This is something I should have written over ten years ago and never got round to
It started as a few paragraphs on my first personal website when such things were
new. The following owes much to Reg Johnson (who still keeps in touch - thank you),
husband of the late Joan Johnson (who died in 2000), grand daughter of Robert Tressell.
The photo of Robert Tressell in 1908 is by courtesy of Reg Johnson.
One of the reasons behind my interest in writing about Tressell stemmed from a series
of stories in the Guardian newspaper which are reprinted here.
Ask any committed socialist of the old school (certainly not a Blairite or New Labour
man) why they became so involved with the labour movement and they will mention The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
as one of the main reasons. This book still has the power to similarly affect anyone
today and was the only written work that Robert Tressell produced.
I am no different. My father left school at 12 with barely an education and grew
up in Hoxton on the fringes of London's East End before it became 'gentrified'. Yet
for a man with basic literacy he could write in beautiful copperplate script and
produce a traditional grained oak front door from a piece of plain wood after reading
just a few pages on the techniques of the skill.
Talent is not the preserve of the middle classes; nor is a fine education that leaves
too many only book learned but with no skills.The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
had a similar effect on me as Jack London's Martin Eden. When critics complained
that no one could rise from illiteracy and a working class background to be a leading
literary figure Jack London pointed out that Martin Eden was himself.
Just like Tressell's hero Owen in the book, my father was a painter/decorator. Come
Christmas Eve he would get his cards (the sack - a working class piece of slang to
mean that there was no work and you left the job with your tools in a sack) and be
on the dole until February because that was the nature of the trade he was in.
Now in 2010 according to the experts the UK is just easing out of recession. But
there has been millions of men and women put out of work because of the greed of
the Banks. I've worked in one - I know. And it's not the greed of the clerk behind
the till or behind the desk or on the phone - it's the greed of the executives and
the Chairmen and the Board. You won't find many of those on the dole queue.
I first heard these lines on an LP track by a female folk singer whose name I've
forgotten but not the lyrics. They were written by Woody Guthrie in 1958 on the song
Pretty Boy Floyd