Billed as a classic portrayal of the working class I lapped up the blurb of The Raggedy Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel one late night as I browsed the kindle book store. I got there through looking at what Penguin have published, and being a dirty Orwell lover I thought I’d give it a go.
The book is okay, not amazing. I disagree with those who say it treats the working class as ignorant and any sentiments that it led to a Labour victory in the post war era are more than overstated from what I can tell. Having not the best ability to read non-fiction, I do tend to find it much easier to have things explained in the form of stories, and TRTP does explain problems with capitalist structures, the benefits of socialism and loose plans of what an Utopian socialist land would look and function, annoyingly Tressel seems to feel the need to repeat many of these messages in the form of narration, and there are definitely passages that are essentially repeated every chapter or so about how some people just can’t see that alternative structures are feasible and worthy of debate as opposed to blind opposition. About half way through this started to piss me off, I thought it might be some artefact from the novel being published periodically. Apparently it wasn’t, so the novel started to fall on one of the few things I look for in a book, easy reading.
Other than this repetition, I liked the book, even by the end I was sad to see a character pegged as a douche to be found in a pool of blood after slashing his wrists in despair, but the ending was terrible. Maybe it was meant to be, or whatever, spoiler below.
The main character, who despite his socialist leanings retains relatively steady employment due to hard graft and good workmanship has consumption, malnourished, in debt and has at times some harsh spells of haemoptysis. The air of the book, and the acceptance of all the poor that no matter what, showed a general acceptance that they would not naturally die in comfort and that the only other outcomes was to die by accident or by suicide. Essentially, I had geared myself for the death of the main character, the plot necessitated it in my opinion. Instead we get some bullshit deus ex machina popping up giving him 10 quid and proposing launching a Socialist Party campaign in the area after Christmas break with his inherited wealth.
Either its a dissatisfying ending which leaves you marginally cheery that things might get better for the character and his dependants due to the arbitrary kindness of someone else, but most of the book has rallied against this form of charity as it fails to change or prevent the reasons for why the poverty and ill health arose, or it shows that party led socialist movements are no better than Tory or Liberal ones: wherein a plutocracy forms the back bone of the movement. In reality, many Labour – supposed party of the left – lately has been made of Oxbridge graduates, and increasingly cabinets (including shadow) being comprised of people related or married to each other. Pretty much, either the ending is saying socialism must be achieved through mass mobilisation or low SES folk or that its all bollocks and then I can’t help but wonder why its held up in such high regard as a seminal piece on socialism.
I was expecting to end it my heart full of socialist fire, but instead I just thought “fuck it, he should have killed his wife and kids, its clearly for the best”. Clearly the preceding 600 odd pages were good enough for me to continue reading, and the anti-church and anti-capitalist messages are portrayed very well as well as highlighting the single largest problem then, as today, with progressing socialism, in that so many of our peers have little to no interest in changing the status quo and that arguments so full of fallacies can be hard to counter continuously and lead to a deep sense of fatigue over it all.
I would lend someone it, but I don’t think that’s how amazon wants things to go…