A Ragged Schooling

Source: Robert Roberts, A Ragged Schooling (Fontana, 1978; orig. pub. Manchester University Press, 1976), pp. 59-60

Text: Mr Higham, we also heard, had played piano in hotels, and opulent picture palaces now opened in the city, but ‘bad luck’ had reduced him latterly to performing at our local fleapit. There, we learned, in the course of the evening, he was plagued by a problem of hygiene unknown in bourgeois entertainment circles – our ‘Kinema’ floor had, he complained, to be swilled out and disinfected every morning. And no wonder! Owner-managers of slum cinemas, out for every penny they could get, crushed their youngest patrons so tightly along the cheap benches that no child dared get up for fear of losing his seat. In our establishment, even before the lights went out, retaining position could be difficult. Theoretically, no standing was allowed. The chucker-out would bring in a small paying customer to an already packed bench, push his posterior against the end occupant and make room for the newcomer; but this sent pressure running along the row, and another child slid off the other end. Once in the dark, no one dreamed of going to the lavatory. Through need or mischief children relieved themselves where they sat, and often the lower reaches ran awash. Down slope, before the silver screen, Mr Higham, we understood, battled on at his music, feet upon the pedals, powerless, despite threats, as King Canute. But already he seemed to have grown tolerant, looking upon the phenomenon as a mere occupational hazard. Indeed, at a later date, he referred to it airily as the ‘Falls of Lodore,’ which shows one can get used to almost anything.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following a Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book The Classic Slum is a classic combination of autobiography and historical account of the lives of the Edwardian poor. A Ragged Schooling is a further autobiographical account of his childhood. The city referred to is Manchester. In a footnote to the above section, he writes “Strangers to the town were puzzled when invite to patronise a local picture house referred to by all as the ‘By Joe’ – our native rendering of ‘Bijou’, a name chosen for high inappropriateness on every count.”

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