- Chris Carter
The Red Lights of Coventry
I am not as vocal as I used to be about Coventry. In that I think it is a soulless bottomless pit of despair without any redeemable features whatsoever.
This is both unfair and untrue as Coventry does have redeeming features … it is close to Warwick, Leamington, Stratford, Kenilworth and (goodness help it) Birmingham. This made living in the city tolerable, as there are places nearby that one can escape to. In the city itself was Browns bar, which is not a redeeming feature. Brown’s was a wonderfully bohemian bar at its height and a ridiculous pastiche of one at its worst. Browns also highlighted how poor things were by being the only place of its kind.
I am going to skip over why and how I ended up in Coventry in the first place, which is ironical as the place is a skip.
One night in November 1940 the German Luftwaffe bombed the hell out of what was regarded as city of vast medieval beauty. I do not blame them for the death of the city as there was a war on and people tend to do these kinds of things. They did however put the cities soul on life support … and then the council planners pulled the plug. They chose to re build the city for the modern age and thus they purchased an awful lot of concrete and chainsaws. Coincidentally this attitude pervades the council to this very day, it is almost as if they have an aversion to green.
One cannot help thinking of Coventry without the overpowering sensation of grey. And not in a pleasant way.
Coventry has no soul. Visit any bar, shop, area, pub, restaurant, etc and one gets exactly the same clientele and atmosphere and overpowering sense of grey. Some people there actually like the place, mainly the people that have not visited anywhere else. Everywhere feels exactly the same, functional and mundane. I never thought I would say this but no other place needs an injection of hippy so much. If Coventry had a vein I would be the chief advocate of crushing a Glastonbury size amount of hippies and injecting their pure hippy serum into the lifeblood.
And forget Coventry’s Bohemian centre Earlsdon, an area filled entirely with people who dress and act exactly how they think Bohemians should act. When I was there virtually every room was terracotta and filled with people trying to be different by mirroring what they thought they should be doing ….. Which meant terracotta paint sales did awfully well in the Earlsdon area.
And yet ………
Just outside the city centre is the red light district Hillfields.
Late on a hot summer night you would often find me strolling the red light district, fairly possibly with a small bottle of Vodka on the inside of my jacket. Prostitutes may have stalked the street looking for trade, but I was looking for something far more exciting and intoxicating.
In this tiny area of Tower Blocks, lines of terraced houses, student buildings, run down shopping centres, warehouses and occasional pubs was something special. The residents were a melting pot of races and creeds, immigrants and students mixing with hookers and drug dealers. On hot summer nights the place smelled of sweat and squalor, of sordidity desperation. Mixed into this was the hundreds of spices from different cultures mixing in the air from the cooking. Strange foreign tongues echoed downwards in anger and fun from the tower blocks and from down alleyways. Music of many ethnicities mingled to create the soundtrack of my walks.
Its parks swings and climbing frames were occupied by feral silhouettes barely visible in the darkness. Drinking cheap cider and laughing with crude malicious intent to mark their territorial rights over these parks during the dark hours. They would drink their cheap alcohol and eat their takeaway food and await prey who should be fool hardy to venture into their arena …
The takeaways of Hillfields made little to no effort to encourage any concept of hygiene. The fried chicken places, curry houses and kebab joints all staffed by the same greasy uninterested individuals. They greeted each customer with equal resentment and disgust. To eat from one of these places was to take a cavalier attitude to your own health and wellbeing. Glance down the back alleys of these places and see the refuse, rats and smoking (or urinating) chefs. The sounds and smells emanating from open back doors and beaded curtains.
I brought my own booze as I never had the courage to enter any of the drinking establishments, though I did love walking past them. They all had frosted windows and vague figures could be seen inside and muted conversations. It was so easy to imagine foul deeds being planned and ill-gotten gains being shared. I saw them as the same sought of ill reputed establishments as may be encountered in the Victorian Underworld, all too easy to imagine Jack the Ripper himself taking a pre ripper attack drink.
The police themselves rarely could be seen, although the occasional patrol car drove past with the officers inside trying hard not to see anything they should intervene in. They circulated looking for those poor women whose survival or addiction forced them to sell their bodies to satisfy the whims of the degraded. They walked the street glancing around with equal suspicion and desperation for those who would pay for them to perform.
I came to recognise what I thought of the prostitute walk, not that slow enticing sexual sway that the media would have you believe. After all, why bother to entice those who have come looking for you anyway? Customers came here hunting and for the first opportunity.
This walk was hurried and purposeful and with constant awareness of those who may be customers, only slowing when a client may be approaching.
I think they thought me a bit of a weirdo that would give them cigarettes but not my trade. Some of the more jolly ones would chat for a moment or two, but most took a cigarette and wanted me gone least I interfere with their advertisement for trade.
The area was brimmed with a multitude of creeds and cultures, but this was not multiculturalism at work. This was the grinding arena where the immigrants and refugees where shoved in amongst the poor and the elderly who had lived there all their lives. This is where they were locked away until their foreign habits and customs were diluted out of their children. The people of Hillfields today would have children who would live in the affluent suburban sprawl of semi detached houses.
These migrant families would sit outside at night communicating loudly with each other in their own languages. It reminded one of the back alleys of South Central LA. With un English apparent and obvious curiosity they would watch me pass. There was no threat, but I was an interloper they had no interest of desire in.
My walks where hot and sweaty in the Summer nights where the air refused to budge and the heat refused to drop. Those hot sticky evenings made me feel alive and despite its reputation I felt safe there. In that dead city I felt soul and life, it was wonderful.
I hated having to leave and walk home, as soon as I left the boundaries the sensation of deadness returned.
The very nature of Coventry seems to be to feel ashamed and embarrassed, but Hillfields on summer nights never felt that way. The air sizzled with possibilities that no self respecting red light district had any right to.
The Luftwaffe gave the city a mortal blow and left only enough cobbled streets to entertain tourists for ten minutes. The tour operators make sure they do not wander more than thirty minutes away from the Cathedral so as to leave them the impression they visited a medieval city. They never let them realise that they are in a graveyard, they are stepping on a dead town and seeing only a ghost of its past.
There is only one pulse in the Coventry I lived and that was in its seedy underground, and on hot summer nights I sometimes wish I could walk around it again and take in those strange accents and scents.
And why do I mention all this?
This was years before I started in photography.
I cannot help wonder what I would have tried to capture of these scenes at the time and perhaps I would have taken a totally different direction. Life throws us curveballs and sometimes we follow them. Sometimes we don’t yet have the opportunity.