Thursday, 22 May 2014

Book Review: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists By Robert Tressell....

Fairly recently I was browsing through my union membership magazine and it had a regular section that introduced the reader to their local union reps, with various questions about favourite TV shows, cars, food, political influences etc etc, standard trade magazine fare. 

As you can imagine, being a CFMEU publication (Australia's construction industry union), lots of the answers revolved around AFL teams, Holden utes and left-wing historical political figures, but there was one entry that stood out for me.  One of the reps had ignored the 'TV programme' question and listed his favourite book instead, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. 

As if by the intervention of some sort of left-wing non-religious-based 'supreme being', I happened across a tatty copy from the 1950's at Clunes Booktown a couple of weeks ago, so of course, I simply had to have it! Widely regarded as a classic of working class literature, the piece is a novel released in 1914, three years after the authors death in 1911. Tressell (a play on the work bench used by painters and decorators) was a pen name, used to avoid a political backlash by Robert Noonan, a Dublin born house painter. Actually benefiting from a reasonably good education himself, Noonan had spent much of his life in South Africa before relocating back to the UK in the early twentieth century. 

The story revolves around a group of characters from the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on Noonan's home of Hastings. The workers at Rushton's painting and decorating company are the great downtrodden masses, the bullying foremen, and the simpering toadies who suck up to the bosses, with the exception of Owen, a socialist who tries to explain the system under which they all live to his less educated workmates, to very little positive end. 

Written at the time when trade union and labour movements were just beginning to gain a little ground in the political landscape of Britain, it is an eye-opening tale of the social inequality of the time. Interestingly I read much of this during my own lunch breaks at work on a building site and many of the themes and attitudes of the working class group scenes has changed remarkable little, in spite of the vastly improved conditions such workers now enjoy. 

If you are interested in social history, political history, the class divide, working class politics both left and right, this sometimes naively written novel is well worth a look. 

B.L.M. Stevie

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