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Not for the likes of us

07/18/2014

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On a dreaded sunny day a few weeks ago I headed to the library. Not just any library though. Tucked away in a drab back room of the London Metropolitan University’s library is the Trade Union Congress’s superb collection of radical literature that includes the original manuscript of a hugely influential book that was written a hundred years ago and has sold over a million copies worldwide.

Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the first proper working class novel and a book that, without wanting to sound like one of them daft talking heads on some Channel Five review of The Twenty Greatest Dance Anthems of the Nineties Ever, changed my outlook on life. It’s unlikely to feature highly on a Gove reading list but it’s a book that I’ve treasured ever since I first I read it, as a teenager, on the recommendation of a much loved teacher. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists taught me more about socialism than perhaps any of Marx’s works.

The book follows the lives of a group of painters and decorators working on a large house, The Cave, in the fictional town of Mugsborough in the first decade of the twentieth century. It’s full of beautifully observed and cheekily monikered characters that, even a century on, I’m sure that many of us can relate to in our own working lives. There’s Misery, the bullying foreman desperately trying to cut costs, Crass the chargehand, keen to curry favour with the bosses and Rushton the fat cat company director.

The strong storyline sets out the need for a socialist alternative to the excesses of capitalism. In his preface Tressell states that his “main object was to write a readable story full of human interest….the subject of socialism being treated incidentally”.

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The manuscript is available to view, in its entirety, online but I craved seeing it for real. Weighing in at over two hundred and fifty thousand words and seventeen hundred pages it’s stored in three large boxes, each page carefully filed in a clear plastic wallet. It’s reckoned to have taken the Dublin-born Tressell about five years to write; a staggering feat given that he worked a sixty hour week as a painter and decorator in Hastings and wrote the book in his spare time. All the novel’s events are either based on Tressell’s own experiences in Hastings or those of his friends and fellow workers. Tressell gave the story its title as he saw workers like himself as the true philanthropists, spending their lives making other people rich.

Sadly Tressell never saw the book published. He died of lung disease in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse in 1911, aged only forty, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Walton Cemetery in the city.

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Having been rejected for publication on several occasions, Tressell’s book was eventually published in April 1914 but in a severely abridged form, with nearly half of the original words missing. Even a few pages into the manuscript and the butchering of the original version can be seen in the deleted sections that have been diligently pasted back into their original place. This shortened version had been edited by children’s writer Jessie Pope and ended on a miserably pessimistic note with the hero Frank Owen contemplating suicide.

Fred Ball, a Hastings workman, who had first read the novel in the thirties, tracked down the complete original manuscript and, with a group of friends, paid sixty three quid for it in 1946. Ball and his wife set about reassembling the book and it was finally published in its entirety for the first time in 1955. The patched-up manuscript was later deposited in the TUC’s library.

Penguin books had printed a copy in 1940 and it was read widely by the general public and the armed forces, its powerful message, even in shortened form, being spread by word of mouth. George Orwell called it a “wonderful book” and Alan Sillitoe, in the introduction to the 1965 edition published by Grafton Books, remarked that this was the book that “won the ’45 election for Labour”. In 2003, a BBC survey of the nation’s favourite novels placed The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at number seventy two in the top one hundred.

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Before The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists there had been very few working class characters in English literature and even these tended to be observed from the outside by writers like Dickens and Hardy who had never been labourers. Menial work was viewed as less fertile territory for story telling. Tressell’s novel, in contrast, celebrated the birth of working class consciousness.

Tressell speaks through the hero of the book, Frank Owen. A recurrent theme is the question of why many people endure a life of poverty whilst others enjoy an embarrassment of riches. Overpopulation, alcohol, laziness, lack of skills and the rise of technology are all advanced as possible reasons for poverty. Owen, much to his work colleagues amusement, points out that money is the cause of poverty and explains during break times, on several occasions and in great detail, “The Great Money Trick” that results in workers being unable to afford the goods that they have produced as wages get lower and lower and the profit chasing capitalist class get richer. It’s a difficult message to get across to his fellow workers who believe that “it’s not for the likes of us” to interfere in politics.

Towards the end of the book, Barrington, the son of a Mancunian businessman, delivers “The Great Oration” and describes the creation of a fairer, more equal society; a cooperative commonwealth. Whilst the original abridged version of the book ended with Frank Owen seeing no way out of poverty for his family, the full version concludes with a glimpse of a brighter future.

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For me, the book still resonates powerfully a century after its publication. In its depiction of the role of the media (in this case the Daily Obscurer newspaper) in trumpeting the views of the ruling class. In the reluctance of many people to talk about politics as if “it’s not for the likes of us” to question the way that the country is run. In the poverty endured by thousands of workers and their families who can be hired and fired at will and increasingly find it difficult to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads. We’ve seen this recently in the rise of zero hours contracts and the increasing reliance of many on food banks for a decent meal. In the intervening years a lot has changed but we remain enmeshed in an increasingly unequal capitalist system.

Above all, the book allows us to appreciate the hard fought gains of the Labour movement in the last century; the welfare state, trade union representation for workers, paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, pensions, the reduction in working hours, health and safety laws and the establishment of the National Health Service. In contrast, back in Tressell’s day the only routes out of poverty were charity, the workhouse and an early grave.

At a time when we have a government that is intent on rolling back the state and returning us to a time when everyone knew their place, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists feels as relevant as ever. It’s warm, passionate, humorous and tells the story of real people and real events. A wonderful book that is easy to read and despite its “journey through hell”, as Tressell refers to it, delivers a message of hope.

And what a privilege to be able to view, in the centenary of its publication, the actual manuscript that Tressell laboured over night after night. Libraries are brilliant, aren’t they.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments
  1. Thank you for flagging that, a book I knew about but have never read – I need to put that right!

  2. Gemma Williams permalink

    An amusing coincidence. I am just rereading Adrian Mole and I came across this;
    “Pandora’s mother said I could call her Tania. Surely that is a Russian name? Her father said I could call him Ivan. He is very nice, he gave me a book to read; it is called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, I haven’t looked through it yet but I’m quite interested in stamp collecting so I will read it tonight”.

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