Manchester as I saw it

Tim Worstall links to a piece in The Guardian about thieving Mancunions stealing bikes. As Tim says: well, yes, it is Manchester.

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.

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41 thoughts on “Manchester as I saw it

  1. Not forgetting that it was 100 years ago that Rutherford split the atom in Manchester Univeristy, arguably the biggest scientific breakthrough of the twentieth century.

  2. I once spent a couple of months working near Wythenshawe. The office building I worked in was more like a highly secure compound, like a data processing centre or a military location. And this wasn’t about what we were doing inside, but just to protect the cars and people from general thievery and mugging. I had my car broken into at a pub near Manchester Airport. I’d foolishly left something on the back seat and someone had pinched it.

    And Oldham. Oh, boy. Had a client there. If there’s anywhere worse in the UK, I want to see it. OK, Merthy may have worse numbers, but at least you’re in the countryside.

  3. Bury’s a bit more than a posh suburb – it’s a yer-ackchooall town. It has its own less than glamorous council estates (Google “Dickie Bird Estate”). I know – I’m a Bury lad.

  4. I know – I’m a Bury lad.

    Good man. Bury grammar? I went on a cadets’ course with some lads from there, a great bunch they were.

    I also lived in a shared house with a Bury lass for a while, she’s a reader on here. I think she’s gotten all posh though, and no longer buys her jewelry from Argos.

  5. Great stuff and great reading.

    Bardon

    Didn’t Rutherford split the atom in Cambridge?

  6. Oooh- Credit Hire shenanigans. I was working for an insurance company at around this time, and the grief folks like your mate caused…

    I think the problem was caused by a case called Dimond vs King, whereby the insured became liable for the hundreds of pounds a day credit hire charges if they lost the case or didn’t get damages.

    Needless to say, some of our insurers, having been promised that they’d not have to pay for the hire care were rather unimpressed when they found out they were on the thick end of 5k bills. Wonder if I ended up dealing with any of your clients, Tim?

  7. I’d foolishly left something on the back seat and someone had pinched it.

    Yup. Colleague of mine parked his car outside a supermarket in Old Trafford for a few minutes and somebody put in his rear window and made off with a laptop. This was at 4pm.

  8. John Square,

    Heh!

    I think the problem was caused by a case called Dimond vs King, whereby the insured became liable for the hundreds of pounds a day credit hire charges if they lost the case or didn’t get damages.

    It was definitely the result of a court case: after that, if somebody drives into you and puts your car out of action, in swoops a friendly car-hire company that would rent you a replacement and bill it to the other persons’ insurance as part of the overall compensation claim. If the person lost the case we’d get nothing, but Danny’s added value was being able to weigh up whether this knuckle-dragger with the dented car was in the right or not. The law changed eventually, made such businesses much harder.

  9. Manchester, glorious place. Used to do odd jobs up there like bank IT migrations and upgrades in the late 90’s and early 00’s. It’s a little less awful nowadays, at least around Manchester University where my youngest got her ll.b.

  10. @Tim

    Checking the dates, Danny was ahead of the curve in taking the risk on himself if the decision wasn’t in the insured’s favour.

    It was the real cowboy stuff I saw- someone in a fucked metro (written off by a gentle tap in a parking lot) being given a Jag at £400 a day for six weeks and not understanding what happened when the insurance company decided it was knock-for-knock or 50/50 kind of stuff.

    Interesting you stayed in touch. Especially as sending a poor boy from a Welsh farming community to those parts of Manchester at that point in time may have been interpreted as attempted murder by the CPS….

  11. Mancunions? Never heard of them, I thought they were Mancunians, with an A.
    But it’s very confusing. A chap from Glasgow is glaswegian, is a chap from Lithingow a Lithingwegian?
    What do you call someone from Stoke on Trent or Basingstoke.
    People not from towns. You can have Devonians, but can you have Essexuals, Norpersons?
    It’s even more complicated in France. What’s the word for someone from Nantes?

  12. I used to live as a kid in Salford (famous for being a city where one of another city’s famous footy team plays), and back then we would play on what we kids called brickfields which were essentially piles of rubble from the bombing some twelve or fifteen years before.

    I doubt if Salford was any worse than Manchester and there were thieves about then I recall, though no one had anything to steal so perhaps it was just something to do for the locals.

