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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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on 15 August 2001
Robert Tressell (aka Frank Noonan)was a talented artist working in an economy that had no great rewards for his talents. He was not merely a house painter; advertisements and interior designs that he created still existed in the town of Hastings (Mugsborough in the book) fifty years after his death. He wrote his tale of 'raggedy a**ed' philanthropists (the commonly used title 'ragged trousered' is not his) as a polemic for sure, but it is also a piece of fiction that deserves attention for what so many people castigate it for; its idiosyncratic, populist and down to earth style. Too many critics of Tressell's style take the easy way out, and treat him as some kind of semi literate handyman cobbling words together despite his supposed limitations. In fact, in the way he uses a simple chronological narrative as the vehicle for profound and complex ideas his work is ground breaking and innovative. He also deserves credit for the best ever distillation of the labour theory of value and marxian economics (aka 'The Money Trick'). It's important too, to evaluate Tressell's novel as an artefact of its time; whatever other faults the man, and his writing, may have had, responsibility for the labour party and the state of the world today is not amongst them. In an era that produced some much more unreliable ideas by some much more lauded writers (Shaw's support for eugenics, for instance) it is time to hail Tressell as a great experimental writer. Ordinary people speaking in their ordinary voices about their ordinary mundane lives in turn of the century England without a Dickensian plot device (inheritance, a court case, a long lost family) in sight? Extraordinary. Read this book.
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on 17 April 2014
I used to walk past this Robert Tressell’s (aka Noonan) grave every day on my way to work and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know who he was. Apparently he was only in Liverpool to get visas for himself and his daughter in order to go off to Canada and start a new life. He fell ill while he was here and sadly died, then he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Walton Park Cemetery, now known as City Farm.
This book is a great insight into life a century ago and it makes you think that although there have been a lot changes there are still a lot of things that haven’t changed. Politicians are out of touch with the people and employers are out to exploit the workers in order to maximise their profits.
Although a work of fiction the author based the book on events and situations in his own life. I think the way he felt about certain people in authority come out in the characters that he developed. Even the names of some of those people in the book appear to be a reflection of their characters. The story is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough which also implies that they are all a bunch of mugs for putting up with what they do.
There is so much in this book that breaks down the political, social and economic problems of the time and how capitalism is full of corruption. Tressell sets out the alternative idealist system of socialism and it really is thought provoking stuff. The great Money Trick is a one of the best chapters in the book and if you are not politically minded, after reading this book it will change the way you think about politics.
Compulsory reading.
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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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