This is our truth, tell us yours
This Christmas I’m doing, in seven days, live from the bear cave, seven books I wish I had written.
Let’sstart with the Raggedy Arsed / Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s masterpiece of socialism and realism set in a small south coast town. It is, beyond doubt, a masterpiece, both in its conception, its commitment and its passion.
So why wish that I had writen a book that I urge all my friends to read?
The answer of course, lies in the book’s faults, the culture of the British left, and the oddities of the author’s circumstances.
The book’s faults are that it is written in a style that is reminiscent of a nineteenth century serial, each chapter an episode, the narrative arc neither clear nor sustained. At times the book almost rambles, but at other times the individual episodes are sharp and crystal clear.
The question of where the narrative arc should go is significant of course. One of the criticisms of Tressell’s text is that it leaves the subsidiary characters marooned in Mugsborough while the hero moves on. It encapsulates the idea of there being a socialist vanguard, a body of campaigners apart from the working class.
Tressell wants, for the sake of his story, for there to be an entry point, and an exit point, along with an explanation of why his heroic actor is different from the workers he wants to set free. It’s a very turn of thecentury idea, that the hard slog of trade unionism should be ignored for the millenarian fantasies of socialism from the outside, from a moment in time or an acident of history that places the vanguard in charge of the future. In the process the socialism of small kindnesses, the day to day efforts of trade unionism are disparaged and ignored.
The problem is that Tressell was an outsider, politically and culturally. Politically he belonged to the propagandist left, epitomized by the idea of the socialists who turn up in Mugsborough on their bicyles, and leave again after holding a meeting. Culturally he was a migrant, English speaking but always slightly out of place in small town England. The result is the novel’s sense of detatchment, of looking from the outside into the mores and manners of a small town.
How would the book have looked if it had been written from the point of view of someone who belonged, who identified entirely witht he workers,and the idea of making incremental changes, day by day? It would have been a different book of course, but identifiably the same book, more agitational, less propagandist,and ultimately,more loving.