    Went back about thirty years later and saw that the rows of terrace houses I knew as a kid had all been flattened by bulldozers, save for King Edward Street where I lived for a time. Maybe it’s gone now but it was odd seeing how it had survived a second blitz.

    Ah King Edward Street, where the kids would come banging on the front door demanding to be let in to watch telly, as we were one of the few families around there to have a TV. And yes, it was only BBC then (so stuff your 100 plus channels), which meant if you didn’t like the Cisco Kid you were going to be short of entertainment at 5 o’clock.

  13. Mancunions? Never heard of them, I thought they were Mancunians,

    You need to adopt the local accent, whereby a bus driver is a bus dra-VOR.

  14. I grew up in Rochdale in the 50s & 60s, and went to UMIST in the late 60s. I never felt unsafe either. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad then, though there was lots of deprivation. Those towns and city suburbs have become bigger shitholes more recently, and I’m glad I have no more relatives in Rochdale so I don’t have to go back.

  15. OK Tim, Mancunions.
    Are people from Chester Cunions?

    BTW, there are sh!tholes in the south too. Try Lewishame, Gravesend, Margate. A lot of commuter territory SE of London is still pretty rough.

  16. “I also lived in a shared house with a Bury lass for a while, she’s a reader on here”
    Hello! like to think of reading this blog as ‘reading outside of my bubble’. I pass over the ones about rugby though tbh.

    “I think she’s gotten all posh though, and no longer buys her jewelry from Argos.”
    QVC all the way these days.

    Anyway, I read that Guardian article with interest because despite having lived in or around Manchester all my life I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the mentality of some of its people. There’s an element that just cannot resist damaging public property just for sport. You can’t make a journey without passing a smashed bus shelter. Whenever I go abroad I marvel at the things they manage to sustain in public places without someone setting fire to them for attention.

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt unsafe though, either.

  17. I first visited Manchester in ’96 as UMIST was one of my potential university choices. (Accurate) jokes from then current students about some of the student accommodation being in Moss Side (a place even this Essex native had heard of) rather put me off though. Subsequent visits have pretty much been limited to the city centre.

  18. In a place in Manchester whose name I do not wish to recall (Quixote reference) I celebrated my stag night in 1968. As we were leaving the pub I got nutted. My most sober friend responded and he and the aggressor were hauled off. So not much has changed, then.

  19. A person, either gender, from Linlithgow is known as a Black Bitch, and Alex Salmond is one.
    I know. You already suspected that of Mr. Salmond.
    Not absolutely true – person has to be born within the Burgh boundary.
    And a citizen of that big city on the Clyde is a Weegie.

  20. “BTW, there are sh!tholes in the south too. Try Lewishame, Gravesend, Margate”

    Luton and especially Dunstable. Large parts of South and South East London. Portsmouth. Basildon,

  21. What’s the word for someone from Nantes?

    A Nantesy boy?

    I’ll get me coat.

  22. “BTW, there are sh!tholes in the south too. Try Lewishame, Gravesend, Margate”

    Gravesend’s all right (though there are some shitty council estates) Medway OTOH…. (the former is my hometown, I lived in Chatham- origin of the word chav- for a decade before heading oversees.)

  23. Which came first, do we think; the poverty or the crime?

    The left like to believe in the concept that poverty causes crime, as if the poor are unable of higher morals.

    What if crime causes poverty?

  24. I’m happy to report that Manchester is a place I’ve never yet visited, which given it appears to be a cross between King’s Landing and Mos Eisley Spaceport, can only be good judgement on my part…

  25. Tim – The Manc scallies were decked out in £300 Hilfiger jackets and Rockport boots and didn’t need money…

    To be fair, it’s not like they were paying full price for those clothes. If they paid at all…

    TNA – What if crime causes poverty?

    It certainly does, organised or white-collar crime occasionally excepted. Would you hook up some friend or acquaintance with a job opportunity if you knew they were liable to steal everything not nailed down on their first day? Or punch a customer for looking at ’em funny? Imagine going thru life with nobody doing you any favours. What goes around comes around, as they say.

  26. It was the real cowboy stuff I saw- someone in a fucked metro (written off by a gentle tap in a parking lot) being given a Jag at £400 a day for six weeks and not understanding what happened when the insurance company decided it was knock-for-knock or 50/50 kind of stuff.

