The Classic Slum

Source: Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), pp. 147-150

Text: For the tired and umambitious there were other allurements. in our midst stood the usual ‘Blood Tub’, a low-grade theatre whose presence impinged on life social and cultural over a wider area. With actors, as with bookmakers, feeling remained ambivalent. Star performers,of course, were wholeheartedly admired save by the narrowly religious few, but ordinary theatricals who made up the weekly touring companies and who lodged, keeping themselves, in the larger houses close to the theatre, both impressed and shocked us. We watched the small-part actors with cheroots swaggering through the stage door in lush coats, astrakhan collared, and were amazed to discover through the matriarchs (who knew everything) that many of them owned but a single shirt apiece or one pair of socks. Though when ‘the ghost walked’ – pay night – and they popped in at the shop to buy generously of boiled ham, mustard pickles and pineapple chunks, they seemed well-heeled enough. Undoubtedly some kept up a bold face on most meagre incomes: a pair of sisters we knew, competent artists, as late as 1913 kept going in some style on the combined pay of 35s a week, out of which they had to find 8s 6d for a place to sleep. We saw actresses powdered and mincing, befurred and large-bosomed, cheeks bright with rouge (‘Red John’ the matrons called it), and we knew they had shared a pair of kippers for lunch. And all were immoral! Of that the respectable had no doubt. Yet they brought glamour, new ideas, tilillating catch-words, beauty, fantasy and a sense of style to our wretched reality, and we loved them for it. Occasionally a girl in her early teens, to the envy of all others, would leave us to ‘go on the stage’, i.e. join a touring dance troupe. On fleeting visits home afterwards, ‘dolled up to the eyes’, she would often pass down the street and ignore everyone. But neighbours had the satisfaction of thinking the worst.

Nowhere, of course, stood class division more marked than in a full house at the theatre, with shopkeepers and publicans in the orchestra stalls and dress circle, artisans and regular workers in the pit stalls, and the low class and no class on the ‘top shelf’ or balcony. There in the gods hung a permanent smell of smoke from ‘thick twist’, oranges and unwashed humanity. Gazing happily down on their betters the mob sat once a week and took culture in the shape of ‘East Lynne’, ‘The Silver King’, ‘Pride of the Prairie’, ‘A Girl’s Crossroads’, ‘The Female Swindler’, ‘A Sister’s Sacrifice’ and the first rag-time shows. The drama critic of our weekly press invariably ladled handsome praise over all plays and performers, though when, in ‘A Woman of Pleasure’, the heroine was abducted in the first act, and again (by balloon) in the second, chased through the third across Africa by natives and wild beasts, then, in the finale, snatched at the last moment from a burning ship – all this to the rattle of the South African war – he felt that the title was ‘somewhat misleading’.

In later years, after cinema had begun to outstrip live entertainment as an attraction, our theatre, like many others, tried ‘go as you please’ competitions on Friday evenings when local amateurs, good to outrageous, trod the boards. Two turns, at least, after debut could not have pursued their art much further, and the first, a nerve-fraying soprano, brought down what, for a moment, looked like a genuine protest from heaven. In the middle of her rendering of ‘The Holy City’ a bolt of flame burst from the upper dark and fell like a judgement to consume itself over vacant seats in the stalls. It turned out, however, that some careless smoker had ignited a lady’s cotton shawl and she had cast it forth blazing from the gods. The altercation which followed, aloft, added much to our evening.

The other artist, who called himself Houdini II, performed to slow piano music. He invited members of the audience to tie him with ropes, guaranteeing to be free ‘in a trice’. Two dockers then trussed him up so effectively that a few minutes later the stage manager and his aide had to carry him off like a parcel, bent double and almost asphyxiated, the audience having watched his frenetic struggles in dead silence. Later he appeared at the tail end of the prize-winners and received a five shilling consolation award for ‘effort’.

Many patrons of the cheapest seats in the theatre, lacking the benefits of literacy, revelled in song and the spoken word much as Shakespeare’s ‘groundlings’ had done three hundred years before. Often two friends would go together; one to learn by heart the air of the latest hit, the other to concentrate on getting hold of the lyric. Songs first heard in the theatre were taken up in pubs then rendered with dreary iteration by street buskers for the next several years. Professional ‘cadgers’ came among us in hard times, as many as ten a week. Some made no attempt to earn reward but begged openly from door to door; others strutted in a stylized walk down the middle of the ‘cart road’ quavering loud enough for householders to hear. Local members of the fraternity, though, never had the bad taste to perform in their own district. Some after singing broke into oratory, when reasons for their destitution came crying along the wind. This form of appeal, however, was generally frowned on. ‘I didn’t know where to put myself!’ said one woman in the shop, ‘when that — today started shoutin’ the odds!’ There was common agreement that a man should not ‘cry poverty’. One doubts if beggary ever profited much by it.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following his Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book is a classic of working-class autobiography.

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