Salford is seen by some as the black sheep sibling of Manchester. This is unfair. Having spent time on the other side of the Irwell, I can attest to the fact that it is an artistically vibrant city filled with warm-hearted people rightly proud of their rich history.
I’ll even go so far as to argue that it’s a place of beauty. Whilst volunteering as a news broadcaster at Salford City Radio I had to travel from Manchester to the station pretty early in the morning. There was something about sitting on the top deck of the 36 and driving past Salford Shopping City, watching the sun play on the glass-paned tower blocks that enchanted my skewed, romantic sensibilities. Maybe that sounds silly, but to me it was beautiful.
But there is no denying that Salford has its social and economic problems. Now, I’m not qualified to say how best to solve them; that is a massively complicated question best left to cleverer men and women than I. However, reading The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century by Robert Roberts, it becomes clear that these problems have existed for a long time.
Roberts was born in a Salford in 1905, and in this tome he describes working class life in all its complexity. In prose of meticulously researched detail, coloured with anecdotes drawn from his own experiences, he does away with the much-touted myth of the good old days. He shows the truth of George Bernard Shaw’s maxim “the greatst of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.”
The book is divided into ten chapters, each covering a specific topic such as Possessions, Culture, and Class Structure. Personal favorite chapters featured descriptions of foods that made up the typical diet, the relationships between families and wider society, and the social connotations of different types of clothes.
Roberts shows how the First World War changed the life of working class people (and the whole of England, for that matter) forever – taking us from a world still hung up on Victorian moral codes to an age recognisably modern, showing us along the way how the prison that poverty creates can rarely be broken free from.
The Classic Slum is a compelling read. This was the first book I’ve purchased that could be classed as social history, and I initially chose it almost as a Horrible History for adults, expecting half-humorous descriptions of dilapidated slums, gory disease, jolly patrons of music halls, and looming factories. But the filth and the grim reality of people’s lives left me in no doubt as to the seriousness of existing in such a condition. Frankly, it’s horrible to think we ever allowed people to live like this – even more frightening when you consider the distance that still exists between the richest and the poorest members of society.
For all that, though, this is not a relentless tale of misery. There some particularly heartwarming scenes involving Roberts’ mother and some hugely comic moments too. One in particular that springs to mind involves the quickest way out of Manchester – the route taken being directly to the pub and the destination being a drunken stupor.
If the history of our area interests you, you will enjoy this book immensely, and it’s available from Blackwells on Oxford Road or online at The Book Depository. Go forth and read!