The location seemed perfect: a mile from the city centre, a priority area where millions of pounds of development money were pouring in. From the top of the street, you catch picturesque glimpses of Manchester. It was run down, yes, but there was a lovely old church up the hill and the surrounding streets appeared quiet. And the house was a snip, a four-bedroom terrace for £50,000, the price of a two-bed flat elsewhere at the time. So, in early 2005, I moved in. Big mistake.
There were early omens. One day, while I was renovating the house, I found that where there had been a 6ft-high double-brick wall surrounding the back yard, where it must have stood solidly for well over a century, there was now only a pile of bricks. I remember a sense of wonderment at the force it must have taken to demolish it, but let it go and had a fence built instead. While I was painting it, a passing, unsmiling neighbour commented, “That won’t last” (though miraculously, in this case, it did).
Soon it emerged that property ownership in the traditional sense did not apply to my house. I had what amounted to joint tenancy with a gang of local boys who had taken up part-time residence on my porch and front steps, probably dating from the 18-month period the house had been empty before I bought it. The next-door neighbours advised me not to call the police on them; other people on the street told me that when they had done so, their tyres had been slashed.
I had lived in Hulme and Moss Side for most of my adult life, and in rockier times had done two years in jail, so I didn’t anticipate anything I couldn’t handle. I decided I’d try not to befriend the youths exactly, but at least to show them some kindness and tolerance in the hope that they would be more on my side than not, so that if there was any difficulty, we could sort it out between us. Initially, it worked, sort of. The group – wearing austere black sports clothes – were a gang of crisp-eating, spot-encrusted, monosyllabic thieves. There was no female accompaniment for these guys, whose average age was around 15. From my windows I often saw them with stolen motor scooters or cars. One night they took turns to spin a black BMW round and round the waste ground opposite, until a tired-looking policeman arrived (surrounding roads had been blocked off to prevent joyriding, making fast police access impossible).
Personally, I got on with the guys. They would knock sometimes when they got out of youth custody to tell me their jail stories and show me their war wounds. “How did you get that one?” I asked Martin one day, when he proudly displayed a particularly colourful post-incarceration shiner. “You gotta stand up for yourself in there, or they take the piss,” he said.
Our relationship didn’t stop them trying to break in through my back door one Monday morning when I was at work, battering it with a huge rock. Luckily, the door held – just, by the look of it – so I put up bars and an iron gate. Then they just disappeared. Graduated, I expect.
Kenny’s crowd, who immediately took over the spot, were more colourful and came with several loud, underdressed girls who laughed and squealed a lot. I would come out some evenings to find a latticework of legs criss-crossing my porch. It hardly occurred to them to let me past. Kenny was 15 and liked to talk, mainly about the quality of the latest “weed”. He often turned up in the early morning and sat there for most of the day.
They got drunk. There was noise sometimes, and always the smell of cannabis. They accidentally dented my car while fighting. They had “tunes” and porn on their mobile phones, and they dropped a cornucopia of litter.
Occasionally I did call the police, when things got particularly raucous, or when the “firebug”, as he was known, scorched my phone lines. Generally they said there was nothing they could do unless I identified offenders in court, which wasn’t always possible and in any case seemed unwise. The police didn’t seem bothered.
Gino was the worst. He showed up only occasionally, but he drank heavily, begged favours compulsively and, Kenny told me, had stabbed his dad. When I was away, Gino and Kenny pulled the grille off my back window and broke in. Kenny admitted it one night when he was drunk and apologised, looking as if he was going to cry. He was 15 then, the youngest child of the most feared family in the area, so there was no way I was going to court with it.
One night I fell out with a 13-year-old girl who was a doorstep regular. She was drunk, banging ceaselessly on my door, and I shouted at her. When I appeared at the door the next afternoon, she rasped up some saliva and gobbed it across the porch where five of them were sitting.
I said something like, “Come on, Michelle, there’s no need for that.” She bunched her otherwise pretty face into a fist and screamed, “It’s fucking Salford! I’ll spit where I like!”
The phrase stuck in my mind as a testament to the culture of desolation that reigns in big swaths of Salford and Manchester. Michelle is 15 now, going to raves and taking ecstasy. “I love it,” she told me recently.
The real shock came when I learned that a neighbour – whose little girl always waved to me and smiled from her own doorstep – had let Gino and Kenny store the stuff they took from my house in her yard until they could get rid of it. Sulking, I blanked her for months, until I discovered that she had the mental age of an adolescent.
“Mental problems” – and, indeed, bad health generally – were a theme in the area. Round the corner a young woman was going blind, owing to severe diabetes caused by eating nothing but sweets as a child. We secretly reported one couple because of the violent rows they were having in front of their two-year-old. A fortnight later the mother stopped me and said, “Someone reported us to social services.”
“It wasn’t me,” I said.
“No, it was good. They’ve changed Darrell’s pills. He’s been much better since.”
Darrell’s younger brother also suffered from an acute form of depression. I paid him to fix my car sometimes, and Darrell to fix my computer. Gradually I discovered that nearly every house on the street had someone with mental health troubles. It was no secret: they chatted about one another’s prescriptions.
