bad: In Ancoats, the roof of the corner shop was covered in barbed wire, and you’d get served like in a bank, with bullet-proof glass and a rotating carousel: you’d need to give a list to the bloke behind the counter and he’d fetch everything. This was to buy milk at 2pm.
In the summer of 1999 I quit working for Danny because I had to do an industrial placement as part of my Masters. Most people’s placement was organised by the university, but for some reason I went through the yellow pages and sent a letter to anyone calling themselves an engineering company asking for a job. I found one called Technical Automation based out in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. And by Lord, was Weaste the biggest shithole I’d ever seen before and have ever seen since. It was so bad the betting shop, pub, and off license were boarded up. Our workshop was protected by spiked railings, bars, steel doors, and alarms yet still it got broken into. Later in my career I met a guy whose wife worked as a nurse in Hope Hospital just down the road. He told me a bouncer of a nearby pub (one that was still open) had been rushed into hospital with gunshot wounds, the victim of a drive-by shooting. When they cut his jacket off him, a claw-hammer fell out of his sleeve. Nice pub.
I went back to work for Danny after my placement, raking in the tenners for tramping around Manchester’s sink estates. I left the UK in 2003 and travelled the world, walking the dodgy back streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yalta, and a dozen other cities where visitors are warned to be careful, but I never saw anything that was a patch on Manchester. Even in Lagos people would rob you for a reason: they want your money. The Manc scallies were decked out in £300 Hilfiger jackets and Rockport boots and didn’t need money, they just wanted to beat someone up. Never in my life, anywhere else, have I seen a bunch of teenagers wrecking a bus stop, or have I climbed aboard a bus and found somebody has sandpapered the windows and set fire to the seats. In Manchester, this was all perfectly normal. Even now, when people tell me to be careful somewhere, or ask if I was afraid in (say) Paris, I laugh and say “God no, I lived in Manchester, FFS!”
Despite all that, and the fact I never went back, I loved my time there. I am still in touch with Danny – he’s no longer in the dodgy car-hire business and has turned all respectable, so he says – and occasionally I joke about the shitholes he sent me to at 6pm on a wet Tuesday night in November, helpfully telling me there was a tram stop a mile away from the address. It was “character building”, he says.
Yes, it was.