Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

How I ended up living in the red light district

I was back in my old stomping ground Manchester recently.

And, my God, a lot has changed in the 30 years since I first moved there as a fledgling student without an ounce of common sense. For a start, the neighbourhood where I lived back then has cleaned up its act and is now a leafy suburb full of respectable-looking people washing their hybrid cars and wearing Boden.

In “my day” Whalley Range, with its interminable rows of three-storey terrace houses providing perfectly grotty digs for generations of students and other assorted drop-outs, had no redeeming features whatsoever. Morrissey the Mancunian songwriter had once written “What do I get for my trouble and pain? Just a rented room in Whalley Range”, and that just about summed up its utter lack of appeal.

It was the place you went to live if all else failed.

In my case, I'd left it too late to get a room in the University Halls of Residence. They were all booked up for the year and, with no family or friends living nearby, that left me with very few options. Basically, it was between living on a park bench for the first term or moving into bedsit land.

The estate agent had hundreds available on his books, ranging from grimy'n'grotty to out-and-out unadulterated slum. After a lot of searching, I finally chose one based on its close proximity to the bus stop — that was the only thing it had going for it.

It smelt of damp; the wallpaper was hanging off the walls; the only mod-cons were badly wired plug sockets and an electricity meter that sold half an hour's heating for 50p. The bins were overflowing and rats roamed the overgrown garden, but I couldn't resist its location, location, location appeal.

Ironically, as it turned out, the location was actually its biggest drawback. What I didn't know, and nobody had thought to tell me, was that that corner of the street, and that specific bus-stop marked the epicentre of Manchester's red light district.

Bearing in mind that I'd never lived away from home before, this was my first venture out into the big world, and I was completely wet behind the ears, so living among a community of brothels was not a great start for a girl.

But, like I say, I was very naive and it took a while for the sheer precariousness of my situation to sink in. In fact, I really liked my friendly new abode.

Every morning I would stand at the bus stop waiting for the number 49 to take me the 11 stops across town to the college campus. And every morning, come rain or shine, some nice friendly man would pull up in his car, wind down his window and ask if I wanted a lift.

Of course I refused. It had been drummed into me time and time again as I was growing up that you “never accept lifts from strangers, no matter how friendly they might be”. But then one morning the weather turned icy cold, I was running late for a seminar and this nice man in a BMW pulled up.

“Thank you so much. Are you going anywhere near All-Saints campus?” I said cheerfully, as I jumped in the back, hauling all my art equipment with me.

Sure enough, 15 minutes of awkward chat later (actually, just me talking, non-stop) I arrived — just in time for my seminar — and thanked my benevolent driver enthusiastically, not really noticing how disgruntled he looked.

Then a few weeks later the police came into class to warn us about a series of attacks on women. “Take utmost care at all times” they said “particularly if you live in certain areas of the town”.

“Oh I'll be all right,” I announced confidently. “Everyone is really friendly in Whalley Range. I've actually met some lovely people while I've been waiting for the bus.”

After the talk, a policewoman took me to one side for a quiet word.

And that, children, was when I found out what the phrase “Kerb-Crawler” actually means ...

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