Remembering Salford's past - and fighting to save a library

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If you wondered where the great and good of Salford and Manchester were on Sunday afternoon, I can tell you. This event in aid of the much-loved Working Class Movement Library over the road sold out within 24 hours (800 tickets) and had to be moved to a bigger hall. My guess is it could have filled a venue twice the size.

What was the big draw? Devoted trustee and actress Maxine Peake, whose passionate delivery of Shelley's 'The Masque of Anarchy' denouncing the Peterloo massacre in Manchester last year drew rave reviews in the national press as well as in Write Out Loud, reading with Sheila Hancock and ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who was standing in for Christopher Ecclestone.

The library always needs help to preserve and organise its magnificent archive of writings and artefacts tracing the cultural, social and political history of the left and the working class of the north-west. But this particular event was triggered after Peake was incensed by Salford Conservatives’ campaign to remove the library’s £20,000 council subsidy.

What better way to celebrate this wonderful institution than to delve into its archive and revive some of its greatest material.  Peake has a very loyal following up here and Hancock is a national treasure in her own right (sorry Sheila). Joyce, who attracted a large number of autograph hunters before the event, was the revelation – his reading packed a punch I would never have expected.

He was Peake’s suggestion after they performed together in a play on Radio 4. He looked suitably chastened when gently reminded  of the structural damage caused to the stage  by his drumming when the Smiths played the hall 30 years ago.

The audience lapped up the selections of prose and poetry, in turns funny, moving and shocking. It kicked off with Harold Brighouses’s Hobson’s Choice and included poet/writer Robert Roberts, who was born in the slums of Salford and recorded it all in his books The Classic Slum and A Ragged Schooling. There was a reading from folk singer Ewan McColl’s memories of walking in the Derbyshire and Cumbria hills, returning refreshed and ready for the fight. A tale of a young slum boy trying to join his loal library was both funny and heartbreaking. 

The most riveting piece was the last, from Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole. It was the description of the build-up to the Battle of Bexley Square (just up the road) in 1931, a protest against benefit cuts that turned violent. In the crowd was a young man who was badly beaten by police. He was the young Edmund Frow, who with his wife Ruth went on to found the Working Class Movement Library. The world turned full circle.

This was a great afternoon and if the local Tories have their way, will be one of many to come. What could be better – remembering Salford’s radical past, listening to great writing, and helping to preserve a unique institution.

Judy Gordon

 

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