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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
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300 of 313 people found the following review helpful
on 19 April 2001
I first read the "Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" around 1947. It aroused such an interest in me that the story has remained fresh in my memory all of my life. I am now nearly 73 years old. It has been described as the first novel written by a working class person. The description of working class life in such a rich country is a permanent blot on the history of Great Britain. However Tressell writes with such humour that one minute you want to cry and the next explode with laughter. As a result of reading Tressell's book I became a Socialist. Nothing in my life has caused me to change my mind. The characters that Tressell described at the beginning of the twentieth century live on today. Read this book and I guarantee that your thinking will be radically affected. It was the only book that he ever wrote. Tragically, he never lived to see it published. Some people say that it won the election for the Labour Party immediately after the war.
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2012
I am ashamed to say that I have only recently read the unabridged version of Robert Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philantropist [RTP]. Many years ago I read my father's copy of the original Penguin edition that was an abridged version that had previously been abridged. Having lived in and walked the streets of Mugsborough [Hastings] all my life I felt almost duty bound to read it. I began with slightly gritted teeth knowing if I abandoned it before the end I would be reluctant to start over any time soon. As it turned out I found it engrossing, I didn't want it to end, it was one of those rare books I wanted to live in.
There is so much here. It's political message is, in a sense, blunted in the twenty first century. The solutions it offers were it least in part manifested in the post war settlement of the Attlee government that has been under attack since the 1980's. But the overarching questions that it asks -What are the causes of poverty, why do those oppressed willingly accept the values of the oppressors, why do they not rise up in revolt and take issue with the system that disadvantages them, remain vibrant.
On another level this is an historic record of the early twentieth century written from the ground up with cast iron authenticity. The author captures enough detail of his surroundings and of the characters to make it believable, touchable and easily recognisable. Tressell himself was a workman, his richly detailed account of working class life in Edwardian England is drawn from first hand experience. His understanding of human nature and its distortions caused by poverty were not imagined but drawn from his everyday experience.. It seems nothing short of miraculous that under these conditions he was able to write such an insightful account of what he experienced.
This, to me, is one of the most moving books I've ever read, I can understand why so many value it so highly. What powers its message is not hard nosed politics but an ability to draw on the well spring of compassion that exists in all of us.
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72 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on 29 August 2007
This makes powerful reading. My sense from the start was that the story wasn't fiction outside the names of those peopling it, but in fact the author's own experience of life endured by the working class in England at the turn of 1900. That in itself made it fascinating.

At times I felt the author's rants about the evils of capitalism and the working class being their own worst enemy tiresome (if true), but then I realised his frustration with the mindset of those he spent his working life with would have made him feel the need to rave. What could be worse than spending your every working day in the company of miserable forelock-tuggers, men who at once idolised and hated their masters, and hated themselves even more. We see much of this frustration in the character Owen and his contempt for his fellow workers for regarding their state of starvation and wretched poverty as a privilege and are fiercely committed to preserving the system that keeps them downtrodden. Kudos to the reader who wrote: 'Not only is capitalism unsustainable but immoral.' One need only look at how far downhill the world had gone (as capitalism has gained a surer foothold) in the hundred years since this book was written to know that. More than ever people find no shame in stepping on (or even stomping on) each other to gain an economic advantage.

