Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists follows the fortunes of a group of painters and decorators in the early 20th century.
It is is a working class classic and its powerful message has inspired many of us to become socialists.
The new documentary film Still Ragged is an elegant celebration of the centenary of the book’s first publication.
It tells the story of how the book finally made it into print four years after Tressell’s death, which is just as fascinating as the novel itself.
Tressell’s real name was Robert Noonan. He was a Dubliner, himself working as a housepainter in Hastings in the early 20th century.
He was also a working class militant and a member of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation.
To avoid the bosses’ blacklist he took the pseudonym Tressell, from the portable table used in the trade.
His own experience of working class life and early socialist politics are brilliantly recreated in the book.
People talk now about there being a new state of “precarious” living for workers. But for most workers things were much worse in Tressell’s time.
So each morning dockers would have to wait at the dock gates.
The boss would come out and pick who worked and who went hungry. If you weren’t picked you got no wage.
But a wave of industrial militancy undermined the employers’ vice-like grip.
It was spearheaded by many of the most “precarious” workers—including dockers and the “match girls” at the Bryant and May factory in London’s East End.
The existing trade unions based on different crafts had dismissed these worked as unskilled. Now they took action, often for the first time. And many disputes won.
This was the birth of a New Unionism that transformed working class organisation in the late 1880s.
Noonan’s own experience of this period runs throughout the book.
He brilliantly combined it with a dash of Charles Dickens’s humour to paint of picture of class struggle.
This is reflected and reinforced by the characters’ names.
The bosses and their toadies are Crass, Slyme and Hunter, and the blatantly ridiculous Tory is called Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Philpot, Smeariton and Leavit, the painters, all work in Mugsborough.
A few publishers looked at Tressell’s manuscript in 1910. He was so frustrated at their lack of interest that he threw the original manuscript onto the fire.
Luckily his daughter saved it, and it was she who took it round after his death and got it published.
Still Ragged interviews the likes of Tressell’s biographer Dave Harker and long time socialist and union militant actor Ricky Tomlinson. It also shows clips from Stephen Lowe’s stage adaptation of the novel by, and he is also interviewed. The highlight, as in the novel, is the staging of “The Great Money Trick”.
If you don’t know what the trick is watch the film, but then you’ll definitely want to go on and read the original book.
Time and time again the contributors hammer home the relevance of the novel’s condemnation of today—the low pay and bullying bosses, insecure work and zero hours contracts.
Directed by Daniel Draper
Shut Out the Light