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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
on 22 August 2015
This was an absolutely fantastic book. I really do think it's my favourite book ever which has really shocked me. I had heard of this book but it had always been 'sold' 'to me as a left wing outreach type book and, thus, it never appealed to me. When I was listening to a programme on radio 4 and heard a British comedian, Jo Brand, speak highly about it I thought I'd give it a go. She said that it was quite a difficult read initially but was well worth persevering.
I absolutely have to say otherwise. I loved it from the beginning. I enjoyed the irony of the names of the characters (sounding like their role), so many different characters, all very discrete, some to like, others less amiable. The thing that made the book so enjoyable was the vivid picture of people working in England at the turn of the century. The book is about a group of men who are involved in redecorating a house. We share their lives with them, their pay, how they make (and don't) make ends meet, death, unemployment, religion and, yes, socialism but these gentlemen were, literally, living hand to mouth and one can understand why they were thinkers in the group who felt strongly about society needing to change. It's not a book that sees the world through rose tinted glass. It really does tell things how they are - threadbare clothes, shoes held together with wire, malnourished, exhausted workers, death at work and even ending up in the work house and people doing what they needed in order to survive. It really was survival of the fittest. I think that this is an amazing book both in the way it's written but also the insight it gives us into our society at the turn of the nineteenth century. People say it's a rather long book but that never seems overtly apparent when reading books on an app such as a kindle and it definitely didn't feel over long to me - I'm sorry I've finished it.