When a used-to-be Socialist tells Barrington 'enlightenment will never be brought about by arguing with people,' I couldn't have agreed more. While Barrington took this on board as dishearteningly true, delightfully, it didn't take the fight out of him. If one is passionate about changing injustice, even against the odds, one can't help but go on fighting the fight to inform and educate others. This book will stay with me for a long time, especially its heroes Owen and Barrington. It's tragic that its author died (apparently in poverty) before its publication and never got to know that people enjoyed reading what he evidently put so much passion into writing. If Tressell were alive today he might weep to see how far down the road of insatiable greed Capitalism has taken more of the world than ever. Who can say if Socialism is the answer to a better world, but it seems to me an alternative to how we now live needs pondering.
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73 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on 15 March 2001
This book hadhuge effect on me when I first read it and when I picked it up twelve years on the spell was unbroken. It is idiosycratic and parochial. Reading from the vantage point of the early twenty first century, ten years after the downfall and discrediation of the communist bloc in Europe, the politics may appear confused and dated. Yet it remains a powerful and angry indictment of the capitalist system. It exposes the shortfalls of our society's economic organisation in a clear and unambiguous manner. The story follows the misfortunes of a group of painters and decorators in the south of Edwardian England. They are poor, they are unhappy, they are exploited and they cling tightly to thier right to remain in this state. Alternatives to their predicament are scorned and the perpetrators of radical ideas are met with scorn and violence. Owen, the socialist among the group, never eschews an opportunity to press home the absurdity of his fellow workers views and rarley misses a chance to convert them to his cause. His failure to do this is a central theme of this book. It is a significant element that he views his colleagues with almost the same contempt as their capitalist masters: he labels them philanthropists, who give their labour and ultimately their lives so that their "betters" are albel to live in comfort at their expense. It is a painful analysis for those on the left of the modern political spectrum.
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82 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2000
Although this book was written nearly 100 years ago, so much is still pertinent today. I have worked in the construction industry for 40 of those years and have met and worked with many of Tressel's characters. I have bought and given this book to several workmates in the hope that some of Tressel's humanity could be imparted and some of his dignity could be passed on. Construction is still a much under-valued occupation and its employees are if anything far more exploited now than at the turn of the last century. I am amazed so few builders have even heard of this book. I doubt one in a thousand or even one in ten thousand of those I've worked with have read it, or even know of its existence. Perhaps in another 100 years they might and perhaps they will not be so philanthropic. I wonder !
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 13 September 2007
To many this is the bible of socialism. True it will reinvigorate the converted and possibly even convert the open minded. But there's much more to it than that.

It is a semi-autobiographical account of the author Robert Tressel. Little is known about Tressel, who died of TB within hours of completing his work, which was published many years later, but he had clearly once enjoyed better times.

The book gives an analysis of the injustices of the capitalist system as perceptive today as it was then. But it also gives a really great historical insight into the sociology of the working class and the class system in that age.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2011
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell and published posthumously by his daughter Kathleen. Tressell was a house painter in the early 1900s and the novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the town of Hastings where Tressell lived.

Tressell tells the story of several 'philanthropists': working-class men who are struggling to support their families whilst being taken advantage of by their employers and the present system. They are convinced that they should accept this as their lot. Frank Owen, the main protagonist in the novel, disagrees, and he seeks to convince his fellow workers that they spend all their time working to make money for fat cats who get rich off their manual labour and do not need to treat them so badly. Since most of the men Owen works with have families to support and are generally struggling to afford enough food for them to eat despite working all the hours they physically can, in often dangerous conditions and with no employee rights, you might think that they would take Owen's cause on board. Instead however they ridicule his arguments, calling him a madman and making fun of him for trying to act 'above his station'. Owen, however, never gives up in his dream of a better system, where all mouths are fed equally, work is enjoyable, and no man has authority over another based on the current monetary system.

At the time that Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Socialism was not a commonly understood ideology (indeed it is often still misunderstood today), but Tressell was struck by the poverty of those surrounding him and he wished to help better their situations rather than accepting their unfortunate lots as fated. That he was able to write about worker's conditions and rights with such foresight is impressive and deserves recognition. However, I do feel that the 'political' nature of this novel has meant that it has been neglected as an observant and touching work of literature in its own right. Although The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is widely referred to as a political text, it is also a novel capturing the essence of 20th century Britain and the social changes taking place at that time, and the story of Tressell's own plight.

As readers we must also consider the plight of a man in Tressell or Owen's position who is struggling to help his fellow men yet unable to communicate with them about an essential issue. Almost 100 years later, Tressell's arguments still hold their own in modern society, so in a way Tressell crosses time with his story- consider perhaps the recent western debacle with the banks and the lack of change to come about in spite of it. Although Owen's arguments in the book may sound like tedious preaching to us now, we can still appreciate that without arguments such as these there would have been no unions and therefore no workers' rights- meaning no weekends, no paid holidays, no protection in the workplace, no sick leave, etc. This is easy to forget in modern-day society, but in Tressell's day it was a dream that only the brave dared to dream, and for that reason we must admire his foresight and his passion in this book.

But it is not the only reason to enjoy it. The characters in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists are unique and memorable, and the overall story, though tragic, is rooted in history and takes us through several journeys. Crass is one of the more venomous characters in the book. He is jealous and suspicious of Owen and challenges him to 'prove' the cause of poverty to the workers, which Owen believes is money. In response to this, all the workers - or philanthropists - laugh aloud at Owen, and when Owen launches into an in-depth explanation of what he calls 'The Great Money Trick', his words fall largely on deaf ears. 'The Great Money Trick' however is now a well-known a passage still selected for study and quotation by students of history, sociology, politics and economics alike.

On a political note, I did find Owen's explanation of Socialism intriguing, as his way of presenting it to the reader demonstrates the common sense of such a system. Owen states the simple fact that he is not against work, progress or money, but the way those things are used in 20th century society to control manual workers. Owen argues that such things can easily continue in society, to the benefit of all, so long as all money that is earned has an 'expiry date' on it, meaning that the worker is free to spent it as he pleases but not free to amass it and therefore gain a monopoly of power over other human beings. I studied Sociology A Level for two years and I found it to be an intriguing subject, however never was Socialism explained in such a simple manner. After reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, I felt that I could easily relate to Tressell's plight, as I myself have since come up against good-natured ridicule when attempting to cite something from the book. We have not come as far from Tressell's day, perhaps, as I had originally thought.

Although the plot of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is tragic, I did not feel that the book was depressing. It is a touching story is many ways, including the fact that the reader clearly cares for the figures who ridicule him. Owen has a caring nature and a beautiful bond with his wife, and although their life is a struggle they maintain a positive relationship throughout the novel based on love. They also offer sanctuary to other characters in the novel at different times. The characters who are more infuriating in their disagreement with Owen's arguments which he expounds as a means of bettering their situations, such as Crass, can be infuriating, yet they are also amusing and therefore enjoyable to read. My advice about this book is, don't overlook it as a 'political text', because whatever your politics may be, it is much, much more than that.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 4 April 2005
The Ragged Trousered Philantropists is a book everybody should read. Since its publication in the 1910's it has had a huge political influence. It was used as the centre piece of the Labour Party's election campaign in the 1940's and contributed to the spread of socialism through its mass publication and distribution to workers. It has been (rightly) hailed as the greatest British working class novel.
Set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, it charts the experiences of a group of apathetic workers who are stirred to question the appalling conditions and poverty they work in through the talks given by a fellow worker Owen, a socialist, in their short work breaks.
I first read this because it was my late grandad's favourite book, who was himself a socialist labourer. Thought provoking, brave and funny (the Dickensian names given to the 'bad' characters particularly the employers, Nimrod, Slime etc) , its just a great shame that Robert Tressel died before it was published and never got to see the influence and importance his book has had since his death.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
I first read this for a hight school English essay and I can honestly save that this is one of the finest novels I have ever read. It is a story that really draws you in and challenges (and changes) your views on society. The basic plot involves two socialist workmen, the bitter, passionate Frank Owen and his enigmatic young friend, Barrington, attempting to persuade their fellow workers that they can change the world and do away with the terrible poverty that they experience. What this book achieves so well (and few books have done so as well as this one) is to create a world that seems real to the reader, you begin to care about the many characters that you are reading about. There points that make you want to cry and others that make you laugh out loud. Aside from the two socialists and their loved ones there are other workers, such as the borderline alcoholic Easton, the ignorant foreman Crass and religious hypocrite Slyme, as well as their familes and bosses (including the infamous Mr Hunter/Nimrod). This book is written with immense passion, because Tressell experienced what he wrote about and wanted to change it (he actually wrote this in his spare time and died in a workhouse before it was published, at one point he dispared and attempted to burn the manuscript on the fire before his daughter restrained him). This book succeeds in illustrating the contradictions of capitalism better than most scholorary works. It is simple: the workers toil and live in want and destitution, while those that employ them do not work and live lives of abundance and luxury. In terms of passion and emotion it outdoes even the great American working class novel The Grapes of Wrath, as well as Zola's Germinal. In terms of its poitics they are overt to the extreme, but this should not put people off, it is a novel first and foremost. Besides, this is how politics (especially socialism) should be written about, accessible to all and conveying not just the objective reasons for something, but the emotive ones too, which are just as important; I was a liberal before reading this novel, now I am a socialist. It is good to see so many new editions of this novel appearing, if more people read it then the we might not be stuck with the stale, reactionary and xenophobic politics of our time!
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2010
I found out about this book at a union meeting a couple of colleagues were discussing it, i thought it sounded very interesting, boy was i surprised, basically the whole book could have been written yesterday, there ae so many things that happend back when this was written, that are still going on today.
The chapter called the money trick puts in to easy to understand way how workers were and are exploited by bosses, i have told many other colleagues about this book, and more often than not about the money trick, this is a fantastic insight in to days gone by, and a must read for trade unionist and anyone who feels they are exploited by bosses.
Definately a must have book.
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