    We were pretty cowboy-ish, but not that bad. At least the cars we were hiring out were of a broadly similar grade, albeit new, to the one that the insured was driving.

    I spoke to Danny briefly last night: he said the standard of clientele dropped considerably in the years that followed. I’m at a loss to comprehend how that is possible!

  27. I pass over the ones about rugby though tbh.

    I don’t blame you: I don’t think I have a single visitor that reads everything.

    QVC all the way these days.

    Attagirl!

    There’s an element that just cannot resist damaging public property just for sport. You can’t make a journey without passing a smashed bus shelter. Whenever I go abroad I marvel at the things they manage to sustain in public places without someone setting fire to them for attention.

    Yes, this.

  28. BTW, there are sh!tholes in the south too.

    Indeed, but I’ve always suspected they don’t come close to Manchester, certainly not in sheer size. Telling someone you live in Manchester always invokes a slight widening of the eyes in people, as if you’ve told them you live in Afghanistan.

  29. To be fair, it’s not like they were paying full price for those clothes. If they paid at all…

    Of course, you don’t need money when you can brick a window and help yourself.

  30. @Matthew McWassiname,

    Yes I’ve formed my opinion on that too.

    I went back to my home town (might be nearish to Manchester) for the first time in 7 years this Christmas. I’d forgotten a present for one of the minor relatives so found myself in Argos on a late December Saturday afternoon.

    As I stood in the queue I came to the conclusion it is possible for evolution to work in reverse in some circumstances, mainly those involving the welfare state.

  31. Crime causes poverty!

    According to Thomas Sowell (am I getting repetitive?) in Economic facts and Fallacies, it does. OK, he is talking about the US of A, but he makes sense. How you get the crime starting is the interesting question.

  32. Thinking about why it is worse now than when I were a lad, I suspect the reason is drugs. I went to a grammar school and I don’t remember any drug dealing at all. We were into bottles of Woodpecker cider from the local offie before a school dance, who new we went to the school but still sold it to us… A friend went to the local secondary modern and he says there were drugs there, but nothing like coke or smack, or weed for that matter. It was usually amphetamines. Perhaps I led a sheltered life!

  33. Great post, Tim. Many, many thanks. “…somebody has sandpapered the windows and set fire to the seats.” I don’t know why, in the eyes of some young men, plastic seats are begging to be set on fire and padded ones to be disemboweled. I can’t recall sandpapered windows on buses though.

    Rutherford and his team bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles and produced oxygen-17 and protons (hydrogen nuclei) in 1917 or 1918 in Manchester but he only published the results in 1919 (“Collision of α Particles with Light Atoms”), the year when he returned to Cambridge to head the Cavendish Laboratory.

  34. England lost her empire is the problem. Previously she could ship all these people around the world to scare the hell out of the natives, now England has to keep them at home.

  35. @Allen

    I would argue that some of what you say is true and some not so. The demise of the British Empire and the notion that it is a relic of the past is a myth and it is in fact very much alive and functioning. The reality is that the British Empire never had much to do with the UK being England, Wales, Scotland and the Ulster plantations other than consistently receiving their subjects loyal servitude. The elite families that surround the City of London and formed Empire still to this day exercise their world dominance in what remains the greatest concentration of power and wealth on the planet.

    Now that these young lads are not distracted with serving Empire in some far away land they are faced with the emerging reality that they never were part of Empire and at best are mere descendants of cotton weavers, which might explain to some extent why their dysfunctional behaviour has manifested.

    Modern day popular culture has its limitations in keeping their minds occupied.

  36. Had a friend shot dead and was gifted a metal plate in my eye socket care of those lovely gooch close people….not many fond memories for me but I was well paid and there of my own free will so I’m about square.

  37. I was a student in Manchester at the same time. Got mugged once, attempted mugged once, burgled once, and got my bike stolen. My friend got his bike stolen at the same time and it was used in a cycle-by murder. I saw it on the evening news and got him to ring the police.

    It seemed much nicer last time I went back.

  38. JakeG,

    Heh! I showed your comment to a foreign friend yesterday evening; she couldn’t believe it. A lot of people labour under the impression that Britain is civilised.

  39. Had a friend shot dead and was gifted a metal plate in my eye socket care of those lovely gooch close people….not many fond memories for me but I was well paid and there of my own free will so I’m about square.

    Blimey! 😮

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