During that first 18 months, youth diplomacy mostly did the trick. It was hard, but doable, and worth it because the house itself was so nice and spacious. When the lad from the big family who had broken in and later apologised got an Asbo banning him from the surrounding area, he and his friends stopped coming. It was quietish for a week or two; then a new group of teenagers took over the spot. And so it went on.
Then something nice happened. I found a Slovakian lodger and she brought in a couple of her friends. I had been lonely, and now the house was full again. Through my lodgers, I met a Polish woman and we became lovers. Eventually she too moved in. There was a buzz about the place. They were intelligent, considerate, hard-working people, a joy to live with, though they found it almost impossible to understand the culture of degradation around them. They found the deep sense of social neglect puzzling.
Looking back, I realise that this was the point where nuisance tipped into menace.
My car windscreen is smashed, for no apparent reason. The next morning, the same person comes back to do the side window. When I’m away, boys bang on the windows of the house, throw things at it and taunt my lodgers with racist and sexual insults. The young Slovakian woman calls the police; two officers turn up. One of them points at the culprits, who are still standing on the street within earshot, and asks her, “Was it them?”
She is horrified at the danger he has put her in and shakes her head. “No!” The youths laugh, the officers go. The taunts continue, only now my lodgers are more reluctant to call the police. But I find I am calling them more regularly, though secretly. I feel the change in atmosphere; it puzzles and frustrates me. There’s more in the way of senseless vandalism, a remorselessness about it, and I’m less able to find out what is going on from the youths themselves.
The police hold a meeting about “antisocial behaviour” in the area. One of the officers tells me they are under pressure to clean up the area because of the development money that is pouring in. From my house, three of us attend the meeting, to find only five other civilians there. It is a forlorn sham. No one wants to be seen talking to the cops, and the police are surly and impatient.
It is around this time that I hear from a disillusioned police officer that Hazel Blears, MP for the area, has recently been at the top of our street with a police inspector having her photograph taken, claiming that the fight against antisocial behaviour in the area has been a success story. It all adds to the profound sense of dereliction. When I ask Blears to comment for this article, she says she’s very busy but will get back to me. I’ve heard nothing more from her.
Youths smash the windows at the back of the house with stones and rocks. I put bars over the upstairs windows. A huge firework is thrown into the house through the back door. One of my lodgers is pelted with eggs on her way up the street and, once she goes inside, our front door becomes the target. My new car is vandalised. The drainpipes are pulled off the house. The porch is covered in graffiti, as are the windows. “Ed sucks Polish dick” is among the gambits. There’s always some bother. I begin to show up on the police system as a repeat victim. They say there’s nothing much they can do because they haven’t got the resources, but they will increase patrols in the area. When I ask what that means exactly, the operator says they’ll “drive past a few times”.
The end comes one night after a nine-year-old and two 13-year-olds break the windows at the front of the house while my girlfriend’s Polish friend is there in the room. The police take two hours and four calls to respond, by which time the boys have come back and punched out another pane.
Next day the neighbours tell me the house round the corner suffered the same fate a few days earlier. “There was Polish there too. They’ve moved out.” Now I begin to see.
That night the house shakes with the force of bricks being hurled at the boards I’ve nailed over the front windows. The next night four youths knock on my door, 16- and 17-year-olds. When I answer, an older and much broader man appears from behind them and he is wearing a balaclava. He takes it off and makes a speech about how I “don’t come from round here”. How he’s a working-class man and I’ve got no right to insult his comrades. I’d shouted at them the night before over the brick-hurling.
The younger lads try to drag me out of the house; I realise they are drunk. The man with the balaclava stops them. I realise he is sober. Momentarily, I feel safer. Then he punches me twice in the face – he is wearing special punching gloves with hardened knuckles stitched in.
He kicks me and bellows: “This is it, right? You’ve got two weeks to get them fucking Polish out the house or I’m gonna burn it down! Get it?” As I stand there bleeding, he points at me and says, “You’re not bleeding” and launches into a tirade about how “these Polish” are “coming here and taking over”. Turning to go, he points back at me and says, “I’m serious about them Polish – get them out!”
The next day, we comply with the order. The house, I now realise, became a serious target only when my eastern European lodgers moved in. This can never be sorted out by diplomacy or drive-by policing. It is simple racist fury and it isn’t going to stop. I go too, of course. We leave a sign in the window saying: “Polish people have moved out.”
Once we have gone, the police appoint a special officer to coordinate their response with extra patrols and increased cover. But the house was marked, and now it is empty. I stop by one day to discover that the rear fence has been pulled down and burned. The windows behind the grilles at the back are smashed, as are the remaining windows downstairs at the front. I board up the whole house.
Soon after, burning newspaper and fireworks are pushed through the letterbox. The police produce photos of 12 suspects in the earlier doorstep attack. None of the likely culprits is featured, despite my having supplied a first name, description and nickname for two of them.
The attacks on the house go on unabated. A group of youths pull off the metal gate from the back door and when a workman arrives to secure it, more than a dozen people surround his van, jump on it and stone it. When he flees, they kick in the back door and enter to break everything inside they can, hurling around lumps of concrete and tearing up cupboards. No one in the street calls the police.
The house is now on the market.
The feeling, now that I’ve gone? Relief to be getting out of Salford; something most of the young from my doorstep on that street will probably never do.
· Names have been changed