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The Reading List

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!

… or “Weiterreise nach Berlin,” as they say.

This Thursday we will  be leaving rainy ol’ Manchester and heading to Berlin for Berlin Festival, not to mention a little rest and relaxation. The festival is held in Templehof Airport, which has a fascinating place in the history of the city.

There are some great bands playing, and we’re especially excited to see  Mogwai, Beruit, Santigold, and Apparat Band (amongst many, many others). We’ll give you a rundown of how we get on.

The Reading List:

The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon by Colin Jones
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century by Robert Roberts
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

To some the Cornerhouse bookshop may seem an intimidating place. Making a choice from amongst all the sparkling items can seem like a multiple choice test. Well, to me at least.

And whatever you do, do not lean on the magazine racks. They will fall down.

But for all its sheen and wobbly fixtures it’s a fantastic little shop (and indeed, a fantastic venue), and as the good folk of Belle Vue point out in issue #4, once the Cornernhouse has relocated it needs to be used, or else we’ll lose it.

So, without further ado here are the purchases I made on my last visit, with a little discussion as to why I liked them, and why you might like them too:

Fire & Knives: A quarterly magazine on the topic of food

One for your library rather than your kitchen shelf. Edited by Tim Hayward, Fire & Knives comprises some of the best writing on the topic of food to be found anywhere. This month brought together features on the lost course of ‘savories’ by Tom Parker Bowles, A Scotch Egg Manifesto by David J. Constable, and the curry confessions of Mel Fenson. The publication is printed on thick A5 card, and each article is rendered onto the page using flavescent tones and unique illustration.

Fire & Knives is an absolute feast. Each article is like a delectable word-truffle, consumed though your eyes, digested in your mind, and nourishing to your relationship with everything edible. At £9.50 an issue, it is a bit dear, but quality journalism is worth paying for, and the ticket price covers the publication costs rather than making anyone a profit.

Belle Vue #4: A Manchester-centric zine

I cannot claim to be down with the kids and to have known about Belle Vue for sometime. In fact, almost as soon as I discovered this zine I found out it was to cease publication for a little while, as two of the founders are upping sticks, heading to New York and Australia respectively. This is a shame, not least because I’ll only be able to get my hands on one back issue (#2) when I go to their vinyl night at An Outlet on the 26th August.

Try if you can to get hold of issue #4, as it contains possibly one of the best profiles I have ever read (of architect Norman Foster written by Phil Griffin, since you ask). The introduction and framing device used is expertly deployed with a lightness of touch. I came to the end of the piece surprised I’d taken so much enjoyment from the profile of a man whose area of expertise I know very little about.

Other highlights include a discussion of Manchester’s relationship with Fallowfield, and a funny article drawn from a presumptuous “fifty books you must read before you die” display in Deansgate Waterstones. At £2 this zine is a bargain.

Mistress Quickly’s Bed #1: A literature zine

Named for the inn keeper of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly’s Bed compiles poems and short stories from new and established writers. A particular highlight was Fred Voss’s poem Dropping the Needle of the Blues and S.Kadison’s short story, Demobbed.

Not being as adept at literary criticism as I would like, I chose this zine hoping to remedy this to some extent. I enjoyed Quickly’s on the first read, and find myself returning to its blue covered pages when opportunity presents itself on buses and lunch hours. Also priced at £3.50, for an enthusiast of the written word it is a good investment, and an introduction to an area of writing I’d like to become more familiar with.

The results are in, and if everyone is to be believed, A Visit From The Goon Squad is one of the finest novels of the 21st century. As someone who generally sticks to other, better literary centuries in order to satisfy his reading needs, I’m not particularly qualified to comment on that point. Perhaps it is. However, the clever narrative concept Jennifer Egan utilizes does not disguise the fact that the stories she unfolds are largely unremarkable, and told in an extremely familiar manner.

That being said, there’s plenty to like. Egan should be praised for drawing together a satisfying whole from so many disparate tales; characters come and go with a frequency that is almost difficult to keep up with, and there is a certain amount of risk inherent in essentially dispensing with an individual the reader is starting to root for, which suggests that the author is willing to embrace a challenge. She clearly cares about her characters and their fates, and a strong sense of humanism pervades the entirety of the novel.

The penultimate chapter is perhaps the most laudable; dedicating 70-odd pages of narrative to a PowerPoint presentation is, on the face of things, a particularly gimmicky device, yet it is an unqualified success, partly because the subject matter from which the subtext is derived – pauses in rock songs – is interesting, and partly because Egan absolutely nails the execution.

However, that goodwill is flushed away with an excruciating sci-fi-esque final chapter that posits a future in which human beings have devolved into button pushing, technology-obsessed bores. I’m not arguing the validity of such a vision, simply the mind-numbing mundanity of it in a literary context. The underlying theme – that technology is increasingly altering, and imposing itself upon, the way we communicate – is handled about as subtly as a sledgehammer to the face.

Still, the disappointing denouement is not enough to derail the novel altogether. Other commentators have thrown around comparisons to Proust (sure) and The Sopranos (tenuous, but I can see it). I’d suggest that Egan shares more in common with Raymond Carver, whose stock-and-trade was low key pieces detailing almost imperceptible moments where, for two individuals, the world’s very axis shifted. A Visit From The Goon Squad operates in much the same way. It’s never less than enjoyable, but it only rarely touches greatness.

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