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It’s raining goals at Highbury



Me and George had skipped college that afternoon. We were studying for accountancy exams but United always came first. George and Dave reckoned I shouldn’t go but I knew better. “You’d better not throw up in my car” said Dave. He was a bit funny about his car was Dave. “No, I’ll be fine, it’s only stomach ache”. But by the time we parked up on the outskirts of London and got on the tube I was feeling ropey to say the least. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I’d got a dose of food poisoning.

We plotted up at a pub near the ground in Highbury. It was rammed pre-match and the songs and beer were flowing. Except for me. The beer in my glass was evaporating faster than I was drinking. I went outside to get some fresh air and was sick in someone’s front garden, much to the amusement of the coaches full of United fans arriving who clearly thought I’d had too much to drink.

The cold November night air did me good for a while so we headed into the ground and took our place on a packed and noisy Clock End terrace. Apart from Clayton Blackmore’s goal very early on from a free kick the first half passed in a blur for me. At some point towards half time I blacked out and came round to find myself in Arsenal’s first aid room. “What’s the score?” I asked one of the medics. “3-0 to you lot”. “You’re joking”. Unbelievably he wasn’t.

I missed the whole of that helter skelter second half. As Lee Sharpe and Danny Wallace cut the Arsenal defence to ribbons I was trying to find my way back to our car parked somewhere on the edge of London. It’s still the only time I’ve ever left a United or FC match early.


I sat for a while at Holloway Road tube station puzzling over the best way to get back to where we’d parked. By this stage Arsenal fans were pouring into the station. They’d seen enough and weren’t happy. I zipped up my jacket and asked for directions. An hour later I made it back to the car and stuck the radio on to find out we’d won 6-2. Bloody 6-2 at Arsenal, the reigning champions who had barely conceded a goal at home in the league. Those drugs they’d given me in the first aid room must have been good. It was the night we finally started to believe that the good times might just be around the corner for Fergie’s United but it had largely passed me by.

I was re-reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the time and I’d brought it with me for the car journey. I liked reading books on the way to games. Long before the Hornbyites arrived there were those of us who found football and (often politically infused) literature to be comfortable bedfellows. A bit of Emile Zola for the trip to Coventry? Oh, go on then. Waiting for George and Dave to return to the car I tried to read a few pages of Robert Tressell’s classic in the dim light.

Earlier this year, nearly twenty four years on, I was back at Holloway Road tube station. I’d discovered that the original two hundred and fifty thousand word manuscript of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is stored, across the road from the station, in the Trade Union Congress’s superb collection of radical literature, tucked away in a back room of the London Metropolitan University’s library. You can view it online but I wanted to see it for real in the one hundredth anniversary of its publication. It didn’t disappoint. Even if I disappointed the librarian by using a pen to make notes in my note pad. “No pens please sir, there are some pencils you can use here”.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the first proper working class novel and a book that I’ve treasured since I first I read it, as a teenager, on the recommendation of a much loved teacher. 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. The strong storyline sets out the need for a socialist alternative to the excesses of capitalism.


The book was hugely influential. A Penguin edition of 1940 was read widely by the general public and the armed forces, its powerful message being spread by word of mouth. George Orwell called it a “wonderful book” and Alan Sillitoe, in the introduction to the 1965 edition, reckoned that this was the book that “won the ’45 election for Labour”.

All the novel’s events are either based on Tressell’s own experiences as a painter and decorator in Hastings or those of his friends and fellow workers. He gave the story its title as he saw workers like himself as the true philanthropists, spending their lives making other people rich.

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. For me, the book still resonates powerfully a century after its publication. Particularly in its depiction of the role of the media in trumpeting the views of the ruling class and 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.

Above all, the book allows us to appreciate the hard fought gains of the Labour movement in the last century; the welfare state, trade unions, paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, pensions, reduced 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 or 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.

United away at Arsenal, late November, under the lights… reminded me of this.



From → Politics, Sport

One Comment
  1. Sharon Robson permalink

    Another good one and I remember the boom from a earlier blog … Maybe I will find time to read it over christmas… Keep them coming

    Sent from my iPhone


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