Still the Greatest Novel of the 20th Century

Half way through Shut Out the Light‘s fantastic Still Ragged, Andrew Lynch – one of several writers to have dramatised the novel for radio – describes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as a classic, iconic text, going on to say:

It stands as a great novel and then its political significance makes it rise above just a novel.

Lynch condenses into a single sentence a century of criticism about this controversial, mysterious masterpiece. Since first emerging in heavily abridged form a century ago it has become a set text of British socialism and a popular classic whose readership is several times the number of printed copies. Over the last hundred years it has been handed down through generations, passed around workplaces, union branches and armed forces and – in a way only a book that has generated its own folklore could – won a general election (in 1945). As Lynch suggests, its unparalleled political potency has overshadowed its considerable literary achievement and it is one of the strengths of Still Ragged that both elements of Tressell’s genius are considered by the impressive cast of passionate enthusiasts the film gathers together.

tressell

An example of Tressell’s highly skilled painting

Only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could require such a cast, including trade unionists, painter-decorators, singer-songwriters, playwrights, writers, actors, MPs and, yes, literary critics to even come near to doing its genius justice. Those who share their thoughts about the book include well-known fans such as Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, as well as readers at a Liverpool book group. A painter-decorator talks us through the difficulties of the job – still plentiful in the early twenty-first century – and an actor gives entertaining solo performances of some of the book’s most memorable and important passages to give the viewer unfamiliar with the text a flavour of its tone and message.

One of the most fascinating contributions is by Stephen Lowe, who has adapted the novel for the stage several times, including for the Isango Ensemble’s musical re-imagining of the text against the backdrop of Apartheid-era South Africa. Lowe argues that Tressell’s book is a major literary landmark, skilfully blending influences as diverse as Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and Swift in order to find ‘a new form able to take a lecture in the middle of it almost Brechtianly’. As Nicola Wilson points out, Tressell self-consciously comes out of the Victorian tradition, using an intrusive narrator and the foregrounding of the men’s labour to subvert the country house novel and represent the way in which society is constructed by its members. Still Ragged manages something that literary critics have largely failed to do: it advances some decent literary criticism of a book that has always been primarily considered a political text and in doing so calls for a well-overdue reassessment from a literary-critical perspective.*

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 Tressell’s Oblong, still a depressingly accurate breakdown of British society.

As well as giving literary credit where it’s due, Still Ragged gives plenty of space to the impassioned political polemic of the book and its continued relevance today. Dennis Skinner is visibly livid as he likens the current scourge of zero-hours contracts to the instability of the men’s employment in the novel. Ricky Tomlinson tells the extraordinary story of how the prison governor introduced him to the text whilst he was in solitary confinement on purely political charges. The film shows how urgently relevant Tressell’s political message is in our own time and urges viewers to return to it and consider how it can help us in our current crises. The recurring account is that the book is passed on to people and it changes their lives; as Dave Harker points out with his extensive collection of translations, it persistently has the power to change people’s lives across space and time.**

The film also conveys some of the incredible story behind the novel’s publication, which would provide enough material for a whole film in itself.*** But what it achieves most convincingly is to celebrate the triumph of this most brilliant working-class novel. Despite being butchered by editors and publishers (who we nevertheless have to thank for the survival of the text) and ignored or patronised by critics, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has managed to become the most important and influential British novel of the twentieth century: Still Ragged passionately conveys this and will hopefully recruit more readers and change their lives. In my case it was very much preaching to the converted but the film was hugely effective at that: I immediately ordered more copies to give away.^ If you’ve ever read the book, buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant. If you’ve never read the book, email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Then buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant…

Still Ragged trailer

*Welcome progress was made in this direction with the publication of Revisiting Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough in 2008.

**Peter Miles’ intro to the 2005 OUP edition includes this quotation from a website in the Philippines: ‘the injustices suffered by Owen (the hero) at the hands of the vicious foreman, the corrupt politicians, the hypocritical churchmen are all around me in Manila. It makes me so angry that we have made so little progress over 100 years’.

***It was burnt, rescued, passed on, lost and eventually bought – in a tin box handed over in a station café by a mysterious stranger – by Fred Ball, a Hastings painter-decorator and Tressell enthusiast who painstakingly restored the manuscript to as close as possible to its original state. Have a look here.

^I’m a member of The Association of the Ragged Trousered  which was set up to help the book reach new readers and whose founder Kevin Jones appears in